Lisa Grunberger always wanted to do a one-woman show. After writing the down-to-earth novel Yiddish Yoga about Ruthie, a recently-widowed Jewish grandmother turned amateur yogi, theater was the natural next step for an awaited sequel to the popular tale. Juggling book tours and a new baby, Lisa swiftly developed the play (also called Yiddish Yoga) that is premiering at this year’s Fringe Festival.
Ruthie, played by actress Susan Moses, is not of the buff, beautiful, botox-ed variety; Lisa developed the candid seventy-two-year-old character partially to poke fun at the pretension of authenticity typical of yoga circles. Delightfully smearing in matter-of-fact Yiddish phrases, the play starts where her book left off, continuing her reality check on the constant stream of new-age spiel and her practice in yoga, compassion, and love.
FringeArts: What’s the larger story behind the play and the book?
Lisa Grunberger: So here I have a freshly-minted Ph.D in philosophy and comparative religion, and I’m a poet and a performer, and I saw no jobs for those positions. I was waitressing and I was adjunct teaching at Hofstra University. And what’s the class I’m teaching? Life, Death, and Immortality. Here I had all this death around me: my dog had died, my great-aunt had died, my grandmother had died, my mother had died, and my father had died all within five years.
I started to take yoga classes with this guy Michael at the New York Sports Club, and that was like my church, my synagogue. Michael inspired me and said, “You could teach yoga. You’re really good at this.” So then I went on to get my yoga certification, and I think I started teaching thirteen, fourteen years ago, to deal with loss.
The book is me dealing with the loss of everybody. I was living in my childhood house that I grew up in, so one day I cleared the living room of all the old furniture–we’re talking old–and turned it into a yoga studio. So it was really about me reinventing and transforming myself, saying, “I have this Ph.D, but I’m maybe not going to get a full-time teaching job. Then there’s becoming a yoga teacher, then waitressing, doing all these different things to piece together a life.”
FringeArts: Where does the second installment of Ruthie’s story come in?
Lisa Grunberger: At the end of the first book, Ruthie is done with her resistance to yoga, she doesn’t think it’s going to brainwash her too much, and she decides to do her yoga teacher training. So in the second book, which then becomes this play and was never published as a book, she goes to the Catskills. It’s like a New Age yoga “yuppie bootcamp,” and she goes there and it resumes the story of her and Walter, a love interest that starts in the first book.
FringeArts: How does this translate from book to play?
Lisa Grunberger: It’s an ordeal to get from the page from the stage. It’s different, audiences are different than readers. I didn’t write it as an inspirational manual, but you can’t control how readers will find it. Readers can read it over six months, a show is one hour. I have one hour with Ruthie to “seduce” the audience. You can put a book down . . . you can’t just not be interested in the show in the same way. When you translate a character, you’re gonna meet a slightly different Ruthie. It’s gonna be Susan Moses’s interpretation, the director’s interpretation, my interpretation, it’s like a tzimmes!
Update: Yiddish Yoga will be postponed for Fringe 2014, as an actress was given a surprise birthday trip just yesterday. Look out for Lisa Grunberger’s soft opening, which will be announced in the coming months