ArtScape magazine


Robyn Israel brings her one-woman show, "Jewish Girls Don't Kayak," to the Arts Project.

Robyn Israel brings her one-woman show, "Jewish Girls Don't Kayak," to the Arts Project.

by Tess de Haan

Robyn Israel is a woman of many talents and even more energy. She is reviving her revamped one-woman show, “Jewish Girls Don’t Kayak,” at The Arts Project this month.

“Jewish Girls Don’t Kayak” premiered at London’s 2007 Fringe Festival and went on to win a Brickenden Award for Best Comedy Show of the Year. The show addresses themes of multiculturalism, anti-Semitism, Judaism, and identity issues. Although that may not read like a comedy show, Israel gives the material a lighthearted treatment.

Humour is the backbone of the show, and Israel feels that comedy is what makes the message stick. Her aim is to educate people who may not know about Judaism – to dispel the stereotypes and entertain at the same time. “It’s palatable because it educates in a lighthearted way,” says Israel.

The show’s title was derived from a conversation Israel had with a man who, upon learning that she kayaked, declared, “Jewish girls don’t kayak!” “I thought it was such an absurd comment and I filed it away in my mind,” laughs Israel. “I thought it would be a catchy title for a play someday and voila! My play addresses stereotypes like his comment.”

In treating what is very personal and often painful material in a comedic way, Israel is following a Jewish tradition in itself. “What sets them [Jewish immigrants] apart, I think,” Israel explains, “is their wonderful sense of humor and their appreciation for the absurd. Jewish people love to laugh, love to tell jokes and enjoy word play, which is a big part of my play.”

“Like many immigrants, the Jews came to Canada in search of a better life, free from the persecution that had plagued them in Europe,” Israel says. “They stuck together and built cohesive communities. They still had to contend with anti-Semitism, even in their adopted country [unlike some other immigrant groups]. This is sadly true even today.” As an example, she cites overhearing an anti-Semitic comment the same day her show opened at the Fringe.

Israel came to acting relatively recently, after being introduced to improvisational theatre. She was working in Palo Alto, CA, as a theatre writer and was assigned a story about an improv troupe. “It sparked something in me,” recalls Israel. “They were having so much fun!”

Although Israel was an arts journalist, writing regularly, she still felt a void in terms of personal creativity. So in 2002, she began taking improv classes and soon after began writing her first one-woman show, “My Mother, God Love Her.” Israel performed this show at the Marsh Theatre in San Francisco in 2004.

Although the San Francisco show, as well as “Jewish Girls Don’t Kayak,” is based on real events and people from her life, Israel does admit to taking creative license. But still, I wonder, isn’t it personally risky to perform a show based on your own life, complete with boyfriend stories, mother stories, and adolescence stories? “Yes, absolutely”, Israel agrees. “But I really think we learn from other people’s lives, experiences and insecurities. My story is unique to me and yet it’s so universal in its narrative. It reaches out to all cultures, and I know I connected with people from different backgrounds by sharing my life story.”

The Fringe version of “Jewish Girls” clocked in at 45 minutes, but in the last two years Israel has expanded and broadened the scope of the show to make it a full-length production.

“I felt like the story was still being written,” says Israel, as more recent events in her life made their way into the narrative. “I view the Fringe as a workshop. This time I wanted to stage it in a more mainstream venue; take it to a higher level. That was my goal from the start.”

While Victoria Sutton directed the Fringe version, this time around Peter Busby is at the helm.

“Peter gave me my first break in London theatre,” says Israel, who credits her move to London as an important factor in her artistic development. “London’s been kind to me,” she says. “The London Arts Council has been a great source of support. They really believed in my growth as an artist. I owe a lot to them.”

“Jewish Girls Don’t Kayak” runs March 24 to 28 at The Arts Project, 203 Dundas Street. For more information visit the Arts Calendar.

Tess de Haan is busy working on her one-woman show “Dutch Girls Don’t Rawk”! Because of course, she says, they do.

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.

The Western Gazette

Jewish Girls Don’t Kayak, They Perform Comedy
by Adam Szymanski

Jewish Girls Don't Take Boat Safety Seriously

Jewish Girls Don't Take Boat Safety Seriously

Robyn Israel is a one-woman show both on and off-stage. The award-winning stage performer and playwright is currently performing her good-humoured, satirical play, Jewish Girls Don’t Kayak, at the ARTS Project.

Israel performs the 90-minute comedic act completely solo with only the help of outrageous props and even more outrageous memories from her adventurous past as both an attached and single Jewish woman from Montreal.

Israel’s comedy stems from her Jewish upbringing and her ability “to poke fun in a loving way.” Her humorous take on life and love crosses all ethnic boundaries — much like Israel herself.

“I dated a Buddhist for four years and we learned about each other’s philosophies,” she says. Her past relationship may now be source for comedic material, but in the end, Israel says the relationship “was quite illuminating.”

Israel is also a Faculty of Information and Media Studies journalism lecturer and thinks most students embrace the ideas of ethnic diversity and tolerance.

As a live performance artist sensitive to issues of representation, Israel feels her play will relate well with Western students.

“The show will relate to students because it touches upon universal truths,” she says.

Israel stresses that, at the core, her play is essentially “about identity and being comfortable with who you are.”

Certainly comfortable with herself, Israel can make funny observations about her current experience as a single woman that others may not.

“Many students are in the process of getting together and breaking up, and can relate to similar themes in Jewish Girls Don’t Kayak,” she adds.

Israel brings her student appeal, pop culture references and London shout-outs to the ARTS Project tonight and tomorrow at 8 p.m. Tickets are $12 for students and $18 for adults.

The ARTS Project is located at 203 Dundas Street.