Seven Questions For: Mike Nussbaum

Mike  Nussbaum in Imagining MadoffMike Nussbaum is currently starring as Solomon Galkin in Theater J’s critically-acclaimed production of Imagining Madoff. He’ll also be speaking about his life and career working with David Mamet, Peter Brook, Roger Stephens and more on Monday night in the free program An Evening with Mike Nussbaum, Star of Stage and Screen. We sat down with him in his dressing room before a performance to ask him the seven questions.

1)    How would you describe what you do to someone from the 19th Century?
I’m sure they would be familiar with what I do. Stage actor today is the same as stage actor then. The technical aspect of what surrounds the actor has changed, but no performance.

2)    What did you want to be when you grew up?

An actor. I’ve wanted to be an actor since I was a child at camp. I went to Camp Ojibwa in Wisconsin and my first role was as a clown who introduced the show to the parents and visitors who were in the audience. I did a big cartwheel onto the stage and froze. I slunk off the stage crying. And the fact that I still wanted to be an actor after that is insane.

3)    Is there a book you’re embarrassed to admit you’ve never read?

I’ve never finished A Remembrance of Things Past.

4)    Woody Allen, Pro or Con?

Pro! I love Woody Allen. His most recent film about Paris is wonderful. I auditioned for him once and I was told before I went in, “Don’t look at Woody!” He also has a giant mirror that runs the entire length of a wall behind him and you’re told, “Don’t look at the mirror.” It’s kind of limiting. I didn’t get the part.

5)    What’s your favorite non-English word?

I guess the one I’m using in the play, “menschleichkeit.” It’s become a favorite. It means compassion.

6)    What issue do you wish other people knew more about?

At the moment I’m thinking about the attitude towards unions has become so harsh and there is a failure to remember the enormous good that unions have created in this country. Standards of living. Work rules. They created the middle class for God’s sake.

7)    Historical figure, living or not, that you’d want to share a bagel with and what kind of bagel?

Poppy seed! That’s my favorite. Right now I’d say Tony Judt, I’m reading his book Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945. He recently died; a brilliant writer, a polymath, linguist and his knowledge of the political world is so deep.

Read all of the Seven Question interviews.

Seven Questions For: Deb Margolin

Welcome to a new feature of The Blog at 16th & Q! Our team of writers, researchers, SEO aficionados, Google algorithm seers and Jewish social media machers were brought together at a secret underground bunker located in the sub-basement of the DCJCC to distill the seven most important questions ever. Over the next few months we will pose these questions to some of the fascinating and creative people who we bring to the J as part of our programming.

Our first subject is Deb Margolin, the playwright of Imagining Madoff, which has been enjoying sold-out previews at Theater J and has its press opening Tuesday night.

Deb Margolin1) How would you describe what you do to someone from the 19th Century?

I’m a playwright, and a teacher. You guys had people like that!

2) What did you want to be when you grew up?

Between the ages of 6 and 10, a physicist during the week and a ballerina on the weekends; between the ages of 11 and 13, a menstruating person; between the ages of 14 and 20, a blues musician; between the ages of 21 and 27, I wanted to be Henry Miller; thereafter, I wanted to be what I am now.

3) Is Is there a book you’re embarrassed to admit you’ve never read?


4) Woody Allen, Pro or Con?

con/pro i.e: I have enjoyed his cinematography, I have enjoyed moments of his comedy, like when he gestured with a record cover and the LP flew out of the jacket and smashed against the wall; his sense of vaudeville, and his sense of topography and culture, as in Vickie Cristina Barcelona. I did not think it was in particularly good taste for him to marry his partner’s daughter, and I have not enjoyed his portrayal of women in many cases. I’m confused as to why no Jewish women EVER appear in his movies.

5)What’s your favorite non-English word?

oiskedrait: Yiddish for messed up, confused. Literally translated: turned-out

6)What issue do you wish other people knew more about?

Misogyny, and its pervasive corrosion of world ethics.

7) Historical figure, living or not, that you’d want to share a bagel with and what kind of bagel?

Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. And I’m gluten-intolerant, so I’d buy him an everything bagel with scallion cream cheese, and I’d eat the scallion cream cheese.


