One Woman Show: At 91, Nola Chilton Is Not Here to Appease the Audience

When the legendary Nola Chilton receives the Israel Prize next week, it will be in recognition of the vast contribution that the American-born director has made - and continues to make today, even at age 91 - to our local theater world.

In the quiet that descends on Kibbutz Sdot Yam in the late morning, you can almost hear the waves of the sea breaking below the homes. A girl emerges from one of the row structures. In response to my question, she points to the corner apartment and says, rather indifferently, “That’s where Nola Chilton, the director, lives.” But I still have to work up the nerve to knock on the door.

Chilton, a living legend − a stage director and acting teacher whose name is sacrosanct to several generations of Israeli actors, directors and playwrights − does not like to give interviews. If she finally relented, it’s because “Maybe it will help the theater,” in general, in the country. In the meantime, a white-haired woman emerges from one of the doors in Chilton’s home to hang out laundry. So immersed is she in what she is doing that she does not notice an old man, a neighbor on the other side of the wall, standing there and watching.

Observing this mute scene, which is also fraught with underlying tension, I think of the groundbreaking play “The Coming Days,” which Chilton directed at the Haifa Theater in the early 1970s. She sent Joshua Sobol, an apprentice playwright at the time, to interview occupants of old-age homes, and together they distilled a contemporary portrait, fierce yet compassionate, of the process of aging. The old people in that documentary play credited to Sobol − over time, Chilton shaped the genre of documentary theater in Israel in her image − were noble and heartwarming, reflecting on their lives which had gone by irrevocably.

Chilton is by now older than those characters, but light-years away from them: After all, at age 91, she is still working apace, continuing to hone her distinctive statements about society and to be a source of inspiration and conscience to young people. On Independence Day this year, she will receive the Israel Prize for her life’s work.

“It’s hard to acknowledge outsiders, rebels, angry prophets,” says Oded Kotler, the director of the Herzliya Ensemble Theater, whose professional partnership with Chilton goes back more than 40 years. “Nola Chilton is receiving the Israel Prize justly, in full awareness, thought and political lucidity.”

In contrast to her image as a woman driven by holy fury, the woman who opens the door is hospitable and welcoming. Chilton is a beautiful woman − tall, with eyes alive with curiosity. She appears ready to talk about almost anything, in the thick American accent that has become her trademark, except for reputation, economic success and personal achievements. Those terms are not part of her lexicon. She also rebuffs an attempt to extract from her personal experience insights that might help explain the fascinating trajectory of her life and her artistic choices. “That’s not important,” she declares.

But when it comes to theater, to which she has devoted her life, Chilton speaks with genuine passion − theater, that is, as she understands it: realistic, socially aware, political and, above all, refusing to ingratiate itself with the audience. Chilton has directed dozens of plays since she arrived in the country, and she hasn’t stopped to this day.

She began with the Actors’ Stage that Kotler founded. Afterward, when Kotler became the Haifa theater’s artistic director, Chilton established troupes of actors in Ein Hod and in Kiryat Shmona. Her most famous plays from that period, both of them by Sobol − “The Night of the Twentieth” and “Kriza” ‏(“Nerves”‏), an experimental musical − influenced generations of actors and viewers alike.

In the 1980s, after Kotler established the Neve Tzedek Theater, Chilton directed “Adam’s Purim Party,” based on a novel by Yoram Kaniuk, as well as “Battered Women” and “Five,” the latter about female inmates in a concentration camp. Betwixt and between, she also worked in the repertory theaters.

The most recent play she directed for the Herzliya Ensemble Theater, “Fima,” based on the Amos Oz novel of the same name ‏(called “The Third Condition” in Hebrew‏), starring Doval’e Glickman, won high praise when it premiered a few months ago. Chilton also continues to teach acting twice a week at Tel Aviv University and at Seminar Hakibbutzim Teachers College, and she coaches a group of young actors in Or Akiva on a voluntary basis.

Does she still believe in the power of the theater, we ask.

