Thanks to volunteer Irv Cantor, we present this third installment of our new “Getting to Know Us” blog series, which began in December with an interview with Executive Director, David London. Watch this space for further articles acquainting you with the many members, employees, volunteers and donors who make AACI the place for English speakers in Israel.
Each of us brings our own perspective to any project. An airplane engineer was once asked what he thinks about when he sees a plane he designed flying overhead. His response was, “I think about five million parts flying in close formation.”
The same could be said of Rafi Poch’s point of view, as the Artistic Director for AACI’s J – Town Playhouse theater program, when he thinks about any one of his productions. Delivering a production is a complicated and demanding management effort, coordinating separate streams of activity that must merge on opening night.
We hope this interview with Rafi gives you more insight and greater appreciation of what goes on behind the scenes.
Rafi, thank you for this opportunity to talk with you about the J-Town Playhouse and your work. For starters, can you describe how you came to Israel, and more specifically to AACI?
I came to Israel after high school, to go to yeshiva. I decided to stay for a second year, and then I decided to join the army, and then I thought, what the heck, and I made aliyah. I went to Bar Ilan and earned a Master’s in Jewish History, with a minor in Talmud. Nothing to do with theater. But I got bored, and I tried to open an archery club. But that didn’t work, so I tried to start a theater instead. I just thought that every nice, upstanding college should have a theater. So I started a theater at Bar Ilan, run by students and for the students. We paid for everything and did everything, and we had a great time with it. It lasted nine years and was called the Bar Ilan Acting Society. Through that work I started making contacts with other people in the English speaking theater community in Israel, in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Raanana.
When I graduated, I was offered two jobs, one of which was to be come the Artistic Director of the theater at Merkaz Hamagshimim of Hadassah. I took that position and stayed there for about four years. It was a great space, a great location, working with the English community in Jerusalem. I was developing connections with all of the other theater companies in Jerusalem – there are currently seven – and it was a lot of fun. And then along cam Bernie Madoff’s impact on Hadassah, and they had to close Merkaz Hamagshimim around May in 2011. However, some of the projects created by Merkaz continued. One of them was one I created called Stage 1 English Theater Festival. The purpose was to get the different theater companies together to work together. It was hosted by the Beit Avi Chai cultural center. That project has continued until this past year, and may be taking on a new format.
Around that time, AACI was looking for someone to take over as Programming Coordinator, because the existing Coordinator was going on maternity leave. So I took the position for six months, with the understanding that the possibility of a theater company would be discussed at the end of that time period. I put together a proposal, including logistics, budget and so on, and it was accepted. We opened a theater department. The theater is called the J-Town Playhouse, under the auspices of AACI.
We focus on things that other theater companies can’t, because we have a specific location. What differentiates us from the other theater companies is that we have a space and an organization that oversees the theater. It allows us to do workshops, classes and one-off events. We can do smaller projects that other theaters cannot do, because they need big shows that sell three hundred tickets a night or else they go financially under. We can do shows that have smaller audiences, that don’t have to be the big, old classics. We can do more engaging ideas, more engaging topics, shows that are more specific to a time or place. And we can do shows that are more confrontational.
We have a small stage and can do small musicals. We’ve been doing about one each year. The rest of the time, we do straight plays. Each year we try to do one comedy, one classical, straight play, one Jewish-theme play, one musical, and one other play. Sometimes those categories overlap in one production. At the same time, we have classes on learning acting, learning improv, or other topics related to theater. And we have smaller events, like the 48 Hour Play Project once a year. Once a month we have a concert, and we just started a choir which we hope will continue and expand. We are also starting a new improv troupe.
How do you see your role in connection with all of these things going on?
The juggler, It takes a lot of energy and logistics and orchestration to make sure everything works. Not just on its own, but that it works with everything else at AACI. AACI is not just theater. There are many other programs and activities going on. The other hat I wear here is Program Coordinator. So I have to make sure the logistics work between the theater and the art show exhibit or the movie nights, for example.
I have been to some productions where you actually perform. Is it difficult to work that into your busy schedule?
