Monday marked the premiere of “Trayf,” the story of curious Zalmy and traditional Shmuley, two Chabad-Lubavitcher Jews in their mitzvah tank. Written by Lindsay Joelle, this production is an endearing and modern take on an old problem: Do you stay or go?
Before the play, I sat down with Joelle to talk about her work, inspiration, and process. This interview was edited for clarity and brevity.
What inspired you to become a writer and playwright?
I started as an actor. I’m influenced by musicals like “Rent,” and “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” and Sondheim, whose lyrics tickle my brain. I moved to New York for college, but in between classes, I cobbled together a musical theater education, going to NYU’s acting conservatory.
I wanted autonomy over the art I created, so I bought the book “The Musical Theater Writer’s Survival Guide.” Inside, there’s a footnote that said, “I’m not repeating any of the lessons that are taught in the BMI Musical Theater Workshop in New York ... ” So I submitted my lyrics to the workshop, they invited me to audition and join the program.
I started writing musicals, but I don’t write music, just lyrics. A composer might have several projects or have a different process or pace. While waiting on music, a director friend said to me, “Why don’t you write a play?” I wrote a play and she workshopped it. It was a rewarding experience. I went from there.
Would you say there are any commonalities in your plays that mark them as yours?
I still have a musical in my heart; you can see that in my writing. I listen to the rhythm of a line, the musicality of it. My plays aren’t very wordy. You don’t have space in a bar of music.
[My plays] start funny and end poignant. A theater teacher in high school said, “You have to make them laugh before you make them feel.” We go to the theater with the shell that we carry in the world. Laughter is a way for people to join the communal experience.
I’m interested in micro-communities you wouldn’t normally see on stage and in-between moments. What do you talk about in a garbage truck for eight hours? What stories of otherness can we bring to the stage?
What’s your process when you’re beginning a new work?
It’s more fun when I meet somebody or have an experience that challenges my assumptions, learning how incredibly wrong I was. That’s when I realize “That would be a great story to bring to the stage.” But because I’m not a part of these communities, I need buy-in to tell it. It’s most helpful for me to have a personal connection and they say, “Let me tell you all about my life and my world.”
What was the inspiration for "Trayf"?
It’s a story of friendship at its heart. When I moved to New York, one of the first friends I made was in an acting class. He’s a former Chasidic Jew who grew up in Crown Heights. We’ve been friends for 17 years. He told me stories about growing up and moments when he would “dip his toe” in the secular world. Things that I took for granted I got to see from someone else’s perspective.
A lot of “Trayf” is based on his experiences. He brought me home to his family for a Shabbos meal. I walked around the neighborhood and connected with different rabbis. I boarded a mitzvah tank and spoke to the guys. It was about two years of research.
What do you want the audience to come away feeling?
I think the empathy muscle could use some exercising in all of us. It’s the strength of theater. You have to take action to experience a play. You have to be present. I hope that the audience recognizes similarities, then takes that feeling out into the street.
By C.M. Ransome
C. M. Ransome is a DC-area native who studied Religious Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University. When she isn’t writing, she enjoys eating Thai food, reading comic books, watching Arsenal Football Club, and playing with her nephew.