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.

Theatre in London review

Reviewed by Kenneth Chisholm, March 27, 2009

Written and performed by Robyn Israel
Directed by Peter Busby

The Arts Project Theatre
March 24–28, 2009

In one manner of thinking, being Jewish can be as much like kayaking as fiddling on a roof. It requires a sense of balance to work through the rapids and having the strength to right yourself when your world has turned upside down as you proceed to your destination. This play is an amusing and intriguing look at religion, identity and relationships as one Jewish woman tells her story of her own journey through those realities.

In retrospect, watching this play again after My Name Is Rachel Corrie was a good idea. Whereas the former play is in part about a nominally Christian woman coming to Palestine, this one is about a Jewish-Canadian woman with her own experiences here. To that end, we are treated to an inspired monologue of the power of names and identity as evidenced by Ms. Israel’s surname, imposed on her immigrating grandfather by a bossy immigration agent who couldn’t be bothered to attempt to properly spell his name.

The play then moves on to the conflicts of prejudices and Jewish culture from both Robyn’s traditionalist mother and her gentile boyfriends who range from the honestly open minded, like one Buddhist man, to a dyslexic redneck biker who posted on the wrong online dating service. All the while, Israel approaches her stories with a well-balanced wit and insight that illustrates the realities of Jewish life with revealing eloquence.

To that end, Robyn Israel creates a vivid variety of characters using only a few props at most to carry the act. The finest example of this is her parents, with her mother being a classic kvetching mother with old-world attitudes that struggle to understand the modern world of her daughter while Robyn’s father is a easygoing soul who effortlessly undermines his wife’s bossiness with a laconic wit.

However, while the update and expansion of the play does modernize it in welcome ways, it is not flawless in some aspects. This includes trivial concerns like her not updating her joke complaint there are no Jewish female superheroines in comic books, when some quick research would have told her of such characters like Sabra, Fathom and Masada. More seriously is the thematic break she creates when she….[spoiler removed]. This dramatic misstep is not fatal to the play, but she does its theme no favours for that skewed perspective that creates a scene that’s more an overwrought lecture than drama.

Finally, I appreciate the minimalistic style of the play’s stagecraft that encourages the best imaginative performance for any actor. As such, Israel is able to smoothly shift from character to character with admirable ease with only a hat or a smock for instance. The hanging kayak is a special feature, an unavoidable symbol of Israel’s struggle of not just her own self identity, but her rebellion against stereotype through something so distinctively Canadian itself.

Being a woman who is an ethnic and/or religious minority can be challenge in any land, even in Canada. Robyn Israel has given a face and voice to that quiet struggle and created an entertaining play that just needs some research and a little more perspective.

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.

Rogers Interview

Interview with Sabine & Juna

London Free Press review

There’s lots in a name

August 5, 2007

What’s in a name? For Robyn Israel — it’s everything.

One of the best one-woman shows at London Fringe 2007, Jewish Girls Don’t Kayak is a cackle-filled personal view into Israel’s family life and how she came to have her eponymous surname.

Her comedic routine retells her experience, wading through stereotypes, culture clashing and racism.

Israel tells the story of when her grandfather wanted to come to Canada. She says he was met with a snarky immigration official who, not understanding her father’s thick accent when he spoke his real name, ignorantly dubbed him Morris Israel, a name that stuck through generations.

Israel tells us about struggles through her childhood wishing she had a more Anglo-saxon name, something like Anderson. She comically enlightens Fringers, proud to inform them that Judy Holiday’s real name was Judith Tuvim. She tells of her disappointment when Norman Jewison, director of 1971 film Fiddler on the Roof, wasn’t Jewish, as his name suggested, but Protestant.

With Yiddish references, Israel takes us on a path of self-learning: Her name, culture and her wacky yet lovable parents.

And while Israel mostly makes light of her experiences — the latent bigotry and family strain over finding a Jew to marry — she does hit her audience with painfully emotional material.

I held back a sniffle when Israel recalled the fire-bombing of her high school, its glass library shattered and books strewn. [… spoiler removed …]

Jewish Girls Don’t Kayak makes us all proud to preserve our own ethnic heritage while still being truly Canadian.