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Northwestern faculty, alumni discuss their roles in Indecent at Victory Gardens

Talk to any Northwestern alumni working in the performing arts and you’ll hear a familiar refrain: Wildcats are everywhere.

The School of Communication community celebrated this ubiquity with a viewing October 11 of the play Indecent at Chicago’s Victory Gardens Theatre—a show packed with purple people—and a Q&A with faculty and alumni artists that followed. The event was sponsored by EPICS.

Indecent, a 2017 Tony Award-nominated play written by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Paula Vogel, tells the riveting story of the controversial 1923 Broadway debut of Jewish playwright’s Sholem Asch’s play God of Vengeance. The work centered on a lesbian romance—taboo at the time—and audiences reacted with both delight and contempt. Asch was warned by mentors that the play, featuring complex and flawed Jewish characters, would encourage discrimination against Jewish people. During its debut at the Apollo Theatre in New York, it won notoriety for offering the first on-stage lesbian kiss on Broadway. After six short weeks of production, the cast and crew were arrested and eventually convicted on charges of obscenity.

From left, Andrew White, Matt Deitchman, Noah LaPook, Mara Blumenfeld

“Before this production, I had not known about this play, [God of Vengeance],” said Cindy Gold, theatre professor, and who played the role of “The Elder,” among others. “He only wrote the one play, and much of what you see really happened. He really felt terrible at the end of his life, because he really did feel, as was said in the play, that he ‘poured petrol on the flames of antisemitism.’”

Gold was flanked by Northwestern alumni Matt Deitchman (C12), Noah LaPook (C18), Catherine LeFrere (C08), Andrew White (C87) and costume designer Mara Blumenfeld (C92), all involved in the production. The panel took questions from audience members about their roots at Northwestern and how networking had led them to the project.

“The ‘purple mafia’ runs deep,” said LaPook, who graduated from the School of Communication in June and got the role when Gold recommended he audition. “It’s a beautiful thing.”

“I felt so bad for the people in the cast who didn’t go to Northwestern,” joked LeFrere, as five out of nine actors had connections to the University. “I think they felt like outsiders.”

White talked about how much of his experience in college influenced his professional life. “There’s so much latitude when you go to Northwestern,” he said. “You can do the regular shows, yes, but you can also make up your own show and perform that. We’re encouraged to be actors, writers, designers… and we all wear those hats. That cultivation of a try-anything approach is a common thread for all Northwestern graduates.”

Blumenfeld agreed. “We have the same foundational commonalities,” she said. “It’s all about how we approach the why and how of telling a story.”

Gold joked that while she applied to Northwestern, she was not accepted. “But what I really love about Northwestern now, is how they really support me doing this work, and it’s often with my students,” she said. “Lately, I’ve even begun to audition for former students as well.”

The cast also discussed the importance of music in the play, which had original compositions blended throughout the production. LeFrere said her experience as a theatre student and as a participant in the Music Theatre Certificate program helped her become a versatile actor who could take on more roles.

“I might work in a play one month and then a musical the next,” she said. “Most actors are forced to choose one or the other, but I’ve become an actor who sings.”

Indecent included several songs performed by the cast, often in other languages, including Yiddish.

The play also tackled other complex issues such as immigration, American identity, and the Holocaust. At the end of the play, most of the original cast and crew of God of Vengeance perished at the hands of Nazis. Symbolically, the two fictional female characters of God of Vengeance escaped, as the play lives on today.

“I think it tells us that the art we make will outlive all of us, so why not invest in that?” said Mattie Voorheis, a student in the Masters of Science in Leadership in the Creative Enterprises program (MSLCE), who attended the show and the discussion that followed. “I loved this play. It touched on a lot of important issues like censorship, controlling culture, and how that influences what we see and hear.”

Indecent runs at Victory Gardens through November 4.

By Cara Lockwood