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Michael Nathanson


by Rhonda Spivak

Forty-three year old Michael Nathanson, the artistic director and general manager of  the Winnipeg Jewish Theatre, was "completely surprised" recently to learn that he was nominated as a finalist for the 2009 Governor General's Literary Award for the play he wrote  "Talk," which premiered here in 2007.

The provocative, emotionally honest play focuses on the collapse of a friendship between a Jewish man and his non-Jewish friend  in the aftermath of 9/11, given  their opposing viewpoints of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

As a result of the nomination, Nathanson told the Winnipeg Jewish Review "That there are now 10 theatres looking at producing the play.  The play will be put on by the Harold Green Jewish Theatre Company in Toronto [ between March 3-20]…That is the upside of the nomination. It confers a legitimacy on the play that it wouldn't have otherwise."
Nathanson's engaging 80 minute play between two buddies, Josh and Gordon whose friendship goes awry when the word "Palestine" is mentioned, is based on the playwright's own personal experience. Nathanson was in New York the day two planes plowed into the World Trade Centre. He and his bride Rebecca Brask had been married the month before in Manitoba and wanted to tie the knot again stateside to jump-start her quest for immigration papers that would allow her to live in the United States. Convinced there were more deadly attacks to come, the pair fled New York within a week.

In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks, Nathanson received an e-mail from one of his pals in Italy loaded with anti-American and anti-Israel diatribes.

"I was dumbfounded, given that he knew I was Jewish and what I had just lived through," Nathanson recalls. "When I questioned him, he went insane on me, accusing me of not letting him express his opinion and of being a fascist."

A confused Nathanson began to sort out his own feelings about the event by penning a dialogue about the situation.  The thought- provoking, and at times, humorous debate in "Talk" has been fictionalized, although Nathanson said parts of the script resemble some of  his actual conversations.

"Although the play deals with the Middle East conflict, its main focus has to be about the relationship between the guys and how it falls apart.  If we don't feel their loss as friends, then the play doesn't resonate as well as it should," Nathanson told the Winnipeg Jewish Review.

He also said, "It never occurred to me that I would be nominated for the [Governor General's Literary Award].  I didn't know that Playwrights Canada Press put it in for consideration.  When my wife phoned to tell me Talk was a GG Finalist, I didn't quite believe it…It was very surreal."

Nathanson added that he initially "pitched the play" to every Jewish theatre in North America, noting that it was a marketing challenge. He recalls that one rejection letter stated, "As soon as the conflict in the Middle East is settled, we'll be happy to present this show to our subscribers because it will be less controversial then."

When asked   about whether he has contact with his friend in Italy, he told the Winnipeg Jewish Review "We had communication for a while and seemingly worked through our differences.  However, when the  Free Press published an article about "Talk"… he read about it online [overseas]…I received an email from him that was very angry… I have not heard from him since…."

Currently, Nathanson is writing a comedy "One of Ours," which is set for a first reading in May 2010 with WJT producing the World Premiere in April 2011.

"The play has four characters and is set at West Hawk Lake. It's about a Winnipeg Jewish family. There are two brothers, a wife and one of the brothers brings home an unexpected guest.  It deals with the issues of family businesses, and generational divides." 

Michael Nathanson began his career acting on television at age thirteen.  As a playwright Michael's work has been seen in New York, Dallas,  and at festivals across Canada.
In Winnipeg, Michael has written for Theatre Projects Manitoba, CBC radio and the University of Winnipeg. In the past few years he also created and wrote two original, animated, fifty-episode internet-based series for Little Fox, Korea.

When asked if he might consider re-running "Talk" in his home city, in light of his recent nomination, Nathanson responded, "I haven't really given that much consideration. If the play gets enough attention nationwide, it might be something to consider."

Versions of this article will be published in the Canadian Jewish News and the Vancouver Jewish Independent.

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Rhonda Spivak, Editor

Publisher: Spivak's Jewish Review Ltd.

Opinions expressed in letters to the editor or articles by contributing writers are not necessarily endorsed by Winnipeg Jewish Review.