Playful plans New artistic director of WJT hopes to engage younger audiences, stage musicals

In 1997, the Asper Jewish Community Campus opened on Doncaster Street in Winnipeg. The next year, Dan Petrenko was born in Givatayim, an Israeli city east of Tel Aviv.

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In 1997, the Asper Jewish Community Campus opened on Doncaster Street in Winnipeg. The next year, Dan Petrenko was born in Givatayim, an Israeli city east of Tel Aviv.

About a quarter-century later, Petrenko and the JCC are due to meet: he is the new artistic director of the Winnipeg Jewish Theatre, housed at the campus’s Berney Theatre.

At just 24 years old, Petrenko is the youngest person to hold that position in the WJT’s history, and the youngest current artistic director of a company in the Professional Association of Canadian Theatres.

The Four Questions

WFP: What is your favourite Jewish food?

DP: I’m going to be boring here: I like gefilte fish. By itself. I’m not a fan of horseradish.

Who is your favourite Jewish writer?

Let’s go with Hannah Moscovitch (whose Old Stock just wrapped up its WJT run.) She’s my favourite Canadian Jewish playwright.

What’s your favourite Jewish holiday?

I love Shavuout. because I love everything dairy. (A custom of the holiday is to consume dairy). Ice cream, yogurt, anything. I know many Jewish people struggle with dairy, but I love dairy.

How does being Jewish relate to your approach to theatre?

To me, being Jewish is linked with telling stories. Whether sitting around the seder table or for Shabbat, we always like to tell stories… Storytelling, and remembering, and passing stories on, is really what being Jewish means to me. Even at the synagogue, we attend a couple of times a year, stories are so prevalent. Telling stories in order to remember. My rabbi also likes to tell jokes.

“That’s what I’ve been told,” he says over the phone.

Petrenko’s journey to Winnipeg — like many of the city’s newcomers, Jewish and otherwise — has been carried out along a winding road. His family originated in the city of Odesa, where the Petrenkos remained until the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. When the U.S.S.R. collapsed, Petrenko’s parents fled to Israel, where the family lived until the dawn of the second war with Lebanon in 2006; with a rise in violence, the Petrenkos migrated to Toronto.

“My parents made two immigrations in their lifetime and had to start over twice,” says Petrenko. “I am very fortunate they were so brave.”

In Toronto, Petrenko took a keen interest in theatre; the production that spurred his obsession was The Phantom of the Opera. “Not exactly Jewish,” he says.

But not exactly not. Manitoba playwright John Hirsch called even the works of Brecht, Chekhov and Shakespeare “Jewish” plays “because of their proximity to life’s essentials.” That is to say that a story told properly can have a reach that far exceeds the niche of its teller: a human story is a human story.

Petrenko’s first foray into creative work used his own family as source material, and at age 16, he mounted his first production, a one-act drama called Train for Two. “I wrote the very first iteration not knowing how to write a play,” he says.

The theatre bug bit him at J Academy, a Jewish summer camp in Ontario that catered to Jewish people with Russian-speaking backgrounds. After camp ended, Petrenko made connections with the the UJA Federation of Greater Toronto, an organization serving the city’s Jewish community.

Soon, Train for Two was produced at a Toronto Jewish community centre, and the UJA’s president approached Petrenko to say he wanted to support his work.

By 19, Petrenko had started the Olive Branch Theatre, a non-profit Jewish theatre company. After that, he completed a master’s degree in drama, theatre and performance at the University of Toronto.

While working on that degree, Petrenko wrote a 30-page research report on the Winnipeg Jewish Theatre, which was founded in 1987. Petrenko was impressed by the theatre’s exciting approaches to Jewish storytelling.

“A lot of my experience with Jewish theatre had been very binary: either related to the Holocaust/post-Holocaust era, or about the Israeli-Arab conflict,” says Petrenko. What he saw the WJT doing was addressing contemporary issues that bridged communities and cultural groups. “That’s something I’d like to explore.”

Petrenko, who succeeds Ari Weinberg to become the organization’s sixth artistic director, has other ideas. His main goal is to get a younger audience engaged in the Jewish theatre scene.

“I know I can do that, because I am a part of the generation,” he says confidently. That’s undoubtedly a reason the WJT’s board approached him.

As far as performance choices go, Petrenko is a devotee of musical theatre. “I think it’s one of the most Jewish art forms,” he says. “There’s something very Jewish about the heightened drama and comedy of musical theatre. So I intend to have a musical in every season.”

Every season including winter. “I heard some horror stories about Winnipeg winters, not that Toronto winters are particularly mild,” he says.

But he is not afraid. “My inbox has been full of messages of kind welcomes from the Jewish community, including complete strangers offering to pick me up at the airport and have me for Shabbat dinner.” (Have him for Shabbat dinner? That doesn’t sound kosher.)

Petrenko is currently in London, but is set to make his Winnipeg debut in February, a few weeks before the theatre’s première of Winnipeg playwright Daniel Thau-Eleff’s Narrow Bridge in March.

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Ben Waldman

Ben Waldman

Ben Waldman covers a little bit of everything for the Free Press.


Updated on Tuesday, November 29, 2022 11:40 AM CST: Changes to Dan from Daniel

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