The Joys and Rewards of Collaborative Theater-Making


Bess Welden’s play Madeleines wins 2022 National Jewish Playwriting Contest

As winner of the Jewish Playwriting Contest, playwright Bess Welden said she feels supported as an artist and connected to a large and vibrant Jewish cultural community.
By Laura MeaderPhotography by Gabe Souza
July 6, 2022

A new play by playwright Bess Welden has won the 11th Annual National Jewish Playwriting Contest. Sponsored by the New York-based Jewish Plays Project, the award recognizes Welden’s thought-provoking Madeleines and its nuanced exploration of how fractured relationships can be healed. 

Madeleines portrays a family of Jewish women finding ways to love each other through shared grief and the solace of baking. It’s a “beautiful, poetic, and theatrically original play,” said David Winitsky, artistic director of the Jewish Plays Project. “Her play is a deeply felt Jewish women’s story at a moment when that is more vital than ever.” 

Poster design by Nori Hilton

As contest winner, Madeleines will receive a workshop reading in New York City in the spring of 2023. Additionally, Welden has been invited to present about her creative work at the Limmud Festival in England, a Jewish learning and culture conference.

“It’s a very serious foot in the door,” said Welden, a lecturer in Colby’s Department of Performance, Theater, and Dance and an award-winning playwright

To select the winning play, the Jewish Plays Project used an innovative vetting process involving staged readings of the seven contest finalists. More than 1,400 voters across the country and in Israel chose Madeleines as this year’s best new play.

As a playwright with regional success, Welden said it was exciting to receive feedback from people throughout the country. Madeleines and her play Refuge Malja ملجأ, have both been previous finalists in the playwriting contest. Last year her Death Wings won the Maine State Prize in the Clauder Competition for New England Playwrights and was also named a Eugene O’Neill Theater Center’s 2020 New Play Conference semi-finalist.

Infused with poetry, Yiddish, and Spanish, Madeleines centers on a family recipe for French teacakes called madeleines, which the matriarch has adapted to be kosher for Passover. In the wake of their mother’s death, two sisters discover a heart-wrenching family secret embedded in the recipe. This discovery shifts them from conflict toward true kinship.

The play is ultimately about how families communicate and how keeping secrets can harm those we love the most, said Welden.

Madeleines exemplifies Welden’s fascination with this “big, big question of inherited grief and trauma.” Called epigenetic inheritance, it’s the concept that a parent’s experiences can be passed to their children. Although a relatively new topic to discuss, Welden noted that it’s been part of Jewish cultural history for a long time, specifically relating to the Holocaust. 

By exploring epigenetic inheritance as a Jew, Welden is increasing her own empathy for other people who have experienced those sorts of legacies in their lives and lineage. Welden gravitates toward Jewish themes in her creative process in general as an expression of her Jewish identity and her questions about what it means to be a Jew today. 

“With the increase of anti-Semitism and the erasure of Jewish ideas in our culture … it’s important to share Jewish stories to remind people that we’re still here and living our lives, grappling with lots of questions and problems.”

Playwright Bess Welden

“We want to celebrate and feel joyful about who we are and what our culture is.”

Welden began writing Madeleines in 2015 and has stuck with it through multiple iterations because she believes in the story. “It matters to me, and I feel strongly that it matters to other people.” Her persistence in improving the script reflects her drive to learn and grow as an artist.

This spring, Madeleines was developed with Portland Stage Company, where Welden is an affiliate artist, as part of the Little Festival of the Unexpected, the company’s new-work development program. And last fall, Colby’s Department of Performance, Theater, and Dance sponsored a professional artist residency for Welden to further develop the play.

Welden is also currently a member of the Creative Community Fellows: New England Cohort with the Washington, D.C.-based organization National Arts Strategies. The fellowship provides leadership training for 25 artists working at the intersection of arts, culture, and social change. As a fellow, Welden is expanding her Death Wings project to create spaces for open dialogs about death, loss, and grief.

“Winning the National Jewish Playwriting Contest is a really a big deal for me,” Welden reflected. “But most importantly, it’s a real testament to … all of the artists who have contributed to getting the play where it is. Because even in development, theater-making is a collaborative process.

“That’s what brings me joy—being in that creative space with other people.”