So in addition to my long-winded, rambly reviews and occasional pseudo-academic essay-style indulgences, sometimes I interview artists about the cool things they’re doing. I was super excited to be able to chat to the fabulous Jess Bellamy about her upcoming show Shabbat Dinner, which is on as part of the Bondi Feast Festival. Read on to hear about food, family, and all the exciting things Jess is doing both in this show and in the future.
JM: Hi Jess! Let’s start with an easy one. Tell me a bit about Shabbat Dinner. What was your inspiration?
JB: Shabbat Dinner is a new performance piece that I have been writing alongside director and dramaturg Anthony Skuse. It started out with the idea of simply enacting a communal ritual that is significant to a lot of Jewish families. Whether or not a family is religious/observant, Friday night holds weight for most Jews. It's a night that means family. It's also a lot of fun and very relaxing – an evening spent with your loved ones, eating familiar and tasty foods, with no expectation apart from simply being there.
As the show developed from this kernel, more ideas started to form within the overall structure of the ritual. Anthony prompted me to consider the mythological base from which so much Jewish law and instruction stems. The writing of this show also took place as the same time that I was helping to pack up my grandparents' family home. The play began to focus itself around the struggles that my grandmother Miriam faced around the period of WWII: not just pertaining to survival, but to gender roles and to familial obligations. And the show has since become something quite big and unexpected.
JM: Is it true that you’re catering the dinner yourself?
JB: I will be cooking a Shabbat dinner from scratch from my audience. It will all be vegetarian, and as close to my memories of Baba's cooking as possible.
JM: Family and food are tied so deeply together for so many people - is it very confronting to invite people into this very personal space for you? Exciting? Are there elements of the story you're telling that can only be expressed by food? What is it like using food as a new dramatic tool for storytelling?
JB: For my family, food has always been a big deal. For my Ukranian family in particular, food is a symbol that we are surviving and thriving. There are times when my family went without food, so we take it seriously. My late grandmother was an amazing cook and I didn't collect enough of her recipes when she was dying. Part of this show is my attempt to recover those recipes, from the scraps and shards of recipes written in Russian (and without any direction as to how long to cook any of the things). My Mum has been translating a lot of them for me, as I don't even speak the language. It is difficult to express how meaningful it is to taste something that you thought you had lost forever, that you thought your grandmother had died with. To realise that you can now make your own version of this classic.
Food is the structure of the play - a three course meal - but food is also the method in which we get people to come together to communicate.
JM: Are you terrified for having to cook for that many people? Have you considered doing a behind-the-scenes-of-Shabbat-DinnerMasterchef style reality thing? That would be EPIC.
JB: I am a bit scared of the cooking ahead of me, but we have found ways to make it more realisable. A behind the scenes special mockumentary is certainly a good idea!!
JM: I find the idea of food and ritual is really fascinating. Theatre itself is kind of ritualistic – we file into the darkness of the theatre, sit down, and wait for dramatic enlightenment to fall upon us. Have you discovered any parallels between your subject matter and the theatre as you've been developing the piece? What about tensions or contradictions or challenges? And are you sticking with the familiar theatrical rituals or are you doing something a bit different?
JB: It has been nice to think about the divisions between theatrical ritual and other more domestic rituals. One thing I've always loved about theatre is that it's so easy to break the silent agreement we've made with regards to decorum. One person fainting, or screaming, could disrupt an entire show. And two shows are never the same.
And here's the interesting thing about ritual – I've realised that ritual is a way to make sense of a confusing world by giving oneself order and regularity. If you know that, come Friday evening, you'll be in the same house, eating the same dinner, with the same people, it is a reassuring thought. It can also be something you rail against as a teenager who wants to go out with her friends. But then I imagine the same ritual from the perspective of my grandparents. For people who have suffered – who spent 6 years of war being flung from separate ends of countries at a moment's notice –it must be quite reassuring to know that every Friday is the same. The same safety, the same regularity, the same comfort.
We will not be sticking with conventional theatre rituals –we will be inviting the audience up in shifts to share some food with us. While up there, they will be expected to listen to the play unfold, but they will also be participants in the play. I don't mean awkward audience participation (no one will ask you where you lost your virginity). What I mean is, if we sing a song that you recognise, you are welcome to sing it with us. If you just want to eat your challah bread and stare dagger-eyes at us, then you are welcome to stick to that.