It’s difficult. It’s difficult because my effective role in every performance is that I produce it, which means I am responsible for all of the behind the scenes logistics – getting people to do makeup, getting people to be stage managers, getting people for the box office, getting the budget together, making sure all of the props and costumes are there, all that stuff. At the same time, being in front of the director, having to memorize lines, having to put on the character, having to develop the character, like the other performers, it’s a lot of energy, and it is quite a challenge.
Are the other roles – stage manager, director for example – steady and unchanging from production to production? Or do they change?
They change from production to production. We have people who like working with us that we like working with, who come back often. Many of them. We have Eryn London, who is directing her second show for us. We have Aliza Schoffman Land, who has stage managed four or five shows for us. Chani Loeb, who comes back all of the time. We have box office staff who come back again and again.
Are the performers the most changeable part of the productions?
There are usually three or four projects in production around the city at any one time, having seven theater companies here. So the actors go wherever there is a project of interest to them. We do have a lot of repeat performers, but we also have a lot of turnover. Usually, because of the intensity of how often we do performances, which is also different from most other theaters. Most other theaters work only one at a time, maybe two. We can work on two or three at a time. Because of that, we need a team for each one. An actor who is acting in one show in October will have a very difficult time acting in another show in December. They would have to be in rehearsal performances while the other show is going on. So someone in a production in October will more likely be in a show in January or March. The actors like the atmosphere here, and they like the quality of productions we do here.
Each theater has its own niche, its own focus. Some are more focused on wonderful sets and costumes and great music. We are focused on the quality of great acting.
How do you decide which shows to put on?
Most of the shows that happen here are done in-house. Also, there are shows that other theater companies will offer.
They will says they would like to perform a show at our location. These I look at, I judge. I see if the content is appropriate for our audience, if the quality of the production is good enough for our audience. If everything is okay, I take it to the directors of AACI and ask if this is something we want to do. If there are no strong objections, we will usually go with it.
That’s external. Internally, part of my job is to decide what shows we want to put on, to look for and find such shows. The main criterion is whether this will go well with our audience. There are other factors, such as content issues – is the content something the actors will enjoy while they are in it. I don’t want to do a show where the actors will be bored half the time. It won’t be challenging to them. I want to do shows that are challenging both to the audience and to the actors. And I want each show to be different than the others. And that’s a challenge. One of the things we don’t do here is we don’t build sets. We’ve done it once or twice, but we really don’t have the space to build or store sets. Personally, I think sets are the accoutrements of theater. I think theater is really about people acting, about people being in front, about people being on stage and walking and talking in front of someone watching. I am not alone in that theory. I am reading a book by a man named Peter Brook who says that exactly. You don’t need lights, you don’t need sound, you don’t need tech. You need actors telling a story. That’s how I decide the plays. If it’s a good story, I’ll do it.
I imagine you do not have a typical work day?
Every day is different. But every project is similar in what needs to happen. To get a production to go, the actors need to learn their lines, there have to be auditions. we need to get the directorial team in order – I’m not mentioning these in the right chronological order – we need to buy the costumes, male the props, create the set if there is one, we need to rehearse, we need to complete planning and cover all of the logistical things. That’s in addition to being responsible for all of the public relations work, the marketing, being the voice for AACI in social media, and doing that all at the same time as running other programs, answering phone calls, and resolving problems.
It sounds very challenging and very complex. Which of your skills contribute most to the success of the program?
The ability to multi-task is really important here. To be able to juggle. Being part of the team here at AACI is great, because other people may have your back and say “You forgot this, but I took are of it.” That will happen often, and I have done it for others. And there are lots and lots of details to take care of. You have to be okay with not taking care of them all today and leaving some for tomorrow. So another skill is patience.
What’s your biggest source of reward for doing all that you do?
Knowing that you had a job well done. At the end of the day, the show went off very well, the audience loved it, the cast loved it and had a great time. That’s the biggest sense of reward. Knowing you created a time, a moment, a place where people enjoyed themselves, where they were challenged, where they saw or absorbed something that made want to do it again. It could be a rehearsal, a show, a class, an activity, whatever it happens to be.
