Israeli Deaf-blind Theater Troupe to Get a Taste of the Big Apple

Jaffa-based Nalaga'at theater troupe heads to New York for three weeks of performances, a feat that sounds easier than it is.

This week, 36 actors, interpreters (to be explained) and waiters (ditto) associated with the Jaffa-based Nalaga’at theater troupe will head to Ben-Gurion airport, board a jumbo plane, and fly over to New York City for three weeks of performances there.

It’s not the troupe’s first trip overseas – it has whisked through the U.S. on tour before, captivated South Korean crowds, wowed fans in Britain and garnered rave reviews in Denmark.

But logistics are, as always, somewhat tricky, what with the usual running around to get visas, and organizing transportation and housing - not to mention getting the guest theaters to install bread-baking ovens (also to be explained). And the fact that all the company members are blind, deaf – or both – clearly adds a touch of complication, too.

Adina Tal, the troupe’s feisty founder and director shrugs all of this off. “Yes, it can get crazy,” she says, when asked about taking the world’s only deaf-blind company on the road, and then adds: “Especially as the troupe members are all so mad for shopping. The fact that we are in New York during the sale season will be the end of me.”

When Tal, a Zurich-born transplanted Jerusalemite and successful theater actress and director, was first approached a decade ago to do a drama workshop for a deaf and blind social club, she agreed, but was unenthused. “I didn’t want to work with ‘nebechs,’” she says, using the Yiddish word for the weak, pitiable, helpless or hapless.

She soon stood corrected.

A few months into her workshop, which had thus far consisted of her figuring out how to communicate with the participants, and doing a lot of hand-waving, foot-stomping and hand-squeezing with them, one of the actors, Yuri Oshorov, an immigrant from the former Soviet Union, informed her that it was all very “stupid.” “Why are we doing all this pantomime?” he complained. Tal asked him what he wanted to do. “Gorky,” he replied. “How are we going to that?” she asked. “That’s your problem,” Yuri shot back. “You’re the director.”

Solving that “problem” became the seed from which the Nalaga’at theater – whose name means “Do Touch” in Hebrew – was born.

Tal's challenge, she says, became to push the blind and deaf actors – many of whom have an ailment called Usher syndrome, a rare genetic disorder that affects hearing and vision – to create an original and high-quality show, a show that audiences would pay to see, and not shuffle into out of some sense of responsibility or pity.

“Some people thought they were doing us a favor by coming,” says Tal, about the attitudes she encountered in the early days, as the troupe, after a year and a half of rehearsals, mounted its first play: “Light is Heard in Zigzag.” “Some people asked if tickets were tax deductible, to which I'd reply, 'Is going to the theater ever tax deductible? No – so why should this be?'”

“Light is Heard in Zigzag” turned out to be a big success; packing in paying audiences night after night. Soon after, Nalaga’at bought and established a permanent home in an abandoned warehouse in Jaffa that had belonged to the Armenian Church.

The renovated and expanded warehouse theater and cultural center, complete with a training center with workshops and courses for the deaf and blind opened in December 2007. The center also housed Cafe Kapish – a cafe staffed with deaf and hearing-impaired waiters – and a restaurant called Blackout staffed by blind and seeing-impaired waiters where those supping, in complete darkness, can get a sense of what it is like to not be able to see.

In recent years, new shows have been added to the company’s repertoire, including two children’s shows and a multicultural performance involving a fresh troupe of Jewish, Muslim and Samaritans actors, who are similarly deaf or blind or both.

But it is the company’s show called “Not by Bread Alone,” which took two years to mount, and will be performed in New York, that has become its signature show. There have been, to date, more than 500 performances of this show, and 650,000 people have come to see it, and break bread with the actors.

The performance features 11 actors baking bread together on stage, as they share and act out their ambitions, hopes and dreams for 80 minutes - the time it takes to make and bake the bread. Over and over again, the audience is reminded by the actors of the importance and need for human connection, contact and love – for those who live in darkness and silence, just as for everyone else. Such connections, the actors explain and illustrate, are more crucial than even the need for bread, as the biblical saying “…not by bread alone, can a man live,” tells us.

The play, in Hebrew, is translated into English and Arabic with the help of supertitles screened on big plasma monitors.

Throughout the performance, the actors, who cannot see or hear each other, the crowd, the music or any direction they might be given, are assisted by interpreters, who might speak their words for them, gently help them navigate the stage, or, at times, tap on their shoulders to indicate applause from the crowds. Drums and music broadcast on loudspeakers – both of whose vibrations can be felt by the actors – are used to as cues to navigate scene changes.

This month, the troupe will be staying in upstate New York and will get bused into Manhattan for performances at the NYU Skirball Center for the Performing Arts, 566 LaGuardia Pl. (at Washington Square South). The opening event, a gala featuring “Not by Bread Alone,” will take place January 23 at 7:30 P.M. and regular performances of the same show will run through February 3. For show times and information, call (866) 811-4111 or go to http://nyuskirball.org/calendar/notbybreadalone. Ticket prices range from $40-$75.

A scaled-down re-creation of the Blackout and Cafe Kapish will also be set up at the Skirball Center. The café will be staffed by both Israeli company members as well as hearing-impaired NYU students, while Blackout will offer three-course Kosher meals developed by top New York chef Danny Meyer, served by blind waiters in, of course, complete darkness.
 

Limor Edry