St. Marys Storytelling

It’s been awhile since my last blog, so my apologies to anyone who’s been reading.

But  I felt compelled to write about my recent experience performing in St. Marys.  My show, “Jewish Girls Don’t Kayak,” was presented as part of the city’s storytelling series, and I was overwhelmed by the response. There were about 100 people in attendance, most locals, some from Stratford and the Kitchener-Waterloo area, others as far as Kincardine. It was truly a lovely, supportive audience who stayed glued to their seats throughout the 90-minute performance. Most were not Jewish, and a theatre-goer friend of mine commented that it’s an interesting phenomenon, how non-Jewish audiences are often more responsive to Jewish stories than Jewish audiences. Go figure!

After the show there was a reception at the United Church, the site of the performance. The repast included bagels and challah, and I included a display tray with food that’s mentioned in my show (knishes, hamantashen, latkas etc.). One woman came up to me and told me that she was inspired to start Internet dating as a result of seeing my story. I wish her the best of luck! To me that’s what makes putting my story out there worthwhile.

Next up: Ottawa!


What a week.

It was a great run at The Arts Project. Solid audiences. Laughter. Tears. Applause. People really embraced the show. Many people told me how moved they were, how they laughed, how they cried. It was wonderful to hear.

While working on the script, Peter (my director) encouraged me to reveal pathos with the humour. I wasn't so sure whether I was prepared to go to darker places on stage. I also didn't think I had the dramatic chops. Honestly, I always viewed myself as a writer/performer, never an actress. I was at Rogers TV for an interview last week, and when I saw this decription of me on their run sheet ("Robyn Israel, actress"), I did a double-take.

But by week's end, as my confidence grew, I started to realize that I was capable of handling dramatic material. For the last show, I didn't hold back. I really allowed myself to feel my pain, and took my audience to a very raw, real place.

Peter reminded me that if you can do comedy, you can do drama. I thought of one of my favorite comediennes, Andrea Martin, who can make me laugh just by her facial expressions. I have also seen her do drama, and she is wonderful. Talk about a role model.

So now when I try to sell the show to other markets, I have one more adjective to use: poignant.

Saturday's matinee

I had one matinee for this show, and it proved the most challenging performance. For the first time, I totally blanked on one of my lines. It seemed like 7 seconds before I finally recovered and got back into the script. With 32 pages to memorize, it's not surprising that there would be some missteps and stumbles. But this was the only time I actually forgot the line!!

I chalked it up to fatigue (I hadn't slept very well the night before) and to a different vibe from the audience. This house was the smallest to date — around 20 people — and they were quiet and reflective. I have learned from experience that just because an audience does not respond vocally doesn't mean they are not reacting internally. Of course, as a comedienne, it's nice to hear the laughter and the applause. You know immediately that they are enjoying the material.

I didn't realize how much the show meant until I stepped out of the theatre after the show. There stood a friend, with tears streaming down her face. She was speechless for a few moments. "You are so brave," she told me. Her heartfelt reaction deeply touched me. Yes, the show is funny, but there are also some serious, poignant moments — about loss, loneliness, bigotry — and I wasn't sure how people would respond to those darker scenes.

I learned that it's the humour that permits the audience to go with me to those places of pain. Thankfully, they embraced the whole package. After all, life is about light and shade, right?

Friday night -- incredible!

I am behind in my blog. It has been so intense, so much like a roller-coaster ride, that I have not had the time to process and reflect. So for those who are reading, my apologies. I have a number of thoughts to share with you about my last performances.

On Thursday I managed to recover from my Opening Night jitters. It went very well. And Friday night saw an exceptional audience –  warm, receptive and gracious. I knew that this was not a Jewish audience, judging from their failure to respond to some Yiddish references. Yet I felt them deeply with me. They were definitely along for the journey. And several stood up at the end of the show.

When I exited the theatre, there was a group of 10 women waiting for me. They told me how much they enjoyed the show. And one was from Northern Ontario, and she really appreciated the play's celebration of this province. It was heartwarming to know they had waited around afterward to share their impressions of what the show meant to them. They also related to my Jewish mother (even though they came from different backgrounds), and to the immigrant experience depicted in the story.

Last week I was asked by several interviewers what the play is about. After all, the title Jewish Girls Don't Kayak, while catchy, does not give any indication as to the show's content. Normally I would answer "It's about identity, it's about becoming comfortable with who you are and accepting who you are. It's about dating outside the faith…" But now I have a fuller answer. I had a dear friend come to the show on Friday, and he said, "This show is about life. It's about loving and leaving your family. It's about growing up." Well said.

Theatre in London review

Opening Night

I confess — I had Opening Night jitters.

My performance wasn't as smooth as Preview Night (I tripped over more words this time), but thankfully the audience was very forgiving. Witha 32-page script, it's almost impossible to deliver each line cleanly, but I try. I've been giving lots of thought lately to the grand dames of theatre, like Vanessa Redgrave and Judy Dench and Helen Mirren. I am sure that that when they were first starting out they had their share of off-nights! I bet they still have some off-nights — except they're probably really adept at camouflaging their errors.

