Rachel Rosenthal wants you to follow your fear. The comedian, improv performer and rapper says she applies that basic principle of improv to her work, as well as to her life. “When we do things that are exciting there’s always this fear that comes with it,” Rosenthal said in a recent interview with JewishBoston.
Rosenthal’s fear has recently led her to write and act in a new solo show, “Rites,” a retrospective of her 1992 bat mitzvah. The show has its Boston debut at Improv Boston on Saturday night, May 14. Rosenthal’s Boston appearance will be a homecoming of sorts. She lived in the Boston area for almost a decade and regularly performed at Improv Boston. “After I graduated college, New York City was too big and too crazy,” she says. “I moved to Boston on a whim and thought I’d stay for a year or two. But I got into the community at Improv Boston and grew so much as a performer there. After 10 years, it was time for me to try something different. New York City was a good career move. Of course I live in Brooklyn, where it’s getting to be more expensive than Manhattan, so it’s quite confusing.”
“Rites” is Rosenthal’s first solo show and one that she expressly wrote last November for SOLOCOM—a solo comedy festival. She notes: “I challenged myself to do the show. I knew I wouldn’t write and commit to it unless there was some sort of deadline. It was the perfect opportunity and the show came together in just two months.” The first half of “Rites” centers on Rosenthal at 13 and then segues to her adult persona. “I explore what it means to be a woman,” she says, “and the idea of womanhood. [That idea] changes every day depending on where you are in your life.”
Rosenthal grew up in Stamford, Conn., in the house where her parents still live. “We weren’t super religious,” she says, “but we attended a Conservative synagogue and my grandparents kept kosher. We were very culturally Jewish, and Passover was the most important family holiday for us. We had seders at my grandparents’ house that would last forever. They were epic.”
After her bat mitzvah, Rosenthal struck a bargain with her father to get out of attending any more Hebrew school. “My dad said if I read ‘Exodus’ I didn’t have to go,” she says. “I thought he was talking about the Exodus of the bible, but he meant the novel by Leon Uris. I did end up reading the book and loved it. That was how I finagled my way out of Hebrew school after my bat mitzvah.”
Rosenthal was involved in theater and music from an early age, but her life in improv took off when her parents signed her up for a class. She was just 11 years old. “I was quite young for improv,” she says. “Most people usually get into it in college, but I was a good sport about it. I was also in the right place at the right time. I started doing sketch comedy at the Curtain Call in Stamford.” It turns out that Rosenthal had found her calling, performing and writing original material with various improv groups through high school.
At Ithaca College, Rosenthal majored in film and production, and minored in theater. “I was afraid to major in theater,” she says. “I didn’t want to wait on people my whole life.” After she graduated, Rosenthal turned her sights to comedy and acting at the Peoples Improv Theater in New York City. She currently teaches classes there, as well as performs every Saturday night with North Coast, a group of fellow improv performers. She also shares her love of improv with copywriting students at a small advertising college in Manhattan, as well as with corporate clients intent on communicating more effectively and building leadership skills.
Writing, performing and producing “Rites” has been a demanding experience for Rosenthal. “I’m used to doing improv,” she says. “I’ve been doing it since I was a kid. Although I’ve done original material, I’ve never been completely on my own, so that’s been a huge challenge. But after I did the first show, I felt empowered. The show is something that is mine and that feels new and different.”
And an idea for a new solo show is brewing. “I want to write about my heinous dating escapades,” she shares. “Every woman in New York City has those stories, and I’ve been compiling good ones. I even started working on a web series based on them. Single Jewish women will definitely relate. We’ve all been set up with someone just because he breathes and he’s Jewish.”
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