JM: I love the idea of a three course meal being the structure of the show – is this an idea you arrived at fairly early on, or did it come later? Have you discovered different nuances to the different courses as you've been developing the show? And talk me through how you developed the menu for the show - the process you've gone through recovering your grandmother's recipes sounds so fascinating. I remember collecting my grandmother's recipes after she died, and you are absolutely right that being able to taste something you thought you never would again is so, so powerful. For me, there were also some that I either could not reproduce, try as I might, or that I ended up adapting and reinventing. Is this something you've done a lot of, especially considering your Shabbat dinner is vegetarian?
JB: The structure of a three course meal made a lot of sense, and then we let the content of each course shape the direction of the story we told. So, for example, the richness of a bright red borscht soup evokes blood and menstruation - and these ideas get explored in the piece. We also found many Biblical references to relate to these images too, and have woven all of them together. When collating the menu for this show, I thought about what a typical Shabbat dinner with my family would entail. It was usually the same food. Until we all went vegetarian, it was a chicken soup, followed by chicken katletki (garlicky chicken pattties) with rice and salad. When my parents, sister and I went vegetarian, we had to sub in something different. We would experiment with borscht and with a delicious clear soup with wheat dumplings that we called "dumple soup". I have asked a lot of culinary questions of my Mum and Sister to see what they remember from these dinners, and devised a pretty accurate menu from these gleanings. It has required some Russian-to-English translations from my Mum and a lot of trial and error in my kitchen!
The idea of reinvention that you speak of is an interesting one, and this is definitely something that came across. My Mum even noted, when emailing me a recipe of Korzhicky cookies, that perhaps Baba's recipe had now become her recipe, via her translation of it into English. And then once I cook it using my own style of mixing/measuring/etc, it becomes a new recipe again. I've realised that all these things are just readings of existing readings. There is no definitive way to make anything, and the beauty of history is that we try afresh in every generation to reimagine something ephemeral. Isn't it funny how I see Baba's recipe as the "kernel", when in reality, she probably had the same recipe taught to her from someone else? Recipes are history, and as a result, they are powerful. DELICIOUSLY powerful.
JM: Let's talk about your creative team. You've been working with director Anthony Skuse, and it sounds like you've been having an awesome time collaborating! Who else is involved in Shabbat Dinner, and in what capacity? And what's it like for you, fabulous lady playwright that you are, being on stage and more involved in the performative side of things?
JB: I have had a wonderful time with this particular creative team. Anthony Skuse is a joy to work with because he asks precise and challenging questions to expand your understanding of the story you're writing, then sends you home with an armful of books, a bunch of famous artworks to google, and some Laurie Anderson music. He is a cultural encyclopedia, and he has wrenched this play into an entirely new territory for me. Along the way, we have involved some very talented and generous women: Lara Rosenthal, Sara Swersky, Samantha Young and Eloise Snape. The only other bloke is musician Simon Friedlander, who will be providing a score for the evening.
It has been pretty scary to get back into the performing side of things. I have neglected that side for quite a few years, ever since I became a freelance playwright. While I often read my work at events like Story Club and You Are Here Festival, I have a piece of paper in my hands as a safety blanket.None of that here! I also have to try and "act" too, which is a very terrifying and brave thing to do. I have always had a lot of respect for actors, but have even more now! As well as the acting, I'll be serving you all dinner. Pretty good deal for $15, really!
JM: And finally, what's coming up next for you? Where should people who love Shabbat Dinner go to get more Jess in their lives?
JB: This is a big year for me, I'm excited to say! If you want a bit more Jess in your theatregoing life, you can find me at the following things:
This Saturday night I am reading a story about the fateful summer where Taylor Swift and I were best friends and womyn's collective haunts together.
In August I am participating in a multi-playwright festival called LoveNOT in Manila, Philippines!
In September, a show that I have devised with Clockfire Theatre called The Grief Parlour opens at Riverside Theatre as part of the True West season. This is a beautiful piece of theatre inspired by LeCoq mime and movement that explores that very impossible yet natural desire to have one final moment with your loved one when they die. It is a funny, touching piece with treats in store for lovers of physical theatre and beautiful music. See more here.
I have a family show at atyp in October called Compass, which is an exploration of school camps, moral compasses and our understanding of 'the outsider'.
FINALLY I have a play for teenagers in Canberra in late October as part of their Triptych season.
If Shabbat Dinner sounds like just the kind of awesome you need in your life, you can read more about it and buy tickets on the Bondi Feast website here. Thanks again to Jess for taking the time to chat to me!