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Walking a Fine Line Through the Melting Pot : Corey Fischer says his theater troupe actors succeed in not 'losing our Jewishness.'


More than 40 years ago, Corey Fischer's parents owned a dry-cleaning shop next to the Thrifty drugstore at Laurel Canyon and Ventura boulevards. They traveled on, to a storefront on Ventura Place. Then the family moved again, to Palm Springs.

In fact, during Fischer's childhood, his family lived in Malibu, Paris, New York and various parts of Southern California. "There was so much moving around that I just have this generic sense of Southern California," says the writer, actor and storyteller.

So please forgive Fischer if his first-ever performance in the San Fernando Valley that he grew up in is not bringing a rush of memories and feelings.

"Sometimes We Need a Story More Than Food" serves as both the title and animating ethic of Fischer's solo work, appearing Sunday afternoon and evening at Pierce College's Performing Arts Pavilion. It marks the only theatrical event in the 1993 Los Angeles Festival occurring in the West Valley--the first West Valley staging, in fact, in any of the various L.A. arts festivals since 1984.

"Pierce has a lovely mid-sized theater," festival producer Linda Yudin said, "which is why we chose it. We also felt there wasn't a lot of (festival) programs in the Valley, and Pierce filled that gap, especially for the West Valley."

This is also the first L.A. festival appearance by the Bay Area-based A Traveling Jewish Theatre, which Fischer co-founded, with Albert Greenberg and Naomi Newman, in 1978. After Pierce, Fischer takes his work to the Museum of Tolerance Tuesday through Thursday. Then Greenberg's "The Real World: A Theatrical Confrontation With Music" appears at UCLA's Little Theatre Aug. 29 and 30 and Sept. 1 and 2.

This traveling Jewish performer happily says he has found a sense of place in his home in the redwood-dotted hills of Northern California's Mill Valley. (He also acknowledges, ironically, that he fears flying.)

"One could do some psychological sleuthing and find out when my passion for storytelling began," said Fischer, 48, "but the tales my father told me about his days as a stage manager on Broadway, the vaudeville circuit and the movies were the things that connected us--and when he stopped telling them, I could feel our connection begin to fray.

"This only shows to me what Barbara Meyerhoff--whose work, 'Number Our Days,' had a profound influence on me--said about how we create our experiences through telling stories."

Or, as Fischer says in his piece: "Sometimes, I have to tell the story of something that happened in order to understand it." The story becomes the event.

It's this unity that attracted the actor in Fischer to explore his storytelling capacity: "It came out of my work in theater because the two are so intimately connected. When I worked with Joseph Chaikin in his 'Winter Project,' which he formed after the breakup of his Open Theatre, we did Ted Hughes' version of 'Oedipus.' It was told as a story, a messenger reporting what happened. And here it was: the ordinary person who had witnessed the event, or been told about it, and can mediate it for the listener, embody it while taking all points of view."

Fischer's stories move from the ancient tales of 18th-Century Hasidism to witty retellings of Moses' conversations with God and on to an encounter with the legendary Golem in a Prague cemetery and conversations with his aging father. "From when I first performed this in 1991, and then refining it with my director Helen Stolzfus, I realized how much I've used from the past work of our company, even from the very first piece we did, 'Coming From a Great Distance.' "

Which leads to the question--why a Jewish theater, let alone a traveling one?

"We wanted to draw on what we felt was the deepest part of ourselves from which to create theater," Fischer said, "and we were drawn to explore what a contemporary Jewish theater would look like. There were no models and, in America, we remain unique. So we looked to stories as our source."

Fischer pauses when he considers how A Traveling Jewish Theatre has survived nearly 15 years--a long stretch for any theater company. "I don't know what has kept us together, because it hasn't been easy. Perhaps our willingness to change. We're walking a fine line, not losing our Jewishness in the melting pot while not falling into tribalism." That walk is the story of Fischer's show and, perhaps, of the entire festival.

Where and When What: "Sometimes We Need a Story More Than Food." Location: Pierce College Performing Arts Pavilion, 6201 Winnetka Ave., Woodland Hills. Hours: 2 and 8 p.m. Sunday only. Price: $15. Call: (800) 337-8849.

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