Tom Weinberger had been straightening teeth for more than three decades as a Jerusalem orthodontist before he saw an Israeli production of Gilbert & Sullivan and had an epiphany. "Why am I sitting up here in the audience?" Weinberger, a native of London, recalls thinking. "I want to be down there on the stage."
Next week, one week shy of his 70th birthday, Weinberger will appear in the English-language Encore Educational Theatre Company's production of "My Fair Lady" - the popular musical based on George Bernard Shaw's "Pygmalion" - at Jerusalem's Hirsch Theatre. For Weinberger, it will be his eighth production - this time as a member of the chorus. He will even have some bit speaking parts in the play, which follows Eliza Doolittle as she takes speech lessons from Professor Henry Higgins. The show features such well-known musical numbers as "Wouldn't It Be Loverly?" and "Why Can't the English?" ("An Englishman's way of speaking absolutely classifies him," Professor Higgins declares in the latter. )
"My Fair Lady" will be performed in English with Hebrew subtitles.
"It's fantastic and it's a lot of fun," says Weinberger, who immigrated in 1976. "But it's also a commitment."
Weinberger is not alone. There are 50 fellow cast members like him, each with a distinct backstory - from teenage students, Jerusalem housewives and silver-haired grandmothers, to international attorneys and a former archaeologist-turned-hospital-administrator. And not one among them is a professional actor.
"We're not a professional company," notes Robert Binder, co-founder and artistic director of the not-for-profit group, created in 2006. "We are a community theater. But we work to professional standards."
At a three-hour rehearsal this week, in a 130-square-meter Talpiot industrial-area loft space crowded with boxes, coat racks laden with costumes, and meticulously crafted production sets hand-painted by volunteers and actors, cast members nudged into several rows. Under the watchful eye of a three-member artistic team and two stage managers, they ran their lines, and polished their exaggerated high British and Cockney accents and dance steps.
"I want to see your right shoulders and I want to see your faces!" New York native Arlene Chertoff, a dancer, choreographer and resident drillmaster, directed the actors. "We have to keep it on the beats," she shouted at one point, stopping a musical number in its tracks.
The full-stage production, opening May 29 and continuing through June 7, will feature a 14-piece orchestra, a backstage dressing room stocked with 50 hats and dozens of elaborate costumes, and a volunteer stage crew of 12. "We make our own costumes, and some are loans from other companies," says Binder, a native of Schenectady, New York, who, along with co-founder and musical director Paul Salter, originally from Manchester, England, are the group's only two paid employees. "We also scrounge secondhand shops. People bring in materials that we transform into costumes."
Some 2,500 people are expected to attend the seven performances of "My Fair Lady." About half of the group's annual budget of NIS 600,000 is covered by ticket sales, according to Yaacov Fisher, director of development, who is looking to foundations and private donors for support.
Auditions for the theater's two productions each year draw as many as 100 people, according to Binder, and about 50 make the final cut. "Occasionally we have some who are not exactly stage-worthy, but we try to put them to work in another capacity," he says. "Most of the people who come have ability, and we have been blessed with many talents."
Miri Fraenkel, an 18-year-old immigrant from London who plays the role of Eliza Doolittle, is considering a career in drama or music. She is performing her national service as a tour guide at Jerusalem's Menachem Begin Heritage Center. "Encore has given me a chance I would not have had in London as an Orthodox Jewish actor," she says.
Throughout the year, the group puts on concerts and participates in various festivals. It runs a youth workshop for teenagers and will introduce a theater program for children this summer.
Weinberg, the orthodontist, appears focused in the minutes before the rehearsal. He exudes a quiet confidence, but he is not about to quit his day job.
"I never wanted to be an actor," says the grandfather of five. "But as one of my colleagues has said, it's a great way to get makeup and tights without getting arrested."
For tickets, contact the Encore box office at 054-578-9006 or the Hirsch Theatre box office at 02-620-3463.
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