Some say that art imitates life, and others say that life imitates art. Either way, it is hard to ignore the parallels between the plot of “Can You Imagine?” — the original play staged this week at Yeshiva Girls High School — and the act of producing the play itself.
“Can You Imagine?” was written by local writers Lieba Rudolph and Amy Guterson, founder and director of Tzohar Seminary for Chassidus and the Arts, a post-high school program for girls located just across the street from the Yeshiva Girls School on Forbes Avenue. The play tells the story of Sarah, a secular Jewish woman poised for a brilliant Broadway career who discovers hidden talents that change her life in unexpected ways.
Likewise, many of the 73 Yeshiva girls in grades 8 to 12 — who were all required to participate in the play in one way or another — have discovered untapped talents of their own.
A typical day at Yeshiva Girls High School is long and full, stretching from 8 a.m. until 5 p.m. and covering complete general studies and religious curricula. But what is missing from those curricula, according to its principal, Bat Sheva Deren, is the arts.
There is no music instruction, no drama, no dance and no painting or ceramics, other than an occasional after-school club.
Once every two years, though, the students of the Yeshiva Girls School put on a play; and it’s a big deal, generating excitement among the girls even before rehearsals begin.
“It’s a nice time to try out your skills,” said Devorah Gordon, a senior who served as the student director of “Can You Imagine?” under the guidance of Guterson. “It’s in the making for three months, and everyone is talking about it in the time leading up to it.”
“Can You Imagine?” is a “discovery play,” Gordon said, adding that the main character, Sarah, finds out a lot about herself by the end of the show.
And many of the girls who participated in the show did the same, Gordon said.
“Lots of girls discover things that they didn’t know they were good at,” she said. “Some girls find they are good at building scenery or doing P.R. or fundraising. It’s really good to see the girls thriving.”
“The girls tremendously look forward to the play,” she said at a technical rehearsal last week in preparation for the performances, which were held for women only on March 14 and 15. “The production is a most amazing success from an educational perspective and for the team effort involved. The girls are tired now, but they are happy. They have the satisfaction of what teamwork can accomplish.”
While some girls chose to act or sing on stage, others preferred to work on props or music or create the playbill or work backstage or sew costumes.
“This is not a Broadway production,” Deren said. “It’s about being brave and often finding talents they never knew they had.”
The girls took their responsibilities for the play seriously while enjoying the break from their usual routine.
“What I’ve gained from the production is a way to use my talents as a way to inspire others,” said Malka Herman, a senior, who along with senior Leah Deren directed the choir for the production. Neither Herman nor Leah Deren has had formal voice training, but both girls nevertheless exhibit talent and promise.
They have also learned a lot about collaboration, said Leah Deren.
“The most inspiring part of the production was seeing how each girl’s part was so important and seeing how all the talents combined to make such a beautiful production,” she said.
A version of “Can You Imagine?” was first performed eight years ago at Yeshiva. That script was written by Rudolph (a blogger for The Jewish Chronicle) with Guterson directing the show. Rudolph and Guterson later decided to try their hand at converting the story into a screenplay, and together took a screenwriting class at Pittsburgh Filmmakers.
Although “Can You Imagine?” was never made into a film, Guterson adapted the finished screenplay into what is now the current version of the stage play.
“The story is a wonderful way to keep people entertained while getting through a message,” said Rudolph, adding that the plot is a contemporary one.
While Guterson was at the helm of the show, it was the girls who took ownership of it, and “really pulled it together,” she said.
Guterson, who pursued an off-Broadway career for a time prior to returning to Orthodoxy and founding the Tzohar Seminary, instructed the girls on such matters as how to stage a scene, character study and how to build a story.
“The girls become creative thinkers in terms of problem-solving and becoming leaders,” she explained. “This is their main creative event. The girls learn here the sense that God created the world and it’s their mission to help finish that creation with whatever talents they have.”
“Everyone is obligated to share whatever gift they have,” Rudolph added.
For Rikel Rosenblum, an eighth-grader who participated in the school’s production for the first time, the play provided an opportunity for fun as well as growth.
“I really enjoyed it,” she said. “It gave me the chance to act and be a part of something big.”
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.