“Theater can bring about true change, I am certain of that,” she says. “But you have to make do with one or two people, at most a hundred, who will be touched by it. The masses do not want to come to theater of the kind that I present. There is not enough of an audience in Israel in general. There is no force of opposition.”

Chilton draws the strength to continue from the feeling that she has fomented a change of consciousness, she adds. By way of illustration, she recalls a young Ethiopian woman who − at the end of a performance at Tel Aviv University of a play based on two nonfiction books by David Grossman, “The Yellow Wind” and “Present Absentees” ‏(about the Arabs in the West Bank and in Israel, respectively‏) − came up to her in tears. “She said, ‘I didn’t know that I am doing to others what was done to me. Suddenly I understand,’” Chilton says. “For me it is enough to hear something like that.”

The most important recognition was bestowed on her by Grossman himself. He came to see the play and told her afterward that it is more relevant today than ever before.

“We only asked, ‘Where were we? What did we do with the conflict for 20 years when we had a government that was not right wing?’ Nothing. We just kept on with the territories,” Chilton asserts. “The power of the material lies not in what was written 20 years ago, but in how I [the citizen] am responsible for this picture. It doesn’t interest me to amuse people. There’s enough of that on television.”

It comes as no surprise when she tells me that the best film she has seen for years is Michael Haneke’s recent “Amour”: “It is not a great film, but he did not try to make reality more pleasant so that the audience would accept it. That’s what we see today in culture. Everything is becoming easier. Are you tired? Is it hard for you to sit? We’ll make it more pleasant for you. I don’t like to make things pleasant for the audience.

“When I did ‘Coexistence: An Arab Conversation,’” she adds, referring to her first play for the Haifa Theater, in 1970, “with Mohammed Wattad, who was a Knesset member, we went around together and interviewed Arabs. I thought to myself that if they were courageous enough to let me see their problems, I had to be there for them. I wanted to see where it hurt, and also their hatred. If I was to be their mouthpiece, I had to be them. It has to be as clean as possible − that is what I try to teach.”

Where does she draw the strength to swim against the tide and be contemptuous of the “dreams industry”? Chilton explains that the concept of documentary theater had its genesis under the influence of a book she read in the early 1960s by a sociologist, about weak population groups in South America. “For the first time I saw that things possess force when they are presented as they are, without additions or dramatization,” she says, and elaborates: “Poverty, fear, helplessness, distress.”

‘Without a voice’

Nola Chilton was born in 1922 in Brooklyn. He parents were Jewish emigrants from Odessa. Her mother died of tuberculosis when Nola was 12. Her father, who made a hand-to-mouth living, had to move to Manhattan to eke out a livelihood as a jewelry engraver and a food peddler. The result was that she lost him, too. “My father lived without a voice,” she says. “He was incapable of fighting, only of surviving.”

Nola sought a haven in books, before discovering one day what theater held out for her. She got a part in a school play. “I played an old woman,” she recalls, “and on that same day I said I wanted to become an actress. It was a good feeling not to be alone with yourself.”

Years later, she studied acting under Lee Strasberg, and then began to work at his Actors Studio and to coach actors and direct. “Once I had become an actor, I told myself it was like being a doll. I wanted to be a director,” she relates. “Acting was dire slavery. I said: ‘I want to be someone who controls his fate.’”

“She turned her personal dross into gold,” Kotler says. “Someone who grows up with that kind of sensitivity fights for a better world. That means not to sit and write or dream, but to hurl yourself into this world where things are bad and to start carving your way to those whose mouths are sealed and to let them speak and live. To give us, the bourgeoisie, a glimpse that will hurt us.”

Chilton started to turn the spotlight on marginalized people in the very first plays she directed, Off-Off-Broadway, in the 1950s. A then-unknown actor − Dustin Hoffman − was in one of these productions: “Dead End,” in 1960. “The play was about young people with no money who live a hard, bad life. But it was apparently too radical for the theater, because they wanted to cancel it. As a protest, we stayed in the theater at night, and with the intervention of the playwright, Sidney Kingsley, we then moved to a different theater.”