In a previous interview I had with David London, I quoted Lorne Michaels, producer of Saturday Night Live, who said the show doesn’t go on because it’s ready, it goes on because it’s 11:30. Have you every experienced that?
Yes, we have (laughing). I remember an instance last year when we doing Winter’s Tale, and on opening night the show was not ready to go on. And what was worse – and this happens sometimes – I had scheduled it very tightly in terms of other activities, including my own travel. We decided to cancel the first two shows because it was not ready, and God helped us out with a huge snowstorm those two days. While I was gone, there were rehearsals, and when I returned we had our first show, and it was great.
There are three shows that I would call the most ambitious shows we have ever done. That was one of them. Why? Because I took a classic Shakespeare play and turned it into a musical, on my own. I took music form modern culture and added it where it fit the show. The audience liked it and thought it was cool Shakespeare. The other two shows were Rent, which I did not do here – the content was too raw for Jerusalem – and It’s Not You, Well Maybe It Is, a play which was challenging because I wrote it. It was the first show I had ever written. It was an incredible journey with the show, to see if the audience would like it, to see if it would fit or not fit. It ended up fitting immaculately well. I co-wrote it with Sura Shachnovitz, a person whom I deeply respect. It was a great experience and inspired me to write another show, which I am working on now, which deals with the military.
Are there over-arching challenges that cut across all of the shows?
The financial challenges that apply to AACI in general also apply here. The theater runs on its own budget and is judged on its own budget. We have to make enough to survive. Sadly, we don’t always hit those goals. It’s a chicken-and-egg challenge, because that challenge is based on the audiences we get – the theater lives or dies on ticket sales. It’s our main source of income. So we need to do shows that the audience will come and see. But we also need to do shows that the audience doesn’t know. So we have to do those shows in away that the audience will come and see them. We have to market it well, and we have to schedule it well. Scheduling is a big one, because with everything happening at AACI, we still have to schedule the first two shows that we know will not sell well until word of mouth gets around. And we have a break of a few days for word of mouth to do its thing, and then we schedule more shows. Thankfully, we’ve had a series of hits, and we have not had any shows where audiences said they didn’t like it.
In a number of productions I have seen in Israel, both from J-Town and other theaters, I have noticed Jewish content inserted into shows that did not have that content in their original versions. Is that a common practice?
I will answer you in two ways. Around the world, it is done regularly, and may not be Jewish in nature. It’s called playing to your audience. There are other theater companies that do it all the time, maybe even seven or eight times in one performance. I think it’s a little over the top. We do it once or twice, and sometimes the actors decide to do it themselves. We recently did the show The Complete Works of Shakespeare Abridged, and in that show at a specific point it says make a reference that your audience will get, relevant to your time or place or whatever. So some of the plays will have this opportunity built in. Most of the time, for us, they are not added in, unless the script specifically says so.
One of the things I did in preparing to talk with you was to take some quotes from people in the theater in order to ask you to react or comment on them. So here is the first, from playwright David Ives, “Ultimately, one has to pity these poor souls who know every secret about writing, directing, designing, producing and acting but are stuck in those miserable day jobs writing reviews. Will somebody help them please?” How do you react to or use reviews?
Reviews really don’t happen here. I wish they would. They don’t happen in Jerusalem. There isn’t a culture of newspaper or web site reviews. Some big cities like New York have that, but not here. A review is done by someone who sees lots and lots of shows and compares the shows in the review. The write ups you see in the Jerusalem Post, for example, are not reviews. Those write ups are both better and worse than reviews. Reviews are written by professionals who know every little detail of what goes on into making a show happen. Write ups are sometimes written by interns who don’t have in-depth knowledge of theater. On the other hand, the intern will often turn the write up into a personal interest story which increases readership and gives us greater publicity.
Here’s another quote, this time from Jim Henson of Muppet fame, who was in theater: “I was very interested in theater, mostly in stage design. I did a little bit of acting.” Can you talk a little about stage design?