Last night saw a mixed-age crowd, which I love to see. It included Western students, a Fanshawe professor, and a big group of girlfriends, who came to show their support. It's a true delight when the material connects to everyone. Peter Busby, my director, told me that what happened last night was a classic audience response – -they warmed up slowly, but then they got pulled in emotionally by different parts of the play, and their energy truly came alive in the middle of the show. By the play's end, you could have heard a pin drop, they were so quiet, listening to the dramatic moment that caps off the show.

And I reacted differently to this crowd — in a good way. I am a very intuitive performer, and I found myself engaging physically in a way I didn't do on Tuesday night, improvising at certain moments, ad-libbing. I even burst out singing a few lines from Alanis Morissette's heartbreak song, You Oughta Know. It wasn't in the script, but it just felt right at that moment. It's what makes live theatre so exciting for me and my audience, because they never know what to expect. The experience is truly different each night.

So here's to another exciting show tonight!

Preview Night!

Yesterday was a whirlwind — three interviews, all Western related. Started off the morning with an interview on CHRW radio, followed by ones for the Gazette and the Reporter. It brought back memories of when I worked as an A&E writer, covering interesting stories. They all asked insightful questions about the show and myself. The most common question: what is the show about? In a word, identity. It's about becoming comfortable in your own skin, accepting who you are (Jewish, single, middle-aged) and figuring out the life path that is right for you, irrespective of other's expectations. Like any good theatre, there's also conflict: the desire to maintain traditions while dating people of other cultures and backgrounds.

I thought I was going to be SO NERVOUS, but luckily I managed to keep my nerves in check. An actor friend told me that it gets easier the more you perform, and I think he's right. Plus the space at the Arts Project is so small and intimate, I actually felt really comfortable. I was able to interact with the audience and really pick up on their energy. It was actually the least nervous I've ever been for a show! (Plus it helps that I can really only see the first row while I'm performing!)

There were about 25, 30 people there – pretty good for a preview night. After the show, a woman came to talk to me, to tell me how much she enjoyed the performance. Apparently she had seen a poster in Old East Village, and she was intrigued by the title. She told me how there were similarities between her story and mine (like starting over again after a divorce), and it was reassuring to know that other people had gone through it and survived. It's not always easy for me to share personal details in my show, but when I hear feedback like that, it makes me feel that putting myself out there is definitely worth it.

Now, on to Opening Night! More details tomorrow…

4 Days Until Showtime!

    It is 4 days before the curtain opens, and I am getting very excited (and nervous) about performing again. I have not performed solo since 2007. It feels like I am about to get back on the proverbial horse, but this time a lot more people are going to be watching. Jewish Girls Don’t Kayak won the Brickenden Award for Outstanding Comedy of 2007, but it went unseen by a lot of people when it debuted at the London Fringe Festival. So I suspect more people will be checking it out this time, to see what all the buzz is about.

    Last Thursday I went and saw Five O’Clock Bells at the McManus Studio, a one-man show about the life of jazz guitarist Lenny Brault. It was intriguing to see how another actor does a one-person show. Actor/playwright Pierre Brault performs seven different characters, including three women. He doesn’t rely on costume changes, opting instead to use his voice and physicality as a means of creating his various characters. And there are no props – just incredible lighting and sound. He doesn’t even play guitar on stage! But it all comes together seamlessly, thanks to great characterization, sharp writing and lightning-quick transitions. Eighty minutes straight of solid drama. I kept wondering – how does he have the stamina for this? My own show is going to be 1 hour and 30 minutes — without intermission — so I am really stretching myself as a performer. I am in awe of anyone who can project boundless energy onstage for a sustained amount of time.

    The next day, I had the opportunity to attend a workshop with Pierre, who also wrote the script. I asked him about the challenges of playing the opposite sex, since I play about 10 different male characters in my show, including my father and grandfather. Pierre gave me some pointers. “Remember, Robyn, men don’t have hips, so make sure you don’t sashay on stage!” Another tip: just study people. See how they talk, how they walk, how they hold themselves. On Sunday morning I had brunch at Symposium with my publicist/sherpa Liz, and we watched people go by on Richmond Street. I was on the lookout for guys, to see how they carried themselves. Most were Western students, walking with their girlfriends, one hand in their pocket, projecting lots of bravado. And then there was one older gentleman standing outside the cafe, with a cigarette in his mouth. He walked back and forth, looking lost in thought. Liz assumed he was ethnic, perhaps from Portugal, and from his countenance he seemed sad, almost wistful. What was he thinking about? Was he waiting for someone? Did he miss someone? What did he want out of life?

    I am still in the process of shaping my characters, so I get inspiration everywhere I go. On Sunday I was on the bus, eavesdropping on a conversation by a twenty-something male. He had a raspy voice, and was lamenting that he didn’t have a car. He was also reminiscing about his drunken Saturday night. I couldn’t help but think “Yeah, now I know how I’m going to play Travis!”