If You Can Make It There

Leading director Micah Lewensohn plans to steer the Beit Zvi theater school in the mold of his alma mater, New York University.

Zipi Shohat
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Zipi Shohat

As the newly appointed head of the Beit Zvi theater school, Micah Lewensohn is not criticizing or maligning anyone in an attempt to belittle the achievements of his predecessors - no mean feat in a country where most new administrators try to remove all traces of the old. On the contrary, he praises Gary Bilu, the previous head of Beit Zvi, for his accomplishments. And Lewensohn is not doing it just to be polite.

Lewensohn, Israel's leading theater director, has the production of many distinguished dramas to his credit, including Peter Flannery's "Singer," Ronald Harwood's "Taking Sides," Michael Frayn's "Copenhagen" and Tennessee Williams' "The Glass Menagerie," along with large-scale musicals such as "Guys and Dolls," "My Fair Lady" and "The Producers." He is an affable guy, with a cosmopolitan sense of culture and a broad education in all the theater arts. In addition to serving as in-house director at the Haifa and Be'er Sheva theaters and as artistic director of the Israel Festival, he has directed entertainment programs, music performances, advertising clips and video and lighting installations, as well as editing and hosting programs on Army Radio.

Last week, he was appointed unanimously by Beit Zvi's search committee and its public advisory board, a choice welcomed by many in the industry. Lewensohn said that Bilu, whom he has known ever since his (Lewensohn's) days as a soldier working at Army Radio, called to congratulate him on the appointment.

Why this sudden change in career?

"I've made a few forays in the direction of management in the past, the most significant as artistic director of the Israel Festival for eight seasons (1994-2001). In the theater I do one play or opera after another, and administration doesn't really interest me. I've refused a lot of offers over the years.

"But I imagine my current situation as that of a person at the helm of a ship who suddenly sees a mysterious island ahead. It arouses his curiosity, and he makes a detour to check it out. He says to himself: I'll land there and find out what kind of animals live on it, and what kind of people."

And Beit Zvi is the mysterious island?

"Yes, it intrigues me. All these years I've been occupied with the experience of making theater, and now I'll be busy with the future of theater, which is a stimulating and exciting challenge for me. I would guess that it will take five or six years to see the fruits of this work at the school, perhaps less.

"Beit Zvi has been around for 50 years, and a long list of famous personalities have run it, starting with Haim Gamzo, who founded the school, on through Avraham Assayo, Yoram Kaniuk, Boaz Evron, Michael Rothenberg, David Bergman and, finally, Gary Bilu, who has been there since 1981 (except for one year at Habima Theater). It's a compliment and a challenge to succeed them. I also like the idea of being surrounded by young people. As a director and a teacher for many years, I'm used to this. It keeps me on my toes, alert and energetic, instead of weighted down, grounded."

You've arrived at a place with a split personality: a very successful school on one hand, but on the other, a place with no lack of scandals, and whose students complain of mismanagement and of the burden of productions at the expense of classes.

"I'm going into a school that has established itself as a leader in the field, whose graduates are snapped up by theaters at an impressive rate. Many graduates have appeared in plays I've directed: Anat Waxman, Gil Frank, Yoram Hatav and Sara von Schwarze. Their first show after graduating was under my direction at the Be'er Sheva Theater when Zipi Pines was in charge. In "The Producers," which I recently directed at the Cameri, the entire chorus was from Beit Zvi. It's only natural that over time its reputation would erode a bit; there are other theater schools, some of them new. Now it needs to be led in a different direction."

Micah Lewensohn is 56. His mother Ruth is a cellist, and his late father Avraham was a painter who owned a large advertising agency. He is the oldest of four siblings; the others are Prof. Gideon Lewensohn, a composer and head of the composition department at Bar-Ilan University; Oded, a lawyer by training and a staffer at Army Radio; and Jimmy, a corporate marketing consultant. Micah is married to Rachel, who in recent years has directed the international piano master class project at Tel Hai College. The couple has two sons - Adam, 27, a graphic designer, and Itamar, 23, who studied at the Culinary Institute of New York and is currently employed at Rafael in Tel Aviv.

