Theater Returns to the Mayerson JCC

After nearly two decades of absence, the Mayerson JCC’s recent showing of Aladdin Jr marks the return of the J’s theater program. With the show, and an expanding offerings of classes, director Eliana Rantz hopes to create a safe space for adults and kids to learn and grow through theater.

Rantz grew up participating in her hometown of West Orange New Jersey, Metro West JCC theater program. 

“I walked through the door into the theater and just was like, these are my people,” she said. “There were performance opportunities [there] that never conflicted with Shabbat, which was important to me, growing up Orthodox.”

Rantz went on to study theater and education at NYU. While directing pieces at the New York International Fringe festival, she was also working in classrooms using theater to connect with students. 

After her family moved to Cincinnati for her husband’s job, Rantz noticed that there wasn’t a theater program at the J. 

“I felt like it was missing a place that could connect people through all aspects of the Jewish community, as well as the non-Jewish community,” Rantz said. “I wanted to help give people a space where they could create something and learn from each other.”

But the classes Rantz was going to start teaching were set to begin in June 2020, in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic that left Jewish communities largely gathering virtually. As a result, the classes were canceled. 

But once vaccines were readily available and Jewish communities moved back to in-person programming, core classes began in January 2022. They started small, with only four kids ages eight to 13. Since beginning classes, the number of students has tripled from four students to 12. 

“We have kids who keep coming back,” Rantz said. “We work hard to create a safe environment where we’re all accepted; where [the kids] can be themselves.” 

Classes have expanded to include a Tots class for kids ages 5-7. Much of the curriculum is based around building social skills, and collaboration. 

“[The tots class teaches] basic acting skills, basic performance, learning how to project your voice in front of our peers, getting comfortable with making eye contact, and building their self confidence,” Rantz said.

Parents love watching the strides their kids are making in coming out of their shells. “To watch my daughter blossom on stage and feel the confidence to be herself just makes me so proud,” said Julia Shapiro, whose daughter took part in the tots class and was part of the ensemble for Aladdin Jr. 

“We are thrilled to have a theater program back at the Mayerson JCC after more than a decade without one,” said Holly Wolfson, chief program officer at the J. “The connections that the children and their families are making to each other and the community are priceless.”

Aladdin Jr is the second play Rantz has directed at the J. The first was this past fall with a production of “Dorothy Meets Alice.” Her plan going forward is to have two plays a year: a fall play and a spring musical. 

There has been strong support from the J community for the new theater program. The sets for Aladdin Jr were designed by a fellow member of the J staff. And they were assembled and painted by the cast members, parents, and volunteers working together. 

As for the future of theater at the J, Rantz hopes to build a safe space for all members of the Jewish and non-Jewish community to come together.

“I want to encourage as many people as possible that feel like they don’t have a place, maybe they’re not athletic, or maybe they don’t have something that speaks to them and give them a space where they can feel excited to be involved,” Rantz said.