Cincy Fringe Show Explores Jewish Identity Through Comedy

Co-writers Nell Adkins and Elizabeth Sacktor’s new play, “Esther Made Me Do It,” explores Jewish and queer identity. Sacktor directed the play, which stars Adkins and collaborator Helen Sher. 

“Esther Made Me Do It” premiered at the Cincy Fringe Festival.” The play centers on the complex friendship between Ruth and Naomi as they audition for a Purim shpiel. Ruth starts to question how much longer she can prioritize Naomi’s aspirations over her own and grapples with deeper feelings for her best friend.

“It’s kind of like ‘Pen15’ meets ‘Broad City’ meets ‘Glee,’” said Adkins. 

Adkins, Saktor, and Sher met while attending Smith College in Massachusetts. All three describe themselves as lifelong theater kids who tried to escape theater while at college.

“We all grew up as theater kids, and Liz and I had been wanting to work together for a long time,” said Adkins

According to the two playwrights, the idea for the one-act comedy was originally a joke between them. 

“What if we wrote a play about little us? What we were like when we were 14?” said Sacktor. “We were so annoying, just these loud mouth obnoxious Jewish theater kids who had our sights set on stardom and Broadway and wanted to be the next [Barbra] Streisand.”

After kicking around the idea and joking about it, Adkins, who was working in Scranton, invited Sacktor to spend the afternoon with her. During their afternoon visit, the idea started to fully come together in, of all places, a kosher deli. 

“We like sketched it all while at Abe’s kosher deli,” said Adkins. 

“The most Ashkenazi Jewish experience it could have ever been,” said Sacktor. 

After that, the two returned to their lives but kept writing. Saktor returned to finish her last year at Smith College, and Adkins returned to Lexington, Ky., for her new job. 

Adkins and Sacktor continued writing, sending drafts back and forth to each other, and eventually finished the play before submitting it to the Cincy Fringe Festival.

For Adkins, a production coordinator in Lexington, writing and producing this play is a way for her to continue to be an artist. She found this perspective at Smith and chose to study Governmental Policy instead of Dance and Theater.  

“Getting a degree in the arts is not what makes you an artist,” she said. “You can keep making art even if you don’t [study it in college].”

For Sacktor, returning to the theater was a longer Journey. She vowed never to do theater again when she started college, but after meeting Adkins and Sher, she quickly returned. 

Helen Sher, who stars in the play with Adkins, whom the writers affectionately called their ringer, had a similar revelation to what Adkins did about making art. She attended a Performing arts high school that Saktor joked was like the movie “Fame” and grew up performing with the Bread and Puppet Theater

When the three met at Smith, they had an instant connection, as they all attempted – and failed – to swear off theater. 

“Oh my gosh, we’re all Jewish, we love theatre, we all swore it off.” said Sacktor.” And four years later, we’re back working in the theatre.”

While at Smith, all three started to explore their Jewish identities as adults, hosting Passover, Hanukkah, and Rosh Hashanah parties in their dorm rooms. “Esther Made Me Do It” is not the first time Sher and Saktor have worked together. 

“Helen [Sher] and I wrote a Purim Shpiel our first year [at Smith], and we’ve written one, I think, almost every year,” said Saktor. 

“I think the part of time when it came into its own for me was in college because it was the time when I got to decide what being Jewish meant to me,” said Sher. 

The play explores different kinds of Jewish identity. All three come from interfaith households.

“One of the characters feels very insecure about her own Jewish identity and her Jewishness,” said Adkins. 

The play is also an exploration of queer identity. It is a coming-of-age story for the two characters starting to realize new things about themselves and each other. 

“The two characters are [named] Ruth and Naomi, and you can read into that as much as you will,” said Sacktor.

‘Esther Made Me Do It’ celebrates different aspects of the American Jewish experience. The writers felt it was important to focus on Jewish Joy. 

 “We wanted to focus on something joyful and funny, for these two girls[Ruth and Naomi], they can smile and have fun,” said Adkins. 

“Esther Made Me Do It” is currently playing at the Cincy Fringe Festival. For information about tickets, visit the Cincy Fringe Website