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March 5-11, 2009Taking direction
Ami Dayan’s journey from the Israeli army
to the CU theater program
by Jim Lillie
Now,” says Ami Dayan. “You’re dealing with a high-end production. You are in Seattle, and you have two days to perform your show.
Understand. That is where you are now.” The squad of six University of Colorado students doesn’t need any further prompting. Each slowly walks about the fluorescent-lit theater space, warming up their voices and bodies while Dayan arouses their creative energies. The 10-year Boulder resident and internationally acclaimed actor/playwright (and former Israeli elite rescue-unit commando) is currently serving as Roe Green Visiting Professor for the CU theater department.
“If something needs waking up, wake it up! Focus on here. Think of this environment as being very welcoming today for some reason.
Overwhelmingly welcome. And if there’s a moment in your script that would be relevant, deal with that now. Go for the extreme, if it’s in an office or a tomb. It doesn’t have to be verbal. Just go there.”
He’s entirely pleasant. Uncle Ami all the way. At the same time, he doesn’t mean “maybe.”
A moment later, Dayan asks who will be the first to present their original one-person show for immediate feedback and critique. All of the pieces are in various stages of progress — some with multiple characters and scenes of dialogue, others with no more than a beginning image or two.
It’s a three-hour class. No one is getting out without baring their performer’s/writer’s/director’s soul. Or defending their producing/selling/marketing plan. In Ami’s world, every word, action or idea — on stage and off — seems, in the words of T. S. Eliot, “a step to the block, to the fire, down the sea’s throat.” What deserves to survive will. What doesn’t won’t. End of story? It’s only the beginning.
Undeterred, one young woman steps to the center of the classroom stage — a bare floor in front of a row of her seated colleagues — and offers up Skin Deep, her solo show about women and body image. Everyone waits in silence for her first words. She’s all business, describing the makeup of her “target audience,” predicting a four- or five-day run of her show, along with accompanying workshops. Seven-and-a-half minutes later, (“Get it to four minutes,” Dayan advises), her teacher/coach/drill instructor asks the audience, “Is she invested in what she’s telling us about?” Her classmates are supportive, but hedge. “You say, ‘probably,’” Dayan counters. “What would make it ‘definitely’?”
The students look at one another. This is a college-level, middle-America theater course, after all. Not a make-or-break audition for entry into the Sacred Temple of Classical Art. How much further can she be expected to go?
Ideas flow back and forth. Eventually, a feasible plan emerges. Without further ado, the women turns her back and begins her show with a potentially audience-offending indictment that no one takes pains to question, much less dispute. It works, and everyone knows it. “Darkness. Somebody running,” Dayan says afterward. “I already like it.” He encourages sharper and quicker transitions between each episode. The woman says that’s why she may want a director for the piece. Dayan says that someone can help her with logistics, but the story and characters are uniquely hers. She should trust herself.
“Who’s next?” he says
• • •
“We could do another production of Hamlet, and that’s extremely important,” Dayan says after class. “But the new Hamlet, the new Angels in America, whatever — those are the biggest challenges. [We need] to empower students to not just sit around waiting for the phone call. To say [instead], ‘Where’s the market for this? How do we engage the market?’”
CU theater department head Bud Coleman says, “Having him here creates a wonderful opportunity for our students to work with a seasoned actor and director who has worked around the world.”
However, Dayan’s early involvement with theater was, unlike his formative years, anything but planned. “It was random as random could be. I was brought up in Israel in a kibbutz, a very closed society, a commune. When I was released from the military, I was so free, I just didn’t want to do anything. I took a course at night, a continuing education kind of a thing, in acting. And I was hooked right away. In the military, it always felt that I had to work hard to achieve something. Here, it was more about being open to challenge, which to me was a life-threatening proposition. So within a few months I was at the Israeli School for Dramatic Arts.”
Following his first year, Dayan moved to New York, where he studied with acting guru Uta Hagen. “What they were teaching me [at the Israeli Academy] was production. How to work hard. And this was stuff that I knew from the kibbutz; I knew it from the military. I was looking for art. Uta Hagen said, ‘Say two words — simplicity and effortless.’ And I thought, ‘OK. I got to the right place.’”
After his time in New York, Dayan touched down in Paris and London, where he studied with still more fabled teachers — names that, at that time, were the theatrical equivalent of Olympic gold-medal legends — before heading back to Israel, where he finished his actor training and, finally, turned pro.
