When school lets out at the end of this month, Micah Lewensohn, 57, will have been at Beit- Zvi just under a year. His appointment as head of the Ramat Gan based drama school came through in May “but I was busy then directing Azulai [the Policeman] at Habima.”
Lewensohn is a director, and looks at his world through a director’s eyes, the eyes that see the shape of a production, or anything else he undertakes, and how he’s going to take it there. He’s been at it since the late 1970’s, and heading a drama school is the newest in a list of self-chosen challenges that keep his step jaunty and his pouched eyes bright.
He led the Israel Festival from 1994-2001, and has directed award
winning TV commercials, musicals, festivals, and of course, stage
A Lewensohn production is always lightly solid, whether it’s the
blistering Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf at the Cameri, or the farcical
Azulai the Policeman at Habimah.
“In theater you deal with the now, always,” he says, accepting
gratefully a cup of coffee on the school’s patio that doubles as café
and meeting place, “and an acting school is about the future. When
[Beit-Zvi board chairman] Muli Dor approached me I didn’t even consider
taking the job initially because I was busy directing, but then I began
to be passionate about the idea.”
He has always taught, he says, even at Beit-Zvi some 25 years ago,
during the heyday of its founder and longtime head, Gary Bilu. He has
taught acting and directing at Tel Aviv University, the Sam Spiegel Film
School in Jerusalem, and at Seminar HaKibbutzim in Tel Aviv.
Looking back over the last year Lewensohn says quietly that “I can’t say
I’m fully satisfied with what we’ve achieved. There’s a lot more that
needs to be done, but we have turned over a new leaf.”
Never one to mince words, Lewensohn says that he spent the first six
months at Beit-Zvi “putting out fires and defusing mines deliberately
planted,” although he will not elaborate which and by whom. Bilu had
resigned in January, leaving a six month gap before Lewensohn actually
took over and “found a fractured, demoralized institution,” encompassing
both students and faculty.
Nobody seemed to know where anybody was going at any given time;
students, especially the third year, were pulled out of classes for
rehearsals, there was seemingly no connection among the teachers,
scheduling “was a mess,” and worst of all in Lewensohn’s eyes, “there
was intense competition even among the first year students. There wasn’t
the feeling that it’s OK to fail, which of course it is.”
The situation was especially grievous because for many years Beit-Zvi
was a jewel in the crown of local theater schools, “and its graduates
are everywhere, in theater, film, TV, and that’s Gary's achievement.”
Indeed, some of the school’s most illustrious grads, such as Rita, Gil
Frank, Anat Waxman, Itai Tiran and Shmuel Viloszny star in a promo for
next year on the school’s website.
So in response, over the first few months Lewensohn brought the
scheduling into line, created a curriculum, returned third year students
to their classes and expanded their scope. He instituted staff
meetings, and hired some big guns, such as Gesher’s Yevgeny Arye,
linguist and scholar Ruvik Rosenthal, the founding artistic director of
Itim, Rina Yerushalmi, and even found time to mentor a gifted third year
student who wants to be a director.
A directing track at Beit-Zvi is naturally in the works, as are tracks
in stage management, and enabling students to get an academic degree, if
they so desire.
Stage management is due to start in September 2010 with eight – ten
students for the first year, and Lewensohn is negotiating with the
universities on the academic front.
He does not want to make Beit-Zvi an academic institution but believes
with all his heart that “the richer the background, the greater the
available acting choice, which makes for a more interesting actor.”
And indeed, to broaden their cultural horizons, the students have been
given a list of summer projects as well as a three year reading list. On
their return to school in the fall, each student will give a 10 minute
presentation on the movie, play, book or other cultural activity of
The list Lewensohn has compiled is a who’s who of everybody who’s
anybody in Western culture, from Bocaccio to Garcia Marquez, from Kishon
to Kurasawa, and from Moliere to Williams, leaving Shakespeare in a
category all to himself, and not forgetting professional literature.
Lewensohn wants to produce “graduates capable of working not just in
mainstream but also in alternative, multidisciplinary theater, as well
as in film and TV.”
The 17 rooms in the rambling building are full from 9 am to 11:30 pm,
six and a half days a week.
Lewensohn knows all his students by name, having studied their photos
and committed their names to memory.
He’s also head of the adjacent Sifria (Library Theater) that Gary Bilu
established as a sort of way station for Beit-Zvi grads to get their
feet wet in the professional world. Lewnsohn hopes to establish a
company, “sort of a fourth year, hopefully with a salary, for two to
three productions a year.”
Financially, Beit-Zvi was also a mess. Lewensohn inherited a close to
NIS three million deficit, and cutbacks had depleted entire departments,
such as wardrobe. Thanks to cooperation and understanding from Ramat
Gan mayor Zvi Bar, the deficit is being addressed by initiating summer
courses for adults, a 10 week preparatory course for prospective
students, and a summer camp for kids. And on top of all that, he’s
fundraising, something he got good at during his time at the Israel
Festival, which also taught him the value of cultural exchange. Beit-Zvi
students were in Arizona at a Gershwin musical evening in May, and
contacts are ongoing with the University of Arizona, and London is also
on the agenda.
The graduating student cast of David Mamet’s Glengarry Glenross are
unanimous: “He’s brought a new, good spirit. We like him. It’s not about
favoritism anymore. It’s about talent,” they say. “He doesn’t push,
doesn’t condescend. He listens.”
There are some 200 students at Beit-Zvi, 88 of them in their first year,
but less than 50% make it to the third. Lewensohn has been very busy
viewing all the end of year productions.
He’s involved, engaged, enveloped.
“The big switch is to get up in the morning and be thinking about your
students. To be surrounded by young people is energy, life.”