1948 – At the age of six, so my mother used to say, I informed her that I wanted to be an actor in films.
1956 – After discovering, almost by accident, the art of mime, I began performing my own simple mime performances at all school and scouts parties, and won the school Talent Show in 1959 with one of my creations.
1958 – In the Drama Club of my high school, the Gymnasia Rehavia in Jerusalem, I received my first lesson in the fundamentals of physical theatre, when our director, Sh’aryashuv (Shubi) Olsvanger, demonstrated to me a simple way of creating a character far beyond my own age: first, he walked nimbly inside the borders of a line of 20x20cm tiles on the floor of the hall, then informed me, “This is how a young person walks;” then he spread his gait over two lines of tiles and said, “This is how a middle-aged person walks;” and then he walked straddling three lines of tiles and notified me, “That’s how an old man walks!” It was as simple as that – and, magically, it worked: the wide pace necessitated a slight swaying to the sides with each step, and a bending at the knees, and following his advice, the image of an old man appeared in my imagination and, in the best tradition of the Chekov Technique, I incorporated it and my 17-year old self transformed into an old man So simple!
1962-63 – After finishing my Army service, I began studying at the fledgling Theatre Arts Department at Tel Aviv University. Founded by my first acting teacher and life-long friend, Peter Frye, it was through him that I first heard about Michael Chekhov, with whom he had studied in New York in 1942. A class he gave on the Psychological Gesture was a turning point in my understanding of the art of the actor. When Peter described the technique of the PG, I seemed to have immediately, intuitively, understood it, I jumped up to try it out on the character of Richard III who I had been fascinated with ever since I saw the Olivier film of the play. I piled up some chairs about head high, limped up to pile of chairs with one shoulder raised like a hunchback, and one fist curled unnaturally. I then raised my misshapen fist high above the pile of chairs and brought it down resoundingly on the topmost chair. I immediately felt that it was wrong and asked Peter for a chance to fix it. This time I added two or three more chairs, limped with my hunchback and misshapen fist to the pile of chairs, and then tried, repeatedly and unsuccessfully, to bang it down on the topmost chair.
I don’t remember what Peter had to say about either version, but years later I learned that this was not the way to do the PG. According to Chekhov, the character does not have a PG, he is what he is; it is the actor who makes the gesture in order to physicalize the character’s super-objective and bring him in touch with the innermost desire of the character, the engine that moves him through the entire play. Nevertheless, to this day, I remember clearly the deep feeling of frustration that my “Richard” felt when he could not get to the “throne” of chairs. In time, this experience transformed my teaching of the Psychological Gesture to include the concept of “the unfinished gesture” – the physicalized will gesture of the character, which does not achieve closure of any kind, and fires the actor throughout his or her performance with the desire of the character to persevere in the attempt to achieve it.
1963-66 Leaving the Theatre Arts Dept. at Tel Aviv (because I felt apart from Peter there was no other teacher there who could give me real acting tools), I was accepted into the Drama Dept. at Manchester University. It was there that I met the second most important teacher in my career: Stephen Joseph.
While working with him on Marlowe’s Edward II he helped us all discover the power of images as a primary element of the actor’s toolbox. In one of the scenes early in the play, the king’s favorite, Gaveston, comes bounding into the scene and is met and rebuffed by the barons, chiefly Young Mortimer. Stephen felt that the scene was not working, so he stopped everything and told us we were going to do an improvisation. The first thing he asked us to do was to become “bouncing balls.” So we dutifully bounced around the studio like manic balls. He told us to stop and change the image – “a concrete wall.” So we all spread our arms, puffed out chests and moved heavily through the space like what we understood to be “concrete walls.” After that, Stephen once again changed the image for the improvisation: “twisted wires.” Now, he said after a while, let’s do the scene: Gaveston comes in like a bouncing ball, slams into the concrete wall of Young Mortimer, and then slinks away like a twisted wire. It was an amazing lesson in the power of images, and in the possibility of finding images that are not in the play, but which give an alternate, physical sense of the action of the scene, and are easily incorporated by the actors playing the scene.
