Deep Love, Pain, and Heartbreak

“My plays…come from a deep love and pain and heartbreak.”
—Zohar Tirosh-Polk

In an exclusive interview, playwright Zohar Tirosh-Polk discusses LABA and her play Theo’s Dream, a wild exploration of the life of Theodor Herzl, founder of Zionism.

Come see a  reading of Theo’s Dream by Zohar Tirosh-Polk at the 14 St Y Theater on Friday, October 26th, 4-5:30 pm, with a talkback following the performance. 

Q: What was the evolution of the cycle of your six plays about Israel?

The evolution was really after the fact. I wrote six different plays about different periods of Israeli history without knowing I was doing it. Then at LABA, and a few weeks before Israel’s 70th Anniversary, it struck me: Oh, that’s why I was doing this! I realized the plays were part of a larger whole.

Q. What was the spark that led to writing Theo’s Dream?

A desire to go back to understanding what’s happening now in Israel and the beginnings of Zionism. Also, Herzl is a fascinating character. He was first and foremost a playwright, struggling with his own writing life and career, as was I. For a long time, before he became a statesman, writing plays was all he cared about. He had a certain temperament and flair in his presentation; he was larger than life, mysterious and thought of himself as a Messiah.

Q. Did that theatrical temperament help or hinder him in creating a Jewish state?

I can’t answer that. I did not know the man. But, for the purposes of my play, it’s interesting to take that journey. Another two things I found fascinating: One, he had an awful marriage. He never found a home, could never settle in his own home. There was constant conflict and he contemplated leaving his wife but this was the 19th century and people didn’t do that. She had her own challenges. So the play asks: Can there be a home where there is constant conflict? Or can a home exist, in fact, without conflict?

The second thing is that Herzl was so clearly able to foresee what would happen in the future—he was prophetic about events that happened fifty or sixty years later. He had his pulse on European politics and had the idea that after 2000 years, there could be a modern state where Israel is now, and map out how it would come to be, including the kibbutzim, agriculture, etc.

Q. You took some theatrical leaps in your writing with Theo’s Dream. How much influence did Mac Wellman and Erin Courtney [co-heads of MFA Playwrighting program at Brooklyn College] have on your writing?

[At Brooklyn College] I was surrounded by artists who took artistic leaps that were different than my understanding of what a play is. We looked at each other with love and respect and also confusion. The play came to me there. It was a challenge to think in different theatrical ways, employing different mechanisms. This is the most fun I’ve ever had writing a play!

Q. What did you learn from last spring’s in-house reading at the 14St Y?

There are still places where it needs to breathe. The play has a clear style, tone and rhythm so I am enjoying that. I feel like a kid in a candy store. But I will be looking to bring greater understanding into Herzl, instead of just deconstructing him.

For us growing up in Israel, Herzl is like Lincoln or Washington. He was an icon with a black beard: The Father of the Jewish State. We didn’t know more about him, about his flaws as a human being. So the question is: Where is the other side, after deconstructing?

Q. How did the process of studying Jewish classical texts about war and peace last year at LABA inform the play in particular, and your writing in general?

I think the deeper we dove into text, the deeper my comprehension and the deeper and more comprehensive understanding I had of myself as an artist. I was more able to connect the dots, more able to connect in my own work what is important for me to say and what I’ve been saying all along. Beyond the textual study, at LABA, there’s an utter freedom to go crazy with ideas you could not do anywhere else. There is freedom and encouragement and support.

Q. Did the process of wrestling with different political views in the room inform your work?

The process informed me. And there was a moment, if you remember, when it got very heated and I think we were all enriched by it and for it. My plays try to do just that. They come from a deep love and pain and heartbreak and a desire for wholeness in Israel and the Holy Land, for everyone. I have strong ideas about that but a play wouldn’t be a play if it were only that.

Q. What is the life of the play and the play cycle as a whole?

We’re figuring it out as we go along. Right now, we are just focused on Theo’s Dream and we’ll see where that one takes us.

Q. How did you like working with the Jewish Plays Project?

The JPP is my artistic home and has been for the last six years. Their support and backing has been life-changing.

Q. Were there any bumps in working with three different entities, the JPP, LABA and the 14th St. Y?

No bumps at all. They were three partners, like three siblings in one family. Everyone was flexible and we discussed needs and desires and what supported the work best.

Q. Is there anything that hasn’t been said about Theo’s Dream that you’d like to say?

You should come see it; come for a wild theatrical ride and leave your brain outside the door!