Wearing multiple hats for her new show, Michaela Shuchman ’16 has been having two kinds of days: those when she thinks, “Oh my goodness, all these people put their trust in me to make something amazing!” and those when she thinks, Oh my goodness, all these people put their trust in me to make something amazing.
“It can be a little scary,” laughs Shuchman, who as actor/producer had to shepherd her vision for the play and find the right director and fellow actors. “It’s been something of a vertical learning curve, but I feel so lucky and honored that all of these incredible people said yes.”
This passion project, Behold Her, examines perceptions of Jewish beauty through the ages. It debuts tonight at the Philadelphia Fringe Festival, at which Swarthmore alumni, students, and faculty are once again well-represented.
Collaborating on Behold Her are Josie Ross ’21, of Excelsior, Minn., as an actor; Yoshi Nomura, who took theater at Swarthmore before graduating from Haverford last year, in lighting and set design; and Laila Swanson, assistant professor of theater, in costume design.
Additionally, Swift Shuker ’14 is managing lights for several main festival shows; Tyler Elliott ’15 is performing in a new musical at the Philly Improv Theater; and Josh McLucas ’15 is one of the leads of the queer werewolf ensemble Wolfcrush.
Although this is McLucas’s third year with the festival, his connection runs much deeper. While at Swarthmore, he would take the train into the city and risk precious dollars on shows he knew little about—sometimes sprinting from one to another.
“Fringe season is a time for artists to take their biggest risks, dare the hardest, and make the scrappiest work they possibly can—not for audience numbers, but to make work reflective of their truth,” says McLucas. “I’ve seen epic failures and great success, but the sheer ambition of artists in the Fringe Festival is unmatched.”
The festival turns the arts community into a “collaborative ecosystem,” he adds, and casts the entire city as an arts venue. It can also be a springboard for young artists creating professional pieces together (as it was for Pig Iron Theatre Company, founded by Swarthmore alums) and an unparalleled showcase of diversity.
“There’s absolutely no other time of the year where there is as much queer, trans, person of color, or female representation at the same time, mostly thanks to those artists making work for themselves,” says McLucas. “I have been incredibly lucky to spend my festivals in work that tells stories not told elsewhere.”
Shuchman had long wanted to create a piece about Jewish women—something that felt true to her upbringing and identity. A fortuitous encounter connected her to the playwright Arden Kass, who agreed to bring her concept to the page.
Shuchman’s vision also resonated with Ross, who had worked on a Fringe Festival production in Minneapolis focused on the intersectionality of Jews of color. Ross seized the opportunity to collaborate with the Swarthmore alumna and faculty member in a professional setting.
“Working with a team of strong, creative, wildly talented artists in the Philadelphia community is an experience I thought I would never receive during undergrad,” she says.
Ross joins seven other women, of various generations, for the play. Together, they’re exploring the ways that conceptions of Jewish beauty have changed—or not—over the years, with their personal perspectives making their way into the piece, says Shuchman.
On top of her producer role, Shuchman is the lead actress for Behold Her. She brings to life an eclectic cast of characters, from Queen Esther to Hedy Lamarr, Emma Lazarus to Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
“It’s a mad dash, running from character to character,” Shuchman says, “not to mention all of the different costumes; I’m not sure [Swanson] quite knew what she was getting into!”
The show runs through Sept. 23, in the Dell Theater of the National Museum of American Jewish History. Shuchman is eager to perform there and “channel all of these stories of Jewish women in the building.” But she will ultimately look back on the experience as one of personal connection.
“This piece feels the most me,” Shuchman says. “It’s rare to feel such an incredible connection with a piece and the entire process and every person involved.”