In 1964 the department traveled to a student theatre festival in Parma, Italy with a production of The Second Shepherds’ Play which was adapted from the famous Medieval play of that name and directed by John Prudhoe. The trip offered me one of the most exciting moments of my entire acting career. We had a minute set that was designed for the small Studio Theatre at the Department, but in Parma we appeared on the huge opera stage of the Teatro Olimpico where our modest set was erected in the middle of the immense stage space. Facing us in the distance were the ground level seats and ten rows of boxes in a vast semicircle up into “the gods.” The second act began with me, the Second Shepherd, coming on alone and giving a two-minute long monologue about all the trials and tribulations of the shepherds’ lives, delivered in a thick Lancashire accent that must have been totally incomprehensible to 90% of the audience. And yet, alone on this great stage, I strutted and fretted my best – and got a round of applause at the end!
1964 – The Second Shepherds’ Play,
adapted and directed by John Prudhoe.
On the left Chris Baugh, on the right David Zinder.
In the middle one of our fellow students,
in the blanket, Mac the Sheepstealer, David Robertson
NB – it was during this festival that I first saw a production of Ubu Roi, and despite the fact that I didn’t understand a word, I was totally entranced by it, recalling the astonished reaction of W.B. Yeats at the premiere of the play in Paris in 1896: “After us – the Savage God”
1966-71 Returning from Manchester in July 1966, I began pursuing a professional career as an actor in Israel. This period was divided into three neat parts, and underlined by my unspoken decision to try an acting career for five years, and then decide if that’s what I want to do with my life.
Part I – 1966-67: trying to make my way in the business of acting with some success, despite the fact that apart from the idea of the Psychological Gesture and an understanding of the power of images, I really had no technique. Among these productions were:
- Anne Frank, by Meyer Levin, directed by my former teacher, Peter Frye.
- The Man with the Flower in his Mouth, by Pirandello, a private production directed by Willy Kreim.
It was in this latter production that I discovered, unwittingly, a Chekhov technique that solved a particularly difficult moment for me – an actor with no technique. Late in the play, “The Man” (Gedalya Besser) demonstrates to the Traveler – who missed his last train and is sitting at a lonely café in the station – that his unique view of the world derives from the fact that he has cancer (the flower in his mouth is epithelioma), At one point in the play, Gedalya – the Man – came up behind my bench and said in a low and threatening voice, “You see, I could easily kill someone like you who has missed his train and is sitting all alone at the station!” In an effort to find a way of expressing the Traveler’s total panic, I analyzed the situation: a terror of being killed, and at the same time the terror of being chastised by his wife for not coming home. In other words, he is desperate to flee this unexpected threat on his life but at same time the image of his wife screaming at him for coming late, renders him totally paralyzed. This meant, as I understood it, on the one hand physical paralysis, which I achieved by tensing all the muscles in my body, and on the other, a hugely powerful desire to flee. This I achieved by “working” an image in my mind and concentrating on its energy: swarms of birds swirling through the winter sky over Jerusalem. I have no recollection if this “technique” affected the audience as I hoped it would, but for me it was a revelation, the budding of a technique of “working” images to radiate a given emotional state onstage; a technique planted in me years earlier by Stephen Joseph at Manchester University.
Part II – 1967-69: a chance encounter with an amazing woman, Jacqueline Kronberg, who became the third most important woman in the development of my understanding of the art of the theatre. Jackie came to Israel right after the Six Day War, bringing with her the world of Viola Spolin’s Theatre Games improvisation technique, which she had learned from Spolin in the famous Second City improvisation group. Working with her for two years and being a part of the first professional improvisation group in Israel – Theatre Games of the Khan Theatre – was the first time that anyone had taught me a fully developed technique, and turned me in the direction of the improvisation/creativity tandem.
1968 – The Theatre Games company from top to bottom:
Sean Roantree, Richard Farber, Jeanette Mizraki,
Jackie Kronberg, David Zinder, Joanne Klein
and our stage manager, Steve
(Jack Cohen is missing in this photo).
Part III – 1969 – 71: after the collapse of the Theatre Games group, and newly married, I returned to Tel Aviv and continued to pursue a career as an actor, going fairly consistently from one production to another in various theatres:
Gideon/MARCO/ Naftali Ne’eman/ Zavit Theatre.
- The Boss/ THE BOSS/ David Shaham / Bimat Hasakhkanim Theatre
- The Priest/ SERGEANT MUSGRAVE’S DANCE/ John Osborne/ Bimat HasakhkanimTheatre
- Jerry Ryan/ TWO FOR THE SEESAW/ William Gibson/ The Young Theatre.
- Cléante/ THE MISER/ Molière/ The Theatre for Children and Youth.
- General Hannun/ KING SOLOMON AND SHALMAI THE SHOE-MAKER/ Shmuel Bunim/The Cameri Theatre.
