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COMEDY | Weekend Chat

Re-Creating Vaudeville Is Shticky Business


Let's get this straight--er, whatever. Sara Felder is a Jewish, lesbian, juggling, comic theater artist.

And she speaks a little Yiddish too.

Her solo show "June Bride," about her traditional Jewish lesbian wedding, toured for about two years, including a run at Highways. Now the San Francisco-based Felder is in Los Angeles to give four performances of her latest show, "Shtick!," for Yiddishkayt!, the biannual festival of Yiddish culture. It's a solo comedy about a cross-dressing vaudevillian from Warsaw and a modern performance artist in love with Yiddish.

Question: Did you learn Yiddish growing up?

Answer: I didn't learn Yiddish growing up, though my parents spoke it in the home and I grew up in a community in Brooklyn where Yiddish was spoken on the street. My parents often fought in Yiddish. It was actually hard not to learn Yiddish, since I was surrounded by it, but I didn't want to know what they were talking about.

I also heard a lot of songs in Yiddish . . . and lots of jokes. They would often tell the jokes in English, but the punch line would be in Yiddish. I would never understand the joke, which is, I'm sure, why I do comedy today--because I want to get the punch line.

I have learned some since at Yivo, the Institute of Yiddish Culture in New York. They have a course at Columbia.

Q: Why is there so much Yiddish in jokes?

A: You can turn on Rosie O'Donnell and you hear Yiddish phrases every day. It's really become the language of humor, and that's how it crept into American culture. It's not a great surprise, since many of the great comedy writers were Yiddish speakers and Jewish, like Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks.

It is said that minority cultures use humor as a survival tool, so you find humor in oppressed cultures. I think that's true. Oppressed people have an innate sense of irony.

Q: When did you learn to juggle?

A: I learned to juggle in L.A., of all places, if I can make a local connection, at UCLA. I took a class--not a regular class, but through the university--and I loved it. It was fun and I was good at it. It was dangerous. I like the sound of balls in my hands, the patterns objects create in space. It appealed to my sense of math and beauty and music.

When I'm writing my new plays . . . there's a sign on my computer that says, "It's the juggling, stupid." I keep going further away from it, and then I think, that's my language. Juggling is my best language.

Q: Did you research Yiddish theater and vaudeville to create "Shtick!"?

A: I researched and I made up. I created this character . . . a turn-of-the-century immigrant vaudevillian who likes to cross-dress. Her struggle is trying to be a real American. And through the course of her shtick also is discovering her sexuality.

It's kind of a duet between [her] and a contemporary performance artist who's at peace with her Americanism and sexuality. And her struggle is to find her place in Yiddish culture and Judaism.

Q: You've said you're working to establish a gay Yiddish culture. Explain that a little.

A: Part of what it is is discovering a Yiddishkayt [things of and about Yiddish] that's relevant to who we are today. So I don't just have to go back in time to learn Yiddish, but I can bring it forward and . . . transform it into a living, breathing modern sensibility.

I also have a responsibility to learn Yiddish culture and pass it on. And help it evolve. That was the most liberating thing for me--that I didn't have to take my shoes off and tiptoe around Yiddish culture like a tourist. I can claim it. I can find its authenticity as a modern queer American Jewish artist.

They say TV killed vaudeville, and now 50 years later, we're totally saturated with television. And I hope that there is--for me, anyway--a need to go back to find out what was great about these live-theater elements of vaudeville.


Sarah Felder's "Shtick!" at the Village at Ed Gould Plaza, 1125 McAllen Place, Hollywood. Tonight and Friday at 8 p.m. Sunday at 3 and 7 p.m. $15, $18. (323) 860-7300.

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