You can learn more about Deb Margolin on her website or watch video of her talking  about the genesis of Imagining Madoff at our first rehearsal along with explanations of the set and costume design on the Theater J Blog. Deb and director Alexandra Aron will be participating in a post-show conversation following the Sunday, September 4 evening performance.

An Evening with Mike Nussbaum: Star of Stage and Screen

From Becky Peters, Director of Community Outreach and New Media at Theater J

For me – there are people who when they cross my path something tells me that I should drop what I am doing,  pull up a chair and listen to whatever they are willing to share.  Mike Nussbaum is one of those people.

Maybe it’s because as a fellow actor I am intrigued by his 50+ year resume as an actor/director and I can only imagine the stories that he has to share about the work he has done or the personalities he has come across.  Maybe it’s because when you meet Mr. Nussbaum there is a genuine warmth that fills the room.    Maybe it’s simply that the older I get the more I realize how much I still have to learn and as a gentleman who is nearing 90 and not quitting but instead in rehearsals right now for Imagining Madoff – he is someone I want to learn from.

I’m not entirely sure which intrigues me more.  But whatever the reason – I am grateful to have chance to see him work and hear him speak.   In addition to performing in the show we asked Mr Nussbaum if (on one of his nights off) he would let us all just pull up a chair and listen.  And thankfully he said yes.

And to paraphrase my grandmother – I am ready to put my “listening ears” on and settle in for what I think is going to be a pretty wonderful evening.   I do hope you will join me!

Mike Nussbaum*: A Life in the Theater (and on the Screen)
Monday, September 19th at 8:00 pm   FREE

Join Theater J for an evening of clips and conversations highlighting eminent Chicago actor Mike Nussbaum’s illustrious career in the films and plays of Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and screenwriter David Mamet, as well as Mike’s work with directors Peter Brook, Roger Stephens and countless other heralded productions over his half-century-long career.

An Excerpt of Recent Theater J Interview with Mike Nussbaum

TJ:  You have a rich history with playwright David Mamet, appearing in the original production of American Buffalo, and many more.  Can you share a particularly memorable experience from that collaboration?
MN: David and I were in a play together (written by Dick Cusack–father of the acting Cusacks)and I teased him about being such a bad actor. The next day he brought me a copy of “Duck Variations“, a beautiful play he had written, and I knew from that moment that he was a major talent.

TJ: When you look back on your formidable history in show business, what are some of the most valuable lessons you’ve learned?
MN: Most of what I’ve learned has come from watching other actors work. I am constantly amazed and thrilled by the quality and artistry of actors. I borrow shamelessly from the great ones.

TJ: You have been a major player in the Chicago theatre scene for some time now—how have you seen theatre in Chicago change over the years?
MN: When I started out over 50 years ago there were only New York touring companies in the downtown theatres–today Chicago has over 160 theaters of all sizes, doing inventive quality work by established and new playwrights (many of whom are Chicagoans) creative directors, and a huge, ever growing source of wonderful actors, all supported by the press, and an educated and demanding audience.

TJ: You are currently involved in a production of Broadway Bound, by Neil Simon—how is that going?
MN: It’s a 900 seat theater, and we’re drawing large audiences. Broadway Bound is a Neil Simon “dramady”, and most of what I do is comic. Getting the laugh is as good as it gets.

TJ: What else would you like the Washington, DC theatre community to know about you?
MN: My daughter and her family are long-time DC residents. It’s a major plus that I will get to spend a good long time with them. At least I hope they think so and don’t pitch me out after a few weeks.

TJ: Can you tell us a joke?
MN: The Frenchman says: “I’m tired. I’m thirsty. I must have wine!” The German says: “I’m tired. I’m thirsty. I must have beer!” The Jew says: “I’m tired. I’m thirsty. I must have diabetes”.

Reacting to Elie Wiesel’s Reaction to “Imagining Madoff”

by Francine Zorn Trachtenberg

Theater J has been in the crosshairs of the press in the past few weeks, the subject of a controversy between a playwright and a world citizen, with an artistic director caught in the middle.  The crux of the matter is two-pronged:  whether or not a public figure can be the subject of a work of fiction without his consent; and whether or not a community theater should ever bow to pressure in making artistic decisions.  Two heady issues, indeed, are on the table.  Let’s look at them one at a time.

