The Reporter

March 25, 2009
By Jesse Reynolds

Getting into Character

It’s late Tuesday afternoon, and the theatre at The ARTS Project is in total darkness. About a hundred empty chairs face the stage, and when the lights come up, Robyn Israel is standing alone. She flips open a cellphone and jumps right into her dialogue.

This is the last rehearsal before Israel takes to the stage for real in the revival of her award-winning one-woman show, Jewish Girls Don’t Kayak. Two years ago, the show won a Brickenden theatre award for outstanding comedy, but now it’s longer, more theatrical and, in Israel’s opinion, better.

Two and a half hours till show time, and she and the two crew members are still trying to get it just right.

As she shifts from one scene to the next, Israel walks across the stage and picks up a hat off a chair.

“You’ve got to take the papers, too,” says director Peter Busby, gesturing toward a few pieces of blue sheets she left behind.

“This side of the table?” asks Israel, papers in hand and moving to her next place on the stage.

Tuesday night’s preview would be the first time she has performed solo in two years, and Israel admits she’s a little nervous.

“You just have to work through the fear and do things that scare you,” she says.

As Israel moves through her scenes, she changes character again and again with the help of different props, voices and body language. She’s not even sure how many different people she plays over the course of the play, but it’s at least a dozen. This is her biggest test as a solo actress.

“Doing a one-person show, the challenge is to make every character distinct so that there’s no confusion in the audience as to who you’re playing at any given time.”

A graduate of the University of Western Ontario with a master’s in clinical psychology, Israel observes people all the time. How they speak, their tendencies, their body language – a lot of effort goes into developing each character. On her blog, Israel even writes about studying two men in London recently in preparation for this week’s shows.

Robyn Israel puts her life on display in Jewish Girls Don’t Kayak (Photo by Jesse Reynolds)

Robyn Israel puts her life on display in Jewish Girls Don’t Kayak (Photo by Jesse Reynolds)

Back on the stage, she puts on a trucker hat and holds an invisible beer in her hand as the sounds of drag racing flood the small theatre. In this scene, she recalls an unsuccessful attempt at online dating.

And that’s how the show is. Personal. Israel calls it semi-autobiographical because a few scenes were added or altered to enhance the story, but the main character is her in every way. Her thoughts, her struggles and her life are all rolled up into one 90-minute show.

“At this point in my life, I’m not where I thought I would be,” says Israel, who is divorced with no kids. “I’m taking the road less travelled.”

Nevertheless, her character is someone a lot of people can relate to.

“It’s somebody who’s in the process of becoming comfortable with who she is. I think it speaks to everybody. It’s not just a Jewish story; it’s a very human, personal story.”

Israel finishes a scene and looks over at Busby.

“Do you want to stop there?” he asks.

“Can we jump to the last scene?” she replies.

In this scene, Israel recalls witnessing the firebombing of a Jewish school. Her emotional account ends the show in a thought provoking manner.

“I think it has a larger message of tolerance,” she says. “Anti-Semitism is sadly still with us.

“On a more personal level, (the message is) to live your life for you, to figure it out for yourself and not to live for parental expectations or any other expectations, but to forge your own path.”

When the scene ends, the lights fade out and k.d. lang’s version of the Neil Young song Helpless plays in the background. When the stage lights up once more, Israel practises her bow once and walks off stage. It’s less than two hours to showtime now, and she has to conserve her energy.

While Israel relaxes backstage, Busby takes the time to have a quick dinner before the show. He has worked with Israel before and enjoys her humility.

“She doesn’t throw her ego around. She’s very willing to listen,” says the award-winning director, who helped develop the show and tries to instil his knowledge in Israel. “She’s like a sponge. She just soaks everything up.”

In her life off the stage, Israel works as a journalist and an instructor of drama and writing at Western – so she’s used to performing under pressure and speaking in front of a crowd. She may be nervous now, but Busby has every confidence that Israel will perform well come showtime.

“As far as who she is, what she is and where she is right now, she’s ready.”

Jewish Girls Don’t Kayak plays at The ARTS Project this week, Wednesday through Saturday.

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