by CARMEN SIERING
The Jewish Theatre of Bloomington was founded 15 years ago by Audrey Heller and Bakol Ruben Geller, and while Rubin Geller departed for Israel several years ago, Heller is still going strong. She can’t imagine not being involved in theater.
“It all started when I was a kid,” says the group’s artistic director. “I got the bug and I loved it.” In high school, she and her friends formed a theater company that lasted several years. “And from there, wherever I was, I was involved in theater.”
A native of Malden, Massachusetts, Heller was part of the first integrated theater company in New England, in the Boston area.
“That was in the late ’40s and ’50s,” she says. “The theater company was mostly African American, maybe 30% white. It was so long ago, I can’t remember what the audience was like, but I have a feeling it was mostly African American. And my friends.”
While theater has always been a part of her life, it is her avocation. Heller is a clinical assistant professor emerita at Indiana University. She taught for 20 years in the Department of Speech and Hearing Sciences, retiring in 1996.
She came to Bloomington in 1962 when her husband, Ken, began teaching in the Psychology Department at IU. That was after the young couple had spent a three- year stint at the University of North Dakota.
“It was okay, but the winters were horrible,” Heller says with a laugh. “I met the guy in charge of the university radio station, so I had two radio programs. That sort of kept my sanity. I took an oil painting class. And I had a little baby.”
That baby was the couple’s first daughter, Caroline. They later had two other children, Dan and Emily.
In Bloomington, Heller spent 20 years as producing artistic director for Diversity Theatre, a group sponsored by the City of Bloomington Community and Family Resources Department. She also performed as a puppeteer with Puck Players Puppet Theater.
Heller says that from the start, Jewish Theatre plays have been selected to address universal themes as well as issues of Jewish life. “Substantive issues,” she says. “We’ve done plays about anti-Semitism, the Holocaust, the McCarthy hearings.” Plays frequently reflect the current political climate; Cherry Docs, performed last May, addressed white supremacy.
When she discusses the success of the Jewish Theatre, Heller gives credit to the audiences who support its productions. “At least 40% of our audience is non- Jewish,” Heller says. “We couldn’t have sustained ourselves if it was just the Jewish community because it’s a very small community. We had a lot of nerve starting this.”
But she’s very proud of what they started. “There are many Jewish theaters in this country, but we’re the only one in a city this small,” she says. “And we’re the only one in Indiana.”