A new play has been written by Deb Margolin titled, “Imaging Madoff.”   Madoff is of course the infamous Bernie Madoff, a.k.a. gonif of the Western World, who duped his friends as well as strangers, stole billions of dollars and upset the financial network of hundreds of families, foundations and social organizations around the world.  His escapades have come to symbolize chicanery and evil.  His misplaced sense of entitlement ruined lives, set back programs and epitomizes the phrase, “it is a shanda fur die goy”  – he is a Jew who did something embarrassing and wrong in front of non-Jews. 

The setting of the Margolin play is a fictional (made-up, never happened, imagined) encounter between Madoff and Elie Wiesel.  Mr. Wiesel, of course, is the most famous writer, thinker and spokesperson for understanding the Holocaust.  He has won the Nobel Prize.  He is a survivor.  He is the symbol of righteous indignation about all that is evil in the world and how to make wrong right.  He and Madoff are opposites, the extreme edges of morality. 

Ari Roth, the Washington DCJCC’s artistic director of Theater J read the play, liked it and placed it at the beginning of next season’s lineup.  Like almost everything Theater J presents, this play, Roth believed, would get people thinking and talking.  Theater J is known for its provocative productions. 

Ms. Margolin sent her script to Elie Wiesel.  She is proud of her work.  She believed her pairing of good vs. evil – Wiesel vs. Madoff – showed the Nobel Laureate in good light.  Mr. Wiesel, however, though a writer of fiction himself, took her play literally not figuratively and said in a letter back to Margolin, “This is not me.”  And then, with all the melodrama of the movie Casablanca, he went to say, “I am shocked, appalled and offended…”

Theater J and the playwright were stunned by Wiesel’s response.  The condemnation of this work and its pending public production is coming from a man who is the paragon of freedom, a man who in a concentration camp understood that his thoughts were always free from oppression.

There are a handful of public figures in the 20th century who life work commands the respect bestowed up Wiesel, including Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Menachem Mendel Schneerson and Mother Teresa.  These are individuals whose courage and/or ethical standing puts them in a category above most women and men.  If any one of them asked any one of us to look carefully at something, we would do so.  Their requests command respect. 

Elie Wiesel said, “I formally oppose it [the play] being performed any time in any venue.”  Strong words.  He got everyone’s attention.  He stopped production in its tracks.  For a brief moment, he left everyone speechless.  And then, in a whispering voice people said, “Wiesel said ‘no’ to the play.”  (In full disclosure, no specific person said that specific phrase – it is a made-up sentence to make a point).

What now should the theater and its artistic director do?

Ari Roth is not known as a shrinking violet.  He likes plays that are edgy.  He likes plays that arouse strong feelings and he likes the audience to ponder deep questions.   He is articulate and eloquent in his explanation of choices for Theater J.  He is not one to cut and run.  He enjoys debate, is good at confronting controversy and gets his “opponents” to hone their arguments and he can stand his ground with almost anyone. 

Why offend a paragon of virtue?  Ari Roth had to make a very difficult choice.  Should artistic freedom trump personal objection?  He had to step back from the rim of controversy and ponder if perhaps it isn’t the time to go forward with this particular play.   Roth is quoted as saying about Wiesel, “He’s had in our minds an overreaction,” and Roth is probably right.  Wiesel overreacted and the Washington DCJCC, rather than meeting him at the barricades of indignation, thought it best to let cooler heads prevail and move on to other plays. 

Does this mean Theater J has capitulated?  No it does not. 

Elie Wiesel will be 82 on his next birthday; his life is long and he has witnessed much, far too much at times.  After winning the Nobel Prize he established the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity whose “mission, rooted in the memory of the Holocaust, is to combat indifference, intolerance and injustice through international dialogue and youth-focused programs that promote acceptance, understanding and equality.”   The endowment funds supporting Wiesel’s foundation were decimated by Bernie Madoff; over night millions of dollars were lost.  Dreams disappeared.  Wiesel is once again pushing the rock up the hill.  The imagery is biblical. 

Ari Roth and Theater J and the Washington DCJCC decided that Elie Wiesel was allowed a little wiggle room.  Wiesel over-reacted.  No need for the rest of us to do the same. 

Ms. Trachtenberg is a past-president of the Washington DC Jewish Community Center. She is a former Senior Vice President at WETA and adjunct faculty member at the George Washington University’s art department, teaching the history of photography.


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