Zelda Dean sees theatre as a way to break down barriers.
MY FIRST ENCOUNTER WITH ZELDA DEAN is at the old brick Congregation Emanu-El Synagogue on Blanshard. She’s enthusiastically welcoming people who have come to see the Neil Simon play she’s directing. A friend of mine in the cast invited me, and I’m feeling pretty disoriented. “There’s a theatre in here?” I ask incredulously. Black curtains and a simple stage are set up in a room with about 80 chairs. Although my expectations are not high, I get a surprisingly wonderful evening of inspiring theatre, and I’m intensely curious about Dean and her tiny, synagogue-based company, Bema (pronounced “BEE-ma”) Productions.
We arrange to meet on a sunny Thursday afternoon, again at the historically significant synagogue, which was consecrated in 1863. This time, I get to see both Dean and the theatre in their day jobs: she is the synagogue’s office manager, and the theatre looks like a smallish cafeteria, adjacent to a commercial kitchen. I shake my head, marvelling at how the space was so cunningly transformed. She explains that a congregant—after hearing Dean confidently quip that she could easily create a “black box” theatre in the space and stage performances there—stepped up with some cash and said, “Okay, do it.”
Zelda Dean (Photo by Tony Bounsall)
This is the magic—and mystery—of Dean, a small but mighty force to be reckoned with. The spry, elfin woman in her mid-70s has an enthusiastic, can-do twinkle, and clearly, her wheels are always turning. As we chat, I can almost hear the sound of the gears. She comes up with a vision and inspires people to help her realize it; wherever she is, big things get done. When she was asked to handle the congregation’s administrative tasks, she saw “they needed a tough old bird.” A fierce advocate for the synagogue and their generous, progressive initiatives in the community, their funding shortfalls served as her inspiration to create Bema Productions, whose ticket revenues directly support Emanu-El and other Victoria non-profits.
Dean isn’t just any office manager. She has a long, successful history in the performing arts, and was a major part of expanding the Calgary theatre scene. She and her husband helped found that city’s largest community theatre, and in the 1980s, they created two successful dinner theatres that ran for over 11 profitable years, employing “most of the union actors in Calgary.” Completely unsubsidized, the industrious, creative couple fortified the city’s cultural offerings and launched the careers of many Canadian performers.
The couple retired from their stage-based endeavours in the ’90s and relocated to Victoria to be near their adult daughter who was on her own with young children. Dean then focused primarily on family, and says, “I thought my theatre career was finished.” Between amateur and professional productions in Calgary, she had produced and directed 110 plays. “It was a great run, I had lots to be grateful for…I let it go.”
Dean was approached a decade ago to fill the position of office manager, and “be the hub of the wheel here.” The grandkids were older, so she said yes. Her work showed her “how much good the synagogue was doing, but the place is not rolling in money.” Then came the congregation’s 150th anniversary. She got pulled into an arts committee, “kicking and screaming,” to create six public events for 2015. One of the six events was a small original theatre production, a collaboration with UVic. “It rekindled a little flame that I thought had gone out, and I started to think, ‘What could I do? They’re always struggling for money…I’m a professional director, entrepreneur…I can make good theatre; I can find good people.’”
Find them she has. Bema’s production of Old Ladies Guide to Survival won Best Drama at the 2016 Fringe. Professional actors often take parts in Bema casts as unpaid volunteers, enjoying what one reviewer called “detailed, sure-footed direction…parsing mood shifts and embracing the steely drama beneath the jokes.”
The company’s upcoming summer play is the Canadian premiere of Kalamazoo, a drama (with funny moments) about a mismatched couple, written by Mel Brooks’ daughter Michelle. The April production, Lessons, is also a drama, and another Canadian premiere, written by Wendy Graf.
Dean wants to entertain, and yet hopes all of her productions will make a difference. “I don’t want to lecture people, or pound them on the head with it. I want to make them laugh, cry…think about something maybe they haven’t before.”
For 17 Stories, Bema’s inaugural production, Dean commissioned a script from award-winning Canadian playwright Caroline Russell-King; she wanted a piece that addressed grief and loss. Seventeen people were interviewed about different kinds of losses: pets, jobs, family members. “It was almost overwhelming,” she recounts. “I had six actors who portrayed 65 characters in 17 different stories. The audience was blown away.”
In Hebrew, the word bima means “altar,” and Bema’s name is an homage to the sanctuary where some of its performances take place. While this theatre company isn’t a religious thing, its core group of volunteers are synagogue congregants. With only about 1000 identified Jews in Victoria, the vast majority of Bema’s growing audience is gentiles who probably wouldn’t have otherwise ended up inside the building (unless they’re touring the historically significant landmarks downtown). Once inside, she hopes everyone can appreciate well-produced plays whose messages transcend any creed or ideas of separateness.
Dean must have déja vù; her earliest theatrical organization efforts were in 1960s Calgary, at a time when Jews were not allowed to join the country clubs. As one of a handful of people collaborating with a transplanted rabbi and his wife to create community theatre productions that brought Jews and non-Jews together—onstage, backstage, and in the audience, “we set out to get more people into a synagogue, to see ‘hey folks, we’re all the same. You’re not going to get hit by a lightning bolt as soon as you walk in here.’” With Bema, she says, “I want to use plays that say something that’s of value, in an entertaining way, and I want to open the doors of the synagogue.”
Bringing diverse people together to perform and to watch is only part of the picture. Bema is also channeling resources to non-profits. The 12 performances of their last show, Neil Simon’s Prisoner of Second Avenue, brought in 1100 people. “We raised $8500 profit for the synagogue for their programs, and six non-profit shows where each charity raised $1000,” Dean says proudly. “People believe in what we’re doing, so they are generous with their time, energy, and creativity. We’re a joyful company to work for; the thank-you letters blow me away.” Among many charitable initiatives, Congregation Emanu-El supports families in need through the Burnside-Gorge Community Centre, creates birthday parties at Our Place, and sponsored a Syrian refugee family.
As someone over 25 years younger than Dean, I’m humbled by her seemingly boundless energy and productivity, but I can tell working hard is her happy place. “People ask, ‘Why are you doing this? You’re 76 years old’…I have to. Creative people have to create; we can’t not.” She’s no martyr, though. “I’m giving, and I’m receiving. If we don’t get something out of what we’re giving, we can’t do it for long. I get tremendous satisfaction out of creating a piece, and knowing it is a benefit to others…As artists, we have to be getting something out of it for ourselves. I feel grateful that I have this opportunity to do what I love doing, and at the same time make a difference, helping to make the world a better place.”
Bema Productions presents Lessons, written by Wendy Graf, directed by Zelda Dean. April 12-22 at Congregation Emanu-El, 1461 Blanshard. Tickets available online through ticketrocket.com or call 250-382-0615.
Mollie Kaye can only hope her own work as a performer and writer is, in some small way, making the world a better place.