Two years later, he says, “It was crazy. I started getting anxiety attacks. And I figured the real anxiety was, ‘Am I worthy?’ I had a lot of heartbreaks. I think a lot of actors go through that. And one day — there was nothing happening — but an answer came, just internally, which was, ‘That is not an interesting question.’ And I figured there are a lot of people doing much more disgrace to the holiness of the art form. I think it was Golda Meir who said, ‘Don’t be so humble. You’re not that great.’ And I just put all that aside.”
Dayan eventually got married, started a family and then won a writer’s scholarship from the American-Israeli Cultural Foundation.
“We could be basically anywhere in the world. I wanted to go to India; my wife wanted to go to New York. We kind of settled for Boulder.”
Encouraged by former Denver Center Theatre Company artistic director Donovan Marley to first earn his reputation from the New York Times, Dayan set his sights on securing a New York production of his own adaptation of Nobel winner Dario Fo’s A Tale of a Tiger.
“It took me four years, which opened the door to the second show, which took less than a year, which gave me a stamp of approval.
Now I’m working on my fourth [show]. So that became the pattern.” One that, like many of the patterns in Dayan’s life, has resulted in a series of successes that, in this case, would be the envy of most local actors and directors. The Colorado Shakespeare Festival has him penning an adaptation of Nathan the Wise, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s 1779 play about religious tolerance, which is set in Jerusalem during the Third Christian Crusade. “I need to get a first draft by April,” he says. “We’re making it into a musical, and that’s a project in itself.” His latest adaptation, Conviction, was commissioned by the Denver Center Theatre Company and is slated for a New York run later this year. And as part of his current assignment for CU, Dayan is also directing his own adaptation of Frank Wedekind’s The Awakening of Spring, as well as acting in the piece.
“It’s a difficult play, a very beautiful, complex piece,” says Dayan of the controversial, century-old play about a repressive society that, to tragic consequence, seeks to silence all discussion of sexuality among adolescents. “You have secular oppression on one side and faith-based on the other. To grow up healthy under these conditions — good luck.”
• • •
Dayan could be the nicest guy going, or the most infuriating, or anything in-between. “In Israel, a temper tantrum is how you say hello. It took me a while to recognize that this is not the same culture,” he says. While friendly from the get-go, he’s not the easiest person to read. If there’s any tortured Method-actor angst simmering, he manages to hide it well. His comments to his students are, in nearly every case, insightful, well-chosen and supportive. There’s definitely an ego there, but it doesn’t show itself in insufferably gone-Hollywood ways, as it might for a versatile practitioner who’s finally enjoying a fair amount of widespread success.
“I’m not going to sit here and say that theater pays the mortgage,” he says. “It doesn’t. It does pay for itself. I’ve been very lucky. And on a personal level of having a working spouse. And we’re both happy. When I had to [do] the day job, because the baby was still young, and do the art, that was hard. It’s getting easier. But theater isn’t paying for my children’s education. It’s not happening... I was a very good student, had good social status. All of my childhood friends were the down-and-outs. Looking back, my biggest problem [in life] was that I didn’t have any.”
All well and good. But how he measures up while staging an actual production is where the rubber of his reputation meets the road, as it does for anyone in the theater world. He’s entitled to his moments, of course, like anyone else. Like him or hate him, though, actors can’t and won’t deliver first-class goods for a director they don’t respect.
One look at a run-through rehearsal for CU’s Spring reveals that all 16 actors respect him, even if they don’t quite understand him.
The conviction and openness with which they approach their work — just as bravely “to the block” as that of Dayan’s classroom solo performer a couple of days earlier — speaks far less to blind following than open-eyed daring. And an assurance that wonder isn’t just around the corner, but comfortably present. Three weeks before opening night, at a time when most actors are still stressing over their motivation, Dayan’s troops are ready to go.
And then it happens. A too-long pause extends to uncomfortable silence. All eyes turn for guidance to Dayan, who’s seated on the floor, immersed in taking notes. The crack commando in pursuit of the exalted moment has somehow done the unforgiveable: he’s missed his own entrance. All anyone can do is wait for him to discover the error. When he does, howls of laughter erupt from every corner. The loudest of all is Dayan’s.
For an instant, the secret underlying this production’s promise, and Dayan himself, shows up, and then vanishes, like a magician fumbling a busted trick and winning back his audience with the next. High and holy purposes give way to an easy meeting of the schooled and unschooled, of the twice-reinvented and the untested, eager band. To paraphrase Eliot, the fire and the rose seem critically close to being one.
On the Bill
The CU Theatre Department performs The Awakening of Spring at 7:30 p.m. March 5-7, 11-14, and at 2 p.m. March 15, at the University Theatre Mainstage, CU campus, Boulder, 303-492-8181, www.colorado.edu/theatredance