Early in 1970, I was cast in the last of these, as a non-singing character in an original Israeli musical. It was during an intermission of this production that I reached a momentous decision: looking around the green room, and listening to the small talk of the other actors, I asked myself if this was the way I was going to spend the rest of my life, and the answer was a resounding “NO!” At that moment – almost exactly at the end of the five years I had given myself to make it in the profession – my career as an actor came to an end and my career as a director and a teacher was born.
1971 – 1976 – The Drama Dept at UC Berkeley
The PhD program at UCB included an acting requirement, and as an older (29) actor with professional experience, I was much in demand for department productions.
1974 Emperor Charles V (a.k.a. “Chuck Five”) in
The Masques of Barbara Blomberg, by William Oliver)
The most memorable of these, and the most influential in my budding understanding of the way I was going to go in my teaching and directing, was a production of Peer Gynt directed by my mentor and dear friend, the late William Oliver (WiO). In this mammoth, 4 hours and 45 minute production (Bill cut only twelve lines from the original), I played 8 parts, for each of which I had to find a core, a physical aspect and a character.
Above them all was the Troll King.
Dressed in transparent green gauze and rags, with crazy horns on my head, and a huge erect phallus made of a rusty iron pipe, I romped through the Troll Kingdom scene with ferocious joy.
What gave me the clue to this 20-minute no-holds barred grotesque, was a rehearsal note, written out, as usual, on yellow legal pad paper in Bill Oliver’s bold slanting hand: “You’re not antic enough!” You want antic, I thought to myself, I’ll give you antic!
The first image that came to my mind was a serial cartoon by Charles Addams that appeared in the 50’s in the New Yorker:
The key to my Troll King were the two images on the top of the right-hand page: the taut listening pose on the left, and the frustrated waving of the arm – “Aw, shit!” – in the right-hand picture
Using those images, a Chekhovian “Imaginary Body” if you will, I conjured up in my body a frenetic, totally unpredictable, physically adept, many-voiced mini-monster, and then proceeded to scream and yell my way through the entire scene at the top of my voice (carefully structuring my breath so as not to lose my voice), climbing on and jumping off the scaffolding at random, changing pace, tone and location with a frenzy that was simply thrilling.
Like the Second Shepherd, whose image appeared to me in Manchester so many years before when I put on his rustic sheepskin, so the Troll King’s image fell into place in all his hyper-active, somewhat demented majesty, when I was ordered to be “more antic” and took the image of the Charles Addams “ogre-boy” as my key to the character. With the addition of my horned crown, rag and mesh “costume”, solid iron erection, and surrounded by semi-naked trolls of both sexes, ten feet off the ground on my “perch” in the scaffolding junk sculpture that was our set, I was off and running on one of the most satisfying moments of my acting career..
1976 – 91 – In this period of my developing understanding of the art of the actor, two unexpected mentors appeared in my life, Joe Chaikin and Eugenio Barba.
Joe Chaikin came to the Khan Theatre in Jerusalem in 1977 and gave a month-long workshop for the company, together with Bruce Meyers (from Peter Brook’s company). The main elements in this workshop were physical theatre and the use of images through the use of improvisation techniques, broadening my understanding of the function of images in the actor’s creative process.
Eugenio Barba came to Israel in 1979 and gave discussions and showed films about the Odin Theatre’s way of working which somehow closed a circle for me, even though at that time I was no longer active as an actor and had already started teaching at Tel Aviv University. The intense physical training, the extraordinary use of images, the emphasis on improvisation and vast use of props and costumes designed by the actors for each part they played – all these fell into place in my developing concept of acting training just as intuitively and quickly as did the Psychological Gesture that Peter Frye taught me nearly twenty years earlier, and the Charles Addams cartoon for the Troll King.
A few years later, in 1983, I followed up on these original insights into the Odin form of training and performance with a two-week visit to the theatre in its home in Holstebro, Denmark. (For more on that, see the Timeline for the Teacher).
A curious postscript:
1991 – A renewed attempt to create a professional English-speaking theatre in Israel brought me back to acting very briefly. The first production was a wonderful performance of “Twelfth Night” directed by a famous South African director, Leonard Schach. He cast me as an unconventional, older Orsino. Rehearsing for six weeks and stepping out onto the stage after fifteen years of teaching acting and not practicing it, was a frightening and exhilarating experience – and a fitting end to my career as a stage actor.