Barbara Brooks likes to say she had two babies at the same time.
One was her son Mathew, born in 1994. The other was the Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company.
Twenty years later, her son is a senior in college, while her theater company has become one of the longest-running independent Jewish theaters in the country.
The 5-foot-1-inch Brooks is the outsized force responsible for the maturation of both.
With no experience in running an organization, an uphill battle convincing supporters of her vision and a desire to avoid the “Fiddler on the Roof”s of the Jewish canon, Brooks managed to turn her theatrical baby into a Twin Cities stalwart.
“This is kind of the little engine that could,” said James M. Rosenbaum, MJTC’s board chair. “It’s not based on the fortune the theater has. [Brooks] is the engine that runs this and makes it happen. She’s a remarkable woman.”
The idea for MJTC was born during 11 months spent with her son in a rocking chair.
“I was the kind of mom that thought I shouldn’t be watching TV. So your mind wanders, and I just started thinking of how different it was as a Jewish person,” Brooks said.
The New York City (Queens) native had grown up in a community that felt “99.9 percent Jewish,” she said. A graduate program in music therapy at the University of Minnesota brought her to the Midwest — and outside of her comfort zone.
“I noticed the glaring differences between New York and here,” she said. Then, a co-worker at her part-time job told her that she had never met a Jew before.
“It was the strangest thing,” Brooks said in her thick and fast East Coast accent. “Who would even say that?”
She noticed a lack of cultural exchange between Jews and non-Jews, and she wondered if she could help bring people together through the arts.
Meanwhile, her involvement in Judaism had been waning. She had grown up observant, but as an adult in Minnesota, was unaffiliated with a synagogue. She shared that disconnect with increasing numbers of Jews.
“And I thought, maybe theater could provide this opportunity for Jewish people to be in touch.”
Contemporary, not kitsch
By spring of 1995, Brooks had mounted and acted in MJTC’s first play, “A Shayna Maidel” by Barbara Lebow, at Cretin-Derham Hall, a Catholic high school. Most of the 50-odd productions since have played in the theater’s current home, the Highland Park Community Center in St. Paul.
The journey to becoming one of the country’s longest-running independent Jewish theaters was understandably difficult to navigate.
“I knew nothing — absolutely nothing,” Brooks said. “I had no tech background, I had no business background.”
Back in 1994, Brooks had a tough time persuading Jewish organizations to support the theater. (The Jewish Federation of Greater St. Paul has since gone on to become a top investor.)
“At the beginning when I started the theater, it was like a strange concept,” Brooks said. “I didn’t feel like we got a lot of encouragement, for sure.”
So Brooks launched the theater company with the help of a grant from the St. Paul Companies (now Travelers insurance). She also sought advice along the way from pros at the Guthrie and other Twin Cities theaters.
Target and General Mills Foundation are now among the theater’s top supporters. The company operates on an annual budget of approximately $265,000.
Those in the early years who might have thought Jewish theater meant Borscht Belt comedy and Yiddish fables were mistaken. Most shows Brooks has produced have been contemporary works, many of them regional and world premieres. MJTC’s current children’s holiday show, “The Chanukah Guest,” was a commission by local playwright Jenna Zark.
The play, which runs through Dec. 21, is a trippy story about a nearsighted grandma frying up potato pancakes for a wayward bear. It includes lessons on the holiday, playing dreidel, and grandma’s secret ingredient in her latkes — schmaltz, or chicken fat. Twice, the grandmother, played by Joanna Harmon, asks the audience of schoolchildren to say with her the word “schmaltz,” which can also be defined as excessive sentimentality.
A personal connection
Though schmaltz is the secret ingredient in the play, it doesn’t feature in Brooks’ personal recipe. She avoids sentimentality when talking about the heights to which she has brought the theater in two decades, brushing off every opportunity to gush about how an idealistic aspiring actor became a den mother to some of the Twin Cities’ top artists.
Sally Wingert remembers Brooks first approaching her about working at MJTC more than a decade ago, after Brooks had seen Wingert in a Shakespeare play at the Guthrie. Wingert was flattered, but when Brooks later asked her to do a one-woman play, “Family Secrets,” she wasn’t interested.
“I just swore I wouldn’t do it,” said Wingert, who was more comfortable performing in ensemble works.
But Brooks was dogged, and eventually won Wingert over. Since then, Wingert has starred in four plays with MJTC, all of them solo.
“She has a small theater and it’s not the most luxurious space to work in. The dressing room is a parks and rec storage room,” Wingert laughed. “But what [Brooks] lacks in amenities, she makes up for in heart.”
Candace Barrett Birk, director of “The Chanukah Guest,” says she has felt nurtured by Brooks.
“She just holds us all, very carefully and firmly,” Barrett Birk said.
Brooks said her focus has always been on bringing new works to audiences, “because those are the shows that tell stories about what is going on in our world today.”
Warren Bowles, a longtime company member of Mixed Blood who is directing his second MJTC play this spring, said the plays Brooks chooses connect with more than just Jewish audiences and artists.
“It’s not the Yiddish theater of New York at the turn of the century,” Bowles said. “It is honoring and respecting a part of our community, but opens it to the entirety of the community.”
MJTC’s plays that deal with the past — the Holocaust and Jewish history — have been the ones that the company’s typically 40 percent non-Jewish audiences respond to most, Brooks said.
In addition to theatergoers, the organization has also left a mark on Brooks and her family. Twenty years in, Brooks says the theater has “provided something” for her son that exposed him both to Jewish culture and the arts.
It did the same for her.
“I think in retrospect, it was a way for me to become more rooted in Jewish life,” she said.
The next stage for the theater company is to figure out how to go forward “beyond Barbara,” she said. The board is in the midst of a strategic plan to bring bigger and younger audiences to the theater, while also preparing for Brooks’ eventual departure.
But Brooks doesn’t have plans to retire just yet.
For now, she continues to raise her babies — both of them.