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2 Senses Missing, 3 Others Step Up
from the NY Times:
2 Senses Missing, 3 Others Step Up
By ISABEL KERSHNER
TEL AVIV — Next time you’re alone in a dark, quiet room, shut your eyes. Block out all sound.
For the deaf and blind performers of Nalagaat, an acclaimed Israeli theater ensemble, the impregnable darkness and silence is just reality, a black canvas on which to work.
In the troupe’s “Not by Bread Alone,” which is to have its United States premiere at the Skirball Center for the Performing Arts at New York University on Wednesday, brush strokes of raw memories, fantastical journeys, pantomime sketches and fleeting but indelible snippets of dreams add up to a theatrical happening that draws the audience into the performers’ world.
The actors of Nalagaat (the name is Hebrew for Please Do Touch) can’t see or hear the audience; most of them can’t talk. Interpreters convey their inner voices according to a script, and supertitles in English, Hebrew and Arabic appear on a screen above the stage. Sometimes a silent-movie-type soundtrack tinkles in the background. At other times the audience is invited to sing along with a song composed for the show.
All the while the actors perform an earthy, tactile task: kneading and baking bread, with the aroma wafting up from the ovens at the back of the stage. They share their thoughts on subjects like whom they would most want to give their bread to (a kind soul, a hungry child) and what life is all about. The opening tableau of the 11 bakers sitting at long tables evolves into a meticulously timed succession of scenes and sketches, some comic and bordering on burlesque, like an imaginary visit to a celebrity hairdresser, and others that are more realistic and heart rending.
The story of how Nalagaat came to be is one of serendipity, born of an encounter between a group of disabled adults and a theater director who professes to have little patience and even less sense of pity.
“Many times in the past people asked me if I wanted to lead workshops for disabled people,” Adina Tal, president and artistic director of Nalagaat, said in an interview. “It did not interest me, though I thought it was nice that others did it.”
But about 14 years ago the Swiss-born Ms. Tal was approached to run a two-month workshop for members of a deaf-blind social club. She agreed and became captivated, she said, by the challenge of creating a new form of communication; the workshop evolved into a wandering theater company. In 2007 the troupe moved to its permanent home, the Nalagaat Center in the old Jaffa port of Tel Aviv.
“There was no other deaf-blind theater group,” said Ms. Tal, who is 59. “I always regretted that I’d been born too late to establish the state of Israel. This was a gift — a chance to invent the wheel.”
She began working through tactile-sign interpreters and with much squeezing of hands. “I did not have a clue,” she said. “Yet somehow inside I knew exactly what to do.”
Some social workers told her she was too demanding of her actors. “I may have been the first person who did not say, ‘Great!’ to everything they did,” she said.
The ensemble’s first production, “Light Is Heard in Zig Zag” (2003), about dreams and aspirations, came out of a long process in which the actors worked on improvisation, rhythm and body movement. Eventually the performers learned to express their emotions and fantasies in pantomime.
After three months of work a member of the group told Ms. Tal that all the pantomime was nonsense and that he wanted to do a Gorky play.
“I asked him: ‘How? You don’t hear, see or talk,’ ” Ms. Tal recalled. “He said: ‘That’s your problem. You’re the director.’ I said: ‘No, it’s your problem. You are the deaf and blind ones.’ We did not do Gorky because the whole strength of the group is that they are not like other actors. They had to create their own truth.”
Building on the actors’ senses of taste, smell and touch Ms. Tal explored the binding experience of preparing food. She had the troupe make salads and other basics, and the activity crystallized into the exercise of baking bread.
For “Not by Bread Alone” Ms. Tal also devised the method of using drumbeats as punctuation between scenes. After six months the performers had learned to feel and respond to the vibrations, giving them a new link to the seeing and hearing world.
“You come to see them, but through them you see yourselves,” Ms. Tal said. “To me that is art.”
At the Nalagaat Center audience members can have a pre- or post-performance meal at the Blackout Restaurant, where the flavors of the food and wine, served in the pitch dark, take on a special intensity. Blind waiters and waitresses glide around the tables wearing bells, and diners are given bibs.
The Blackout Restaurant and a mini version of Café Kapish, a coffee shop where the deaf or hearing-impaired waiters take orders in sign language, will be replicated at Skirball.
At the end of the show, as the trays of steaming bread come out of the ovens, the audience is invited onstage to have a sample. The actors mingle with the crowd, communicating through interpreters and touch — a reminder of the need for human contact, even when normal avenues of communication are closed.
It is a simple, universal message that Itzik Hanuna, who was born blind and became deaf at 11, powerfully conveys from the stage.
In a searing monologue he remembers being stuck in his bedroom as a teenager, alone with his thoughts.
“Generally I’m used to the darkness and the silence,” he declares in his distinctive high-pitched monotone. “But this time I was feeling them more than I could bear.
“I started wandering around the room. Suddenly I felt the touch of a hand. When someone touches my hand, I can feel that my loneliness starts to disappear.”
His friends had come to take him for a walk.