Welcome to Lublin
by Elizabeth Schwartz

Posted November 21, 2010 at 04:17 PM EST

Welcome to the inaugural blog of "The Witches of Lublin". I'm not a blogger by habit (because I fear my deep thoughts and what I had for lunch would be of interest to no one, least of all, myself) but I have somehow found myself in the (unenviable?) position of first blogger. It seems only proper that I start at the beginning.

Let me get some relevant background out of the way: Yale Strom and I are married and have been collaborating on multimedia projects (films, books and most certainly, music) for about 15 years. Yale and Ellen Kushner first met at a Jewish Music conference maybe ten years ago. A year or so later, Ellen and her partner Delia Sherman were in New York from their home in Boston and came to one of our concerts - and you know how you just meet someone and recognize them as a fellow traveler? All four of us had that moment and became great fans of each other's works and even greater friends. The early years of our friendship were marked by great dinners and even greater conversations (and, at least where Ellen, Delia and I are concerned, a shared love of fantasy and fairy tales, although they draw the line at science fiction, where I do not).

Then tragedy struck. Ellen and Delia announced that they were moving to New York City, at almost the same moment that Yale was offered an impossible-to-refuse position as artist-in-residence at San Diego State University (which was much discussed and debated: Could we really give up living in New York City in exchange for money and health insurance, plus the freedom to continue to travel and create art? Gentle readers, we did. Health insurance is the brass ring in America, especially for artists). Ellen and Delia began unpacking as Yale and I began packing.

Every few days or so, we'd drive our Ford to their apartment to admire the fabulous paintjob (note to self: Never paint or decorate without consulting Delia Sherman first) and take their empty boxes to recycle for our own move. This was a very painful process - of course, packing and moving is just horrid, horrid, horrid - but having your dear friends move close to you while you are moving away is just cruelty and spite from the Gods.

Recreating THE pivotal moment from memory, we were in the midst of perhaps the third box transfer and were standing in the lobby of Ellen and Delia's building when Ellen said, "You know what? We should work on something together." Yale said, "You are the radio person, and I've never worked in radio" (me: well, except for composing all the music for the NPR short story series, "Fiddlers, Philosophers and Fools" you haven't), "so let's do something in radio." Ellen: "It should be women-oriented." Me: "You know, there's this great research in the Yizkor Bikher" (me again: Memorial Books, oral histories of vanished Jewish life in the former cities, towns and villages of Europe), "about rare instances of women klezmer kapelyes (me once more: ensembles). Let's use that."

Everything else - the plot, the characters, more historical verisimilitude about klezmers being set upon by the party guests/hosts after they've finished up their gigs, dissertations on women's lives in 18th Century Poland, unpacking and packing - came after. But that's the moment we began to blow on the tiny spark of "The Witches of Lublin" until it caught.

We were compelled to fan that spark into a bonfire when Elizabeth Start of the Michigan Festival of Sacred Music commissioned the first workshop of the play. Deadlines are a writer's friend (yes, of course, they are simultaneously viscera-twisting). When three separate artists individually work on myriad projects at once, there's nothing like a commission (Money! Travel! Food!) to put something on the front burner. There ensued many story sessions (food was always involved, naturally) in New York and in San Diego. Having Delia there as a benevolent, floating presence (and before she knew what'd gobsmacked her, dramaturge) seemed to steer us ever-forward. We blinked and had our first draft, which was very, very different from the "Witches" you will hear, but what a great way to get started.

Regarding our dynamic director-producer, Susan Zizza: Did she drop from the sky, like a benevolent alien come to transport us back to Planet "It's Really Happening"? Yes. Yes, she did. What had been a few years of writing, eating, emailing drafts, waking up at 2 a.m. with a great idea for one of the characters and scribbling it down before it was forgotten, seem compressed, because the Sue phase of "Witches" has been rapid and life-altering. Suddenly, we had a recording date, a hitherto undreamed-of cast (note to self: Do not bring autograph book to the recording sessions. Have some dignity, for Chrissakes), and an ensemble of some of the top klezmer musicians in the U.S. recording Yale's music.

Now I am nagging Yale and Ellen about the sequel. Stay tuned. I mean that literally.


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The Witches of Lublin was originally commissioned by the Michigan Festival of Sacred Music, through a generous donation from Arthur and Marilyn Feinberg, and premiered in a live performance version at the 2007 Michigan Festival of Sacred Music.

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