We basically have size or space constraints, and we have budgetary constraints. We will always try to make the stage look different. It might be a completely plain stage, but we will use entrances and exits from both sides, or from the audience, or from curtains. Or it might be theater in the round. We use props, both large and small, to lend a certain feel. But we don’t do a great deal in the stage design aspect. We go for what is called the black box feel, a simple stage where the audience has to use their imagination. Stage design is the tool for getting the audience to feel they are really in that space, and it can be done from two extremes – to design every last detail of the setting, or to present a blank stage and rely on imagination.
Here is a quote from Christopher Meloni, known for his role as the tall detective on Law and Order: “The reason why I hate working in the theater is the tedium of memorization. But once that is done, you feast on this never ending meal. If you play it correctly, every night is fraught with very high stakes that are very difficult to find in everyday life.” So I was wondering if you could comment on the actors you have worked with. Do you see changes and growth in them, and how do they handle that kind of tension?
In community theater, you have varied levels of talent on stage. In a show you typically have actors who are all over the spectrum in talent. That’s what it means when you talk about community theater – we’re a community. And there’s something very nice about that. We don’t have performances every night. We have shows a few nights each week for a two or three week run. Broadway actors have to analyze and their nuances from night to night, which is very challenging. Here, an actor gets really comfortable with a role after about two weeks, when the production is almost ended. It’s more an issue of the adrenalin rush on opening night, followed by a letdown in the next performance, due to the lack of adrenalin, and then trying to build yourself back up to the level of opening night as the two or three weeks progress and you become more integrated into the character.
Many actors have really grown and developed through this theater. An interesting fact is that there is no English youth group in Israel. Many of the teenagers have found a community through the theater. About four or five years ago, we started doing one musical each year, for teens and by teens. It’s been a great success. Now the kids hang out with each other on Shabbat or other times. It spans the religious and secular spectra, and it is great.
One last quote, from the famous Stephen Sondheim: “All the best performers bring to their role something more, something different than what the author put on paper. That’s what makes theater live. That’s why it persists.” Given that idea, where do you see the program going in the future?
I think that quote applies to everyone in theater, not just the performers. If you don’t bring something of yourself into the job you do, then the result is something stodgy, perhaps with audiences that still come, but not happy audiences. What keeps the theater going, even if you’re not selling tickets, is a new vision, from the level of choosing a show – something new that the audience has not experienced – to the level of the director – finding the characters you see coming off that paper, not necessarily what the author saw. As I grow older and wiser, I will not have a person who has been both a writer and director do both jobs in a single production. When I wrote my own show, I knew I was not going to be the director. We need more voices. We need the show to be universal and not have too much “me” of one person. The show has to apply to everyone.
You also have to bring new stuff to your theater, to continue to challenge your audience. “You didn’t like that last author? Here’s a new one. Give it a try.”
And with the actors, it’s the same thing. The actor comes in and says, “This is the character on paper, and this is who I am. How do I mesh the two?” The actors who don’t ask that, and who play four or five characters the same way, become very boring to the audience. That’s why you seek a balance of actors who can mesh and those who can’t. Or you bring in an entirely new cast, which is something I’ve done.
I’ve been very focused on doing specific projects and shows. One of my higher level goals is to see this theater become a home for creative people of all types. In about two minutes I have to go down the hall to a brand new children’s acting class. It’s anew thing, and I have high hopes for it. At the same time, I want to challenge audiences with new shows and new ideas. I want new people to join us to create their own challenging projects. One special goal is to have a new show introduced each year, written by someone in the comunity. We are still lacking playwrights. We have here a venue for new playwrights, and I hope to see it become a regular festure. Finally, I would like to see one building in Jerusalem dedicated to English theater. It would be home for the seven theater companies in Israel, a place where they could come to enhance the English language culture in Jerusalem and all of Israel.
Rafi, thank you for this whirlwind interview. You are accomplishing remarkable things through AACI and your theater company. I hope readers are moved to both attend your productions and become active volunteers and participants in your work.
The earlier interviews in this series can be viewed using these links:
Chidlren’s Creative Drama Workshop:
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