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May 31, 2012 By:
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Acting out: Members of Theatre Ariel rehearse their lines.

Deborah Baer Mozes thinks you need to go to a salon. It's not what you're thinking, though. The salon she's talking about has more to do with improving the interior, not the exterior, of your head.

Mozes, the founder and artistic director of Theatre Ariel, the only theater company in the region to focus exclusively on producing Jewish works, has joined the growing number of her compatriots in the Jewish theater world who have embraced the salon. Companies from Saint Louis to Mexico City, Amsterdam to Moscow have rediscovered the salon as a new way to reach audiences through the physical immediacy of the performance setting: no proscenium, no stage, just the actors and the audience, together in a living room.

"There is a Jewish theater in Los Angeles -- the Jewish Women's Theatre -- they just do salons. In talking with their artistic director, Ronda Spinak, I got the feeling that this is something that would work well in Philadelphia," Mozes said.

The "this" that Mozes refers to is a form of live interactive entertainment that has been around for centuries. A salon is an intimate gathering of like-minded people -- think dozens, not hundreds -- from across the political and socioeconomic spectrums. Attendees watch, participate in and debate about theater, art, literature, music, philosophy -- whatever cultural topic is chosen by the evening's host.

On Sunday, June 3, at the Bryn Mawr home of Betsy and David Rentz, longtime supporters of Theatre Ariel, the topic will be "A Stranger in Our Midst." For what will be Theatre Ariel's second salon of the year, Mozes will get the evening's participants to "look at the idea of the stranger, from either the vantage point of when we in the Jewish community have been strangers, or when we have made others feel like strangers in our community."

To that end, she and Ariel's board president, Adina Potok, curated what Mozes laughingly calls "a minyan plus one" -- 11 new plays, all of which are 10 minutes or less in duration. "The minyan is a core group and then you have the one 'other.' It kind of fit the theme -- I felt it was bashert!" she said. The play materials span epochs from the Inquisition to present day, and settings from the Middle East to the Midwest.

Focusing on new works is a hallmark of Theatre Ariel. As Mozes explained, "we do a lot of new works, and we do a lot of readings anyway. And I liked the idea that" by staging these readings in a salon environment, "it's reviving an old tradition."

The salon has long held a place of importance for European and American Jewish women, perhaps because their participation in public life was so restricted for so long. In the 1780s, the first two salonières, Henriette Herz and Rahel Levin Varnhagen, began holding events in their Berlin homes. A disproportionate number of the most influential salons since have been hosted by Jewish women, including the 19th-century literary salons of Ada Leverson in London and Geneviève Straus in Paris; the modernist art salon of Berta Szeps Zuckerkandl in Vienna; and, of course, the gatherings of Gertrude Stein in Paris, which were recently the focus of Symphony Space's annual "Wall to Wall" concert in New York.

With two salons on the 2011-12 calendar, and another four planned for the 2012-13 season, does Mozes' focus on salons signal a shift in her mission for the group's 21st season?

"Not at all!" she said. "We will continue to tour our work into synagogues, schools, conferences, etc. We're just adding to what we do. It's a way to build and connect with our audience in a different format," and just the latest manifestation of "my vision that a Jewish theater should be an integral part of the Jewish community -- a part of their life."

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