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AIRing their views

JCC Maccabi ArtsFest™ Artists in Residence share their takeaway

Every year JCC Maccabi ArtsFest teen participants work with professional Artists in Residence (AIRs) in their chosen arts specialty. JCC Association works very closely with each host community to identify and select the right combination of new and returning AIRs to maximize the experience. “Curating the team of Artists in Residence each summer is a bit of an art in itself”, says Randy Ellen Lutterman, vice president of arts and culture and director of JCC Maccabi ArtsFest for JCC Association, “I am looking for that perfect alchemy of excellence: I need returning AIRs who bring expertise, passion and experience, and I seek new creative talent to infuse our program with fresh eyes, and energy. The right balance means unparalleled access to excellence for our creative Jewish teens.”


Eric Gutman and Lisa Melinn were first-time Artists in Residence at JCC Maccabi ArtsFest in Detroit in 2014. And both couldn’t have been more excited with how things went – and that they’re returning this summer for another go-round in Ft. Lauderdale August 9-14.

Gutman, a talented Broadway performer and film actor, is best known for performing almost three years in the Tony Award winning play, “Jersey Boys.” He will be a returning AIR for the Musical Theater specialty at ArtsFest. Melinn, a Second City Alum who performs regularly in regional theaters, teaches acting and improve to students in the Detroit area is a returning AIR for Acting/Improv. JCC Circle Monthly caught up with both to get their insider view of JCC Maccabi ArtsFest.

What did you expect going into ArtsFest last year?

EG: I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into. … It was unbelievable, challenging in such a good way. The kids came together so quickly and so beautifully. They worked so hard. We taught them three numbers in three days, really difficult harmonies and some difficult staging and these kids just got it.

LM: You know, I didn’t really have expectations. I grew up in West Bloomfield, Mich., which has a large Jewish community and I was aware of the JCC Maccabi Games™, but I was never an athlete, so I was really excited that ArtsFest was happening. I would have been so excited to have participated growing up!

Were there any surprises?

EG: I had quite a surprise! I had two guys and four girls, and on Thursday-our tech and performance day – one of the guys walked in on crutches! He’d had a hangout the night before and was showing off for some girls and jumped off the stairs and broke his foot. We were performing that afternoon and within two hours I had to restage his number. And yet, they were such an amazing group, they’re not seasoned pros, they’re 12- to 17-year-olds. And they came together so beautifully.

LM: Oh, my gosh, that’s why I love teaching acting to young teens and high school age students. The first moments you have with them in class, you try to size them up, who is the expert, who can handle large roles. By the end of the week…they all blew me away with how poised and polished they were in the Final Showcase.

What did you take away from it?

LM: If only the parents knew how much I get out of teaching their kids and teens, I would be thanking them. I love creating that fast and furious bond. Most non-theater adults would be surprised by how much it revives me, and my spirit and helps my creative drive and motivation working with them.

EG: I’ve directed kids this age before, but I’ve had two months to put something together. [ArtsFest] was a really nice challenge for me; it was a way to get focused in a way I had not before. I’ve never had to do something this fast. And it’s large and there are hundreds, if not thousands of kids across the country, if not world, coming together for this wonderful event, whether for the sports or arts, and it was really special to me.

What do you hope your teens got out of it?

EG: I hope they understand professional theater a bit more. I certainly ran it like that. I wasn’t coddling them or babying them. Some of them might want to do this in college or professionally and this was really good training for them, in one crazy, intense week.

LM: I always tell my kids on the first day that it’s OK to fail. In school, they have so much pressure to succeed and keep up their grade point average. Some of them come at their creative endeavors daunted and overwhelmed and I tell them “you are free to fail and we will celebrate it as much as your success.”

How did you incorporate the Jewish aspects of ArtsFest into your specialty?

LM: In addition to the midot values (six core Jewish values stressed throughout the JCC Maccabi Games and ArtsFest for which participants can be awarded medals) there was a focus on the theme of kindness. It took me back to being a Jewish teen and going to Jewish overnight and JCC camps. It’s so ingrained in us to do mitzvahs, that tikkun olam (repair the world) part of us. …When I would give feedback and critiques and open it up to the other teens, it became such a wonderful tool for growing self esteem and giving compliments to their fellow actors. They learned how to take care of each other.

EG: Last year’s theme was “kindness: and so I centered two of my songs about kindness, friendship and togetherness. Everybody had to work that kindness in the back of their heads the whole time; it was kind of nice having a something to bring it all together.

What are you looking forward to this year?

EG: I’m looking forward to doing some different songs, more challenging vocally and some different staging. I want to take it up a notch.

LM: I’m excited to start from zero again, and am hoping to get some kids who aren’t very improv savvy or who haven’t been on stage before. Watching them gain that self-esteem is why want to work with kids and why I’m so excited.

JCC Maccabi ArtsFest really focuses on midot values and it’s very much a Jewish-centered kind of support for each other. They were all there for each other 100 percent of the time.

Lutterman adds, “It’s thrilling when a first time Artist in Residence re-joins the ArtsFest family and becomes a returning AIR. We are strengthened every time our creative family grows like this, and our teens reap the benefits!”

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