By David Sklar, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
(AJNews) – I caught up with Jack Grinhaus, the new artistic director of Vertigo Theatre, on his way to the “Jewish Safeway” in Calgary, stocking up on last-minute Passover necessities. With less than 24 hours to go before Elijah showed up at the Seder, Grinahus was cutting it close. “I’ll take whatever is left!” he said, laughingly.
Grinhaus has been working as an actor, director and teacher for the past 20 years and joining Vertigo Theatre is the next big step in his career. He spent five years as artistic director of Theatre Northwest in Prince George, B.C. and before that, 17 years as co-artistic director of Bound to Create Theatre in Toronto, where he is originally from.
“My first big role was Haman Harasha (Wicked Haman) in a Purim play at the Associated Hebrew School. It was really exciting because it immediately helped me develop an identity. And then, as an adolescent, one of the biggest plays I performed in was, I Never Saw Another Butterfly. The director wrapped the entire stage in barbed wire because it takes place in Terezin Concentration Camp. It was intense and scary because (when I put on) the makeup I saw in the mirror the gauntness (of my character). I told myself, this was another way of attracting me to works that spoke to important issues, but still were entertaining and with well drawn out characters. These were ways for us to share our stories.”
A lot of Jewish parents might be a bit leery of their children going into the arts. Grinhaus said his tough Israeli father’s first response was, “What the hell is not-for-profit?” Since both his parents were strong businesspeople, it might have taken some convincing. But they were very proud of him from the get-go because, according to his father, “it is the toughest business that exists,” especially in Canada, where most artists are just trying to survive. Unlike, the U.S. and maybe Quebec, Canada doesn’t have a star system, so many people are trying to carve out their own place. “But,” said Grinhaus, “even though they were concerned, they knew I had the chutzpah to go out there and do it.”
Grinhaus continued to act for 20 years, moving to New York before returning to Canada to start a theatre company with his now wife, Lauren Brotman. “Lauren and I felt we weren’t seeing certain types of works that we were interested in, with important stories that were not being spoken of enough in society.” Having grandparents survive the Holocaust led Grinhaus to focus on social issues as well as giving space to disenfranchised voices. “We wanted to create this idea that we were, Bound to Create” and thus a new theatre was born.
For some, relocating to Calgary might take some getting used to, but the way Grinhaus looks at it is, “If Toronto is supposed to be New York and Vancouver is L.A., Calgary is kind of like Chicago. It has this really enriched theatre community: the quality of talent, the openness, and the kindness.” For Grinhaus, Calgary is almost the perfect Goldilocks of a not-too-big but not-so-small city living. “I’m still getting used to the amount of driving but at least we get a lot more sun here.”
One other big change for Grinhaus is the smaller Jewish population compared to out east. But again, he isn’t concerned. “Being Jewish is a core part of who I am even if I’m not that much of a practicing Jew.” For him, Judaism is more cultural than religious from his family traditions to his pride in the resiliency of the community. “There is something very exciting about Jews and Judaism that I connect with and continue to fight for. We celebrate life and remember that it has a preciousness to it.”
Grinhaus also has advice for anyone who is thinking about getting involved in the art scene. “Never compare yourself to other people. The death in this business is a comparison. Recognize the little wins along the way because they can get you to that next step. Build your community, build your contacts, find the people you want to work with and hang around them. Do something for your art every single day, even if it’s going to an art gallery or watching a movie. Inspire yourself so that when you starve as an artist, which isn’t about food, by the way, it’s about missing the ability to do your art. That’s what will serve you in the end. And make sure you’re not waiting by the phone for someone to give you an opportunity, but you’re out there trying to make your own opportunities.”
By the time he got to Safeway, to see what was left on the shelves; he wanted to invite the community to see what Vertigo is up to. “It’s really an exciting place where we do plays of intrigue, mystery, suspense and thrillers. It’s a great place to go if you love the idea of chasing a story and figuring things out with really fast-paced thrills and kills. I would love it if people came and checked out one show just to test it out. I assure you, you will have a great time.”
You can check out their 2023/2024 season at https://www.vertigotheatre.com/
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