Barbara grew up with her brother and parents in Rego Park, which is in Queens, New York. While in public school she also attended the Preparatory Division of Julliard and the Manhattan School of Music. That led, in turn, to a BA in Music from Vassar (her ‘principal instrument’ being voice), and later to a Masters degree in music therapy from the University of Minnesota. She worked as a music therapist for eight years in the St. Paul public schools, while trying her hand at both light opera, and later, musical theater. Perhaps most notably, on a professional level, she founded the Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company and remains its Producing Artistic Director (personal disclaimer: I am a big fan of the Theatre). In the most recent scene from her life, her son graduated this spring from USC, making her “very proud” indeed.
I lived originally in an apartment building, but when I was about 12 my parents bought a house, still in the Rego Park area. A real house. With a back yard, and on a very lovely block. Not typical. All the homes were detached, stucco. And there is an interesting side bar. The house where the book Maus takes place is across the street from ours. When my son was about ten, one Sunday evening he said “Mom, I’m reading this book in Sunday School, Maus, and it takes place on Grandma’s block”. And he shows me this little map on the back of the book, and there was the house on Carlton Street.
Let’s start with those grandparents – what do you know about them?
My grandmother on my mother’s side was amazing. She came over as a youngster on a boat from Russia at the turn of the century. She married and had four children. My mother was the youngest and only girl. Her husband died when my mother was a young teen, so my grandmother raised the family. She put the three boys through Columbia and one through medical school in England. My mother was told she could not go to college. Girls didn’t need to go to college. She could go to secretarial school.
My grandmother used to make booze in the bathtub in the Bronx, during Prohibition, to help support the family.
Note: according to ehow.com “bathtub booze”, or bathtub gin, was common during Prohibition, but not actually made in the bathtub (though the bottles were large and tended to be filled in a bathtub). It was a crude version of regular gin – a distillation of grain alcohol with botanical flavorings such as juniper – and was made for use in hidden backrooms and speakeasies. Gin was chosen because, unlike whiskey, it didn’t need to age as long, so it could be ready to drink very quickly. Even with the botanical flavorings, bathtub gin was notoriously dry and had a foul taste. Many modern cocktails were designed to mask the taste of bathtub gin.
My mother used to have to carry it down to the Bowery in glass jars, in suitcases on the El train. And she was petrified that a policeman would hear her – the swishing sound. Though she never got caught.
So with your years of music training, what did you do after college?
After Vassar I wanted to pursue light opera, but I needed something to support myself. While I was in college I had taken a lot of psychology courses, and I did an immense amount of research in autism. I don’t remember how I got interested in that. But I did field work, an internship at a state institution during my senior year, and there were students there from SUNY at New Paltz. They were doing their training with autistic children and music. SUNY had one of the few programs in music therapy, and the combination of seeing their work, and all my research in autism, made it clear that music was a very good tool for communicating with autistic children.
So I decided to get my Masters in music therapy and that would be what I do while I pursued light opera. The University of Minnesota had a program in music therapy, so I got a Masters here, and I did experimental research with autistic children, where we looked at music as a way to elicit eye contact.
Did you ever get into light opera?
No I didn’t, though I worked for the Saint Paul public schools for 8 years, and I was doing some musicals on the side, in summer stock. I did, I think, one production with the Gilbert and Sullivan Very Light Opera Company, but I don’t even know if they are still around.
But there were more opportunities for musical theater. I did the role of Amy in the show Company by Stephen Sondheim. It’s a great acting role, she has one song, but it’s more of an acting role. That made me want to pursue straight theater. This was before my son was born, I spent two and a half years going back and forth to New York to study acting. And I did some work at theaters on the east coast.
Do you still sing?
I have not sung very regularly. The last show I was in was our musical Parade, that we did it with Theatre Latte Da. I sang the high line, the high soprano line in the chorus in all of the big numbers.
Do you miss performing?
You know, it feels really rusty and stale, it would be hard. I studied and practiced singing almost every day for so many years, though when I became pregnant it became harder and harder because of the breath control, and difficult for the rib cage to expand. So I have not done it regularly for twenty two years now.
How did the Minnesota Jewish Theatre come into being?
I felt very different here as a Jewish person than in New York. In New York, religion is less of an issue, though here, people are not as open to people of other cultures. So coming from a music therapy background, I thought of using theater as a tool to facilitate behavior change, to provide an opportunity for non-Jews to learn about the Jewish culture.
