Monologue slam contest explores Jewish identity

Unravel: A Virtual Monologue Slam Competition

When actor Jenna Berenbaum received an email inviting theatre artists aged 15 to 30 to participate in a live-streamed monologue slam competition with a focus on Jewish identity, she realized it was a production made for her. 

“There’s not many Jewish specific opportunities here,” said Berenbaum, a 2015 University of Saskatchewan drama graduate who lives in Saskatoon. It felt like it was speaking directly to me and I felt I had a lot of things to say about it.”

Berenbaum, 27, is one of the participants in Unravel, a competition featuring 10 original monologues, two to three minutes long, written and performed by contenders from across Canada, to be streamed on the Harold Green Jewish Theatre’s website on May 19.

Berenbaum said her monologue will explore what it’s like to be Jewish living in a city with a small Jewish community. About 100 Jewish families live in Saskatoon.

“I feel like I can write 1,000 monologues about it,” she said. “I’m focusing on being the only Jewish kid in your school, being the first Jewish person someone has ever met, and then I’m focusing on religion, the rules of religion and on these things we follow that don’t make any sense. And on how men fit in differently than women and how you see it (Judaism) generationally through family.”       

Olivia Daniels, a co-founder of Artists in Residence, a theatre company that’s launching the Barlin-Daniels Emerging Artists Initiative with the live broadcast of the slam, in partnership with the Harold Green Jewish Theatre, said she was overwhelmed by the response to their search for slam participants. Along with Berenbaum in Saskatoon, the finalists hail from Toronto, Winnipeg, Vancouver and Regina.

“We were surprised to encounter such a diverse thematic exploration. Hardly anyone separated their Judaism from the other facets of their identity. It was part and parcel of their experiences in the workplace, their interests, their moral values, gender, sexual orientation, disability. I think it really speaks to our generation’s experience of Judaism, that it is something that’s part of our day-to-day life that comes up in unexpected places,” said Daniels, who’s 26.

“What was also interesting were the similarities—the strong connection to memory, the strong connection to history, their family, because these are the things that ground us, these traditions.”

She added that the young people who contributed to Unravel are concerned with what happens when modern beliefs come into conflict with their faith. “I think everyone had a very strong sense of love for the religion and Jewish pride, but also that we want this pride to endure, and so reckoning with our faith, dialogue with our traditions and history, will keep us from stagnating, will keep us moving forward to a place of genuine acceptance.”

Daniels and Jeremy Ferdman co-founded Artists in Residence as a theatrical platform during the early days of the COVID pandemic, to establish a supportive network for artists during a period of social isolation and to develop projects geared towards inclusion and community engagement. Last summer, they spoke to Avery Saltzman and David Eisner, Harold Green Jewish Theatre’s co-artistic directors, about creating programming for younger artists and the two companies formed a partnership.

“It really just began with a brain-storming conversation, four Jewish artists in a Zoom room talking about what kind of work we were interested in creating, what kind of stories they were interested in telling and how we can embrace what the next generation will enjoy creating and seeing. It’s a real testament to them at the Harold Green in realizing the importance of fostering new work and mentoring young artists and how that can be a very essential part of their mandate of telling Jewish stories,” Daniels said.   

To watch the live online broadcast of Unravel: A Virtual Monologue Slam Competition, visit hgjewishtheatre.com at 7:30 p.m. on May 19. A video will be on the website for viewing any time after the show’s premiere.

The day after the live slam is streamed, the top three videos, selected by guest judges—Canadian/American actor Jamie Elman, comedian Rachel Dratch from Saturday Night Live and theatre producer/founder of the Barlin-Daniels Emerging Artists Initiative, Elly Barlin-Daniels (Olivia’s mother)—will be posted on the theatre’s website. For the next week, people will be able to vote online and choose the first, second and third-place winners. A video of the performances of the top 20 contestants will be posted on YouTube.

Watch the teaser trailer for Unravel, directed by Amanda Belzowski:

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