“Dusty,” as Chilton refers to Hoffman, did not forget her. “Years later, I was in the Village with my daughter and we ran into him. He told me, ‘Come to Hollywood, I’ll look after you,’” Chilton laughs.

The Hollywood dream never spoke to her. She arrived in Israel in 1963. Israeli theater was crying out for new forces and for original plays. The writer Yoram Kaniuk, whom she first met in New York, suggested that she work here. But instead of settling down in Tel Aviv, Chilton preferred an outlying area and found her way to Kiryat Gat, then a small town in the northern Negev. The veteran Cameri Theater implored her to come to Tel Aviv. She began to work at the Cameri, but was disappointed. “The whole Tel Aviv scene was exactly what I’d left behind,” she recalls.

She adopted a 2-year-old girl and moved to the north of the country, first to Kibbutz Yasur and then to Kibbutz Ma’agan Michael, on the Mediterranean. She worked with kibbutz actors and mounted her first documentary-style work: a dialogue among soldiers. She chose a spare style, which was appropriate to the sort of upheaval she underwent when she moved to Israel.

“Did you see pictures of her when she was young?” Kotler asks. “She was feminine, a heartbreaker. But something stronger than her rejected that. Prettifying is far from her. Always simple attire; the minimum of the minimum of private luxury.”

In her work, too, Chilton looked for materials almost without embellishment. “She does not demonstrate through the ‘channel’ of actors,” Kotler says. “She comes bare and creates acting without striking poses. That’s why her [type of] theater is one of the most interesting in the country.” He cites Chilton as one of the three leading lights of local theater, together with the late playwrights Nissim Aloni and Hanoch Levin.

Kotler invited Chilton to the Actors’ Stage in 1970. Liora Rivlin performed under her direction in “The Coming Days,” playing an old woman. “To this day, when I have a text that I find hard to crack, I evoke one of the characters I played back then in order to understand, to obtain another key,” the actress remembers. “‘The Coming Days’ was a play about old age − without any makeup, of course. That was the way Nola worked. We were all young, and it was actually the great distance, the universe between the ages, that produced something so special. We performed the play about 200 times − a huge number in those days.”

Through fire and water

The 1970s at the Haifa Theater were Chilton’s peak years. The original playwriting that sprang up under her, together with the innovation of the documentary theater genre, drew large audiences, despite the difficult content. This was enhanced by the exceptional work she did with the actors, who saw her as a legendary teacher and were ready − some still are − to follow her through fire and water, both to communes in slum neighborhoods and to the dark recesses of their souls.

In this period, Chilton founded her two significant acting groups: one in Ein Hod, in Galilee, which was an acting laboratory, and the other in Kiryat Shmona, in Upper Galilee, which was socially engaged. Among the now-renowned actors who were in the Ein Hod group were Moni Moshonov, Shlomo Bar-Aba, Sandra Sade and Ezra Kafri. They staged “Nerves,” the musical in which singer-composer Shlomo Bar was discovered when he sang “Children Are a Joy,” with lyrics by Sobol.

“I staged ‘Nerves’ not to change people or the society or the country,” Chilton said in an interview about the play. “You can change things by politics, and I am not a politician. All I wanted in ‘Nerves’ was to cast spotlights on a group of people who were living in the shadows, without a body, without a voice, without influence.”

When Sobol told Chilton that he wanted to write a play about the pioneers of the kibbutz prototype Bitaniya, she urged him on. The resulting play, “The Night of the Twentieth” ‏(1976‏), “touched a raw nerve that didn’t know it was raw until after the Yom Kippur War,” Sobol says today. “It was a play about the despair of young people, despair that infused them with a great deal of strength.”

Itzik Weingarten, who is currently the director of the school of theater arts at Seminar Hakibbutzim Teachers College, went to Tel Aviv University to study theater in the year of that war, 1973, together with his childhood friend, the actor Dalik Volonitz. Another classmate, Gidi Rosenthal, who was also a poet, was killed in the war. “Everything fell apart,” says Weingarten. But Chilton did not allow them to sink, and from the trauma sprang “Friends Talk about Gidi,” an evening produced by Weingarten, which was an ongoing confession of fear and a display of emotions.