And also, right at the same time, I came across research that the Fund had done in ‘92 or ’93 that showed that two thirds of Jewish families in St. Paul were unaffiliated. And I thought – that was me! I was one of those people! I felt no connection to the Jewish community here, yet here I grew up in a Kosher home, had a Bat Mitzvah. So I had this crazy idea to start a theater. To provide an opportunity for Jewish people to become more engaged and connected, and for non-Jews to learn about Jewish history and culture.
But we needed some money. I had a dear girlfriend who was a regional HR manager for the Saint Paul Companies, and she said “oh, they’re interested in diversity, you should write a grant”. Which I had never done. But I wrote a grant for their Foundation and I showed it to a girlfriend’s husband for feedback, who worked at United Way and he said “You know you can’t just have one paragraph for fifteen pages. You need like headings, and sections”. So I rewrote it and we got the money. Anyway, that Foundation President is now on our board, though he’s recently retired. They’re now Travelers, and they’ve funded us since the beginning.
You started the theater 20 years ago, in 1995. How do you measure its success?
I would say we are successful based upon a number of indicators. One, our audience seems to embrace us and love us. Our audience has grown, we have an upwards trajectory, continuously. We have audience members that have deepened their engagement. For instance, our Passbook holders, and the number of individual contributors, keeps going up. We’ve been able to expand from a season of three shows, to four shows, to five shows. We have no debt. And we are in the fourth year of a five year strategic plan, and we have a wonderful board that ensures that the theater remains viable beyond the founder.
So what are the founders plans?
No changes at this time. The board is very committed to doing things in a smart way. And we are nationally recognized. I think that is an indicator of success. As far as we know, we are the longest running independent professional theater rooted in Jewish history and culture. There’s only a handful of us left in the country. Several have folded.
What do the next 20 years hold?
The work we do is very much in tandem with what Federations are doing. I can speak more about the Saint Paul Federation, because we are more involved with that. But they are looking to engage unaffiliated individuals. They are looking to foster identity in the next generation. People in their 20s and 30s. It’s all in line with what we do. So I think we are a real partner with the work of the institutionalized Jewish community.
So skipping back to your growing up, what did your father do for a living?
My father was a podiatrist … but you should ask me about my mother, too.
OK, what did your mother do?
She was the right hand to Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy for about 40 years. She started out as a secretary, but she did so much more. Before she had her children she was a legal secretary and after we were in school full time she went back to work for Kelly Temp Agency, she was a “Kelly girl”, and her first job was for the Cronyns. So it started out as temporary but she was there from the 1960s to the time Hume passed away.
Originally the office was in their penthouse on East 75th Street, which was a trip in and of itself. I couldn’t believe I would accompany my mother once in a while. You would come up and get off the elevator, and there were these big mirrors – from floor to ceiling. There were some great stories my mother had, because she got to meet so many wonderful people.
But after they built a home in upstate New York there was no place for the office. So while they were looking for an office in Manhattan, my mother said ‘we could just work out of my home’. And it was there for the remaining 25, 30 years. In our den.
Did you know them?
Oh yeah, I saw them a lot over the years. They were wonderful, wonderful people.
Was that your start in musical theater?
They were not musical theater, but my parents always liked theater, so there were many Thanksgivings where we would have dinner early, and we would go into Manhattan. And my father and brother would go to the Garden, for whatever games they had, and my mother and I would go to a Broadway show.
But I did go to a lot of theater, because of the shows they were in. One of the first classics I saw was Hamlet. My mother had just started working for them, and it was on Broadway. Hume was Polonius and Richard Burton was Hamlet.
So we went, I think I was 8 at the time. I remember a little bit, but for years my father would say that the only thing I was paying attention to was Elizabeth Taylor sitting behind us. She was married to Richard Burton at the time. So I kept looking back. And after that show, Hume took us backstage and he got everyone in the cast to sign a program for me because he knew I liked theater.
What did lead to your career in theater?
I believe that many people who are interested and enjoy theater, or any art, have an “aha!” moment in their lives. When they are brought into this world, and they stay in the world of theater or art. I remember my mother and I sat at the top of this Broadway house, we were in the top row, house right. We were seeing the play You Can’t Take It With You. And the stage was full of stuff, there was a snake in a cage, and one of the daughters would come on and off, twirling around like a ballerina. It had such an impact on me, and I think that was my aha! experience.
One final question – what has been your favorite production.
There have been several. Over 20 years? I would say Family Secrets is one. My Mother’s Lesbian Wiccan Wedding is another.
Although probably, I would say my best production has been my son.