Kayla Gordon

My Story...

I discovered my Jewish pride in 1991 at a sweat lodge ceremony in Norway House, Manitoba. An unlikely place, but a moment in time that re-shaped my career and opened my eyes to the beauty of Jewish life.

In my youth, I did the whole BBYO, USY, and YMHA thing, and went to Camp Massad and BB Camp, too — but never wore my Yiddishkeit on my sleeve until that awakening moment when a First Nations elder invited me to say a blessing over wine in the lodge. He expected something Christian, but all I could muster up was a good old "boray pri ha'gafen", much to the elder's delight.

I was in Norway House with my West Kildonan Collegiate students as we worked together with local students on a theatre and cultural exchange project between our two schools. My opening up about being Jewish sparked a rich discussion about culture, rituals, and values. Through the project, we developed an original play entitled Tangled Souls. It received the Governor General's Award, and later became the basis for my master's thesis. My life, which began in 1959 in Winnipeg, was about to take a change.

My parents are Ralph and Ethel Gordon (née Malian), who continue to live in Winnipeg. My father was the son of Sam Gordon (Gordon used to be Komas) of Vilna, and Nettie (née Schweid) of Austria. My mother was the daughter of Fivel Malian (formerly Trachtenberg) and Sarah (née Widergorn) — both of Bessarabia. I had a very special relationship with Sarah — my Baba "Sally" — and I've been told I inherited her spunk and chutzpah. The story goes that when the Cossacks came to her parents' home one night to arrest her father, her mother, thinking quickly, shared a stash of liquor from their cellar until the unwanted visitors stumbled out drunk, forgetting to take her husband.

I had a great childhood with my parents and my brothers, Marshall and Sherwin. We went on ski trips as a family, camping trips in Europe, and you could always find us on a tennis court. Aside from the few weeks I spent at summer camp, we were always at the family cottage at Falcon Lake where putting on little plays with my friends was a favourite activity. By the age of 15, I would spend my summers working at Falcon, including time as a chambermaid at the Eleanor Hotel and a clerk at Shop Easy.

My life started on Jefferson Ave., and then we moved to Airlies St., and ultimately Exmouth Blvd. (at a time when Jews weren't so welcome in Tuxedo). My father worked at Ideal Brass and then went back to school to become a teacher; my mother was a long-time teacher, starting at Victory School on Jefferson Ave. before moving to Ramah Hebrew School, where she taught gym.

I started school at Collicutt when we were living in the North End, before moving to Ramah, Laidlaw, and Shaftesbury. I dabbled as a performer in my youth including a stint on TV's Let's Go and a televised talent contest where I sang Edelweiss, my first musical theatre experience as an 11-year-old. I transferred from Shaftesbury to Grant Park after musical productions were cancelled two years in a row at Shaftesbury due to a lack of funding and administrative support. (I vowed at that point that if I had a career in theatre, the show would always go on!)

When I was 12, I started taking theatre courses at the Manitoba Theatre Workshop (now Prairie Theatre Exchange). The summer after graduating from Grant Park, I appeared in my first Rainbow Stage production as a member of the chorus in Fiddler on the Roof (eight more Rainbow shows followed). I later appeared in the MTC production of The Taming of the Shrew. I was also part of a sketch comedy troupe called the Token Joke Players.

After high school, I enrolled in the theatre program at the University of Winnipeg. In my third year, there was a call for a director for a Jewish Students Association production of It's Hard to Be a Jew by Sholem Aleichem. By then, I knew that acting was not my passion. Working on this Jewish student production, I concluded for certain that I wanted to be a director and an educator. (Some time later, my decision not to act was cemented when I appeared as a large fish in a Winnipeg Fringe Festival production.)

I ultimately graduated with degrees in theatre and education from the University of Manitoba.

In 1981 — the same year I married Art Maister — I became a drama teacher at West Kildonan Collegiate where I taught until 1995. During that time I earned my Master's degree in theatre at U of M, and began to teach aspiring drama teachers in the Faculty of Education before moving over to teach at the University of Winnipeg, where I teach acting and musical theatre today.

During my Weskay years, our daughter, Avril, was born in 1985, and our son, Aaron, was born in 1988. We also provided a support system for Art's younger brother, Ken, who sadly passed away in 2006.

As a family, we travelled to the Caribbean, Mexico, California, and to my parents' cottage at West Hawk Lake. Today, Avril, a dental hygienist, works with Art in his business, Crosstown Dental Laboratory, and is married to Angela Colatruglio. Aaron, a lawyer, is married to Brittany Bilash. Aaron and Brittany are the parents of Keira. (I love being a Baba!)

Between Weskay, the University of Winnipeg, and other teaching I have done, I figure I have taught more than 2,500 students over the years. Some have gone on to exciting careers in the arts — a source of great pride for me.

When I returned from Norway House with my students in 1991 — with my Jewish passion freshly unpacked — I learned that the Winnipeg Jewish Theatre was looking for a new artistic director. Here was a chance to tie my love of theatre to my freshly minted Jewish identity. I served in the position for eleven years, starting while still teaching high school. It was a great highlight for me and I am proud of what I accomplished at the helm of this important community institution. After WJT, I served as executive director of the Association of Jewish Theatre and then launched Winnipeg Studio Theatre where I still serve as artistic director.

Aside from my core work at WST, I take on occasional charitable and corporate events as a producer/director, and find myself spending an increasing amount of time immersed in in my other love — photography. I see a good photo as an important way to share a story — much like a play.

The Endowment Book of Life is another important way to share a story. It is an honour to participate in this program and to support the Jewish Foundation, which has enriched our community through its support of the arts.