In 1978, the group from TAU − whose members included Volonitz, Weingarten and his ex-wife, Ofra Weingarten, Albert Amar, Daniella Michaeli, Hava Ortman and others − moved to Kiryat Shmona. “I learned from Nola,” says Weingarten, “that you possess the strength and have the obligation to assume the role of repairing the world. It sounds naive, but it is a complete worldview.”

Back in Tel Aviv, the group mounted “Bicycle for a Year,” which summed up the experiences of that year. Other productions that were forged in the Kiryat Shmona project included “Na’im,” based on A.B. Yehoshua’s novel “The Lover,” and “Endgame in Kiryat Gat,” based on a story of the same title by the writer John Auerbach, Chilton’s late husband.

Both in theater circles and in the press, people began referring to Chilton as a “guru.” “She is marvelous at coaching actors,” says Moni Moshonov. “It is a privilege to work with her. Her insights are profound, rich, astonishing. Her world is one of immense familiarity with the art of the theater and with humanity, and she is rich in knowledge and possesses infinite curiosity.”

Weingarten adds another point: “‘The Night of the Twentieth’ was no accident. It expressed her worldview, of working as a collective. That is a social concept according to which the human is at the center of the world. That is why the relationships were very complex. It wasn’t easy in the group. There were harsh things. Some of us rebelled against her. That generated stormy debates. It generated creativity.”

“People believed in her,” Kotler adds. “She is able to grip and shake the human psyche. People discovered themselves. That is why she became a guru for some of them.”

One of them was Sandra Sade. “Nola had all the symptoms of a mentor-guru,” she says. “If her criticism was good, you were in paradise. But the loveliness of the caress and the warmth was equaled by the blow you also took from her. She had the ability to confront you with your failed efforts, the momentary faking. I had a Romanian accent. She once asked me, ‘Do you think that acting is social welfare for all kinds of sad sacks? Work on your accent.’ It was a punch in the gut. I still remember the pain. Chilton undoubtedly remains my most dominant figure as an actor and a student. Almost every time I go onstage, I see her beautiful, though also demanding, face before me.”

Chilton has softened over the years, Itzik Weingarten says. It certainly seems so when one observes her melting with delight as she works as a volunteer with a group of youngsters on the play “Goats,” by Daniella Carmi, about the wrongs done to Bedouin in the Negev. These young adults in their 20s, who participate in theater, music and other artistic programs involving youth from poor neighborhoods in Afula and Or Akiva, can easily be seen as the latter-day equivalents of Moshonov and Bar-Aba and Sandra Sade in Chilton’s past. They see her as a leader and a visionary, and their relations with her are warm. She is supportive of them but also gains support for herself from their fresh, admiring presence.

Chilton’s advanced age is not a subject to dwell upon. There are people she misses. She mentions Yitzhak Ben Aharon, the late labor leader and MK, who was a father figure for her, and the actor Aharon Meskin, whom she held in high regard. “Everyone is gone,” she says sadly.

She does not mention John Auerbach, who died in 2002; she says she does not want to think or talk about him, because it would be too painful. Everyone who knew them attests to their unique relationship. In her home, which remains as it was, the only decorations in the living room are art works with Christian symbols, “which John loved.” There is also a wall covered with pages from books and many photographs, of John’s daughter, her daughter, Estie, and the granddaughters. There are also a few photos of Saul Bellow, who was “John’s dear friend.” It’s 3 o’clock, time to get back to rehearsals for “Goats.” There’s a mobility scooter out front, but Chilton ignores it and walks toward the parking area, where “the young folks” are waiting for her. She cruises ahead, leaving me behind. “Mustn’t be late for the show,” she says. 

Kobi Kalmanovitz
Gadi Dagon
Yaakov Agur