As a young man, Lewensohn studied music and played jazz. He completed a B.A. in film and television and an M.A. in theater directing at New York University (NYU). After graduating from NYU, he worked as an in-house director and assistant to the manager of a theater in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

For Lewensohn, NYU is the model to imitate. "It is truly one of the best acting schools in the U.S., and in the world," he said. "Its students receive the best of everything. They study with the best teachers of acting, scenery, costumes, lighting, plays, dance, music, choreography and design. All the teachers are practicing theater artists, connected to the industry. That's the way it must be at Beit Zvi. I learned a tremendous amount at NYU. My move to Beit Zvi is a tribute to my studies at NYU."

But when asked more specifically about his plans for the school's future, he weighs his words carefully. At this stage, he has yet to become familiar with Beit Zvi; his previous connection to it amounted to a few visits a year to attend student productions. He prefers to talk about ideas that have not yet materialized into solid plans. One of these is to institute a B.A. degree, "like that of Bezalel," he said, referring to the well-known art school.

Another idea is to institute a program in television studies. "These days, there is work available for young actors in the television industry. We need to give them more advanced tools for dealing with it. In the future, I'd like to open a production course, and also one to train students in camera directing, which is of course completely different [from theater direction]."

One complaint about Beit Zvi is that students are kept so busy with actual productions, starting in the first year, that they spend relatively little time actually studying. Students have requested, and received, tuition refunds for this reason. Lewensohn showed signs of agitation at the mention of this issue.

"I don't think it's bad to demand hard labor from students," he said. "It's not terrible to work from morning till night; that's life. Experience in school productions is the right way to enter the job market. Medical students also work 16-hour days."

The supply of actors is greater than the demand in Israel, so why does Beit Zvi accept more than 100 new students each year, in contrast to the 15 to 17 accepted by another school, Nissan Nativ?

"There are years when the supply of lawyers is greater than the demand, which doesn't mean that people stop studying law. Acting is becoming a more and more desirable profession, partly for shallow reasons, like all the reality shows on television. But we need to implement a filtering process, in particular after the first year.

"At the same time, one financial source that enables the school to exist is the number of students who attend and pay tuition. The success of university departments is measured by a head count. The trend is to hold on to students because they are a source of income.

"But unlike the situation in acting schools, a large percentage of university graduates are able to find a place in the profession they studied, even if it isn't their dream job. After university, a history student, for example, might not become a professor, but rather a high school history teacher. After acting school, many graduates are chucked out of the profession in a few years, when they aren't so young anymore and no longer have a young look. We need to have a screening process while they are still studying. But we also need to look at the numbers and decide how we'll carry this out.

"It makes sense that the best school has the largest number of students. It isn't right to compare Nissan Nativ's 17 students with Beit Zvi's 100, because there's only one class at Nativ, and the students are divided into several classes at Beit Zvi."

Do you plan to combine your role as the head of Beit Zvi with your own private work as a theater director?

"Both sides see this as a common interest. They decided it was important to have a well-known director, a working director, head the school. After all, the graduates are supposed to enter the profession when they finish their studies. I'm first of all a director, and I haven't got any intention of hanging up my shoes. During the years I was artistic director of the Israel Festival, I proved, to myself as well, that I am capable of channeling my energies into more than just the next show. Even then, I directed - a bit less, but I directed. It's clear to me that there's a lot of work to be done at Beit Zvi, and because I have prior commitments, it looks to me that the first year I won't be able to take on additional directing."

Will you direct "Azoulay the Policeman" in November at Habima?

"This is a prior commitment made before the Beit Zvi position ever came up. But during the rehearsal period I plan to work at Beit Zvi also, just as I directed theater when I worked at the Israel Festival."

And will the Library Theater next to Beit Zvi continue to operate as it has?

"This is a welcome project of Gary [Bilu's]. He established a theater for Beit Zvi graduates and mounted productions of plays that are not put on by the repertory theaters: "Richard II," for example. He's made daring choices alongside musical productions. As someone who directs more musicals than anyone else in Israel, naturally I have no objection to them. Beit Zvi students land more roles in these musicals than students from other schools. At the same time, we need to stage original material. If I'm not mistaken, original work has not been presented, or not enough of it, at either Beit Zvi or the Library.

The Library Theater is a separate nonprofit organization with a separate public advisory board. Will its administration automatically be turned over to you now?

"They spoke to me about managing Beit Zvi and managing the Library. From my point of view, these are two separate jobs."