While, in this country, we tend to be more tactile than in, say, the US or the UK, in general corporeal contact is less a prominent feature of everyday life than at the Nalaga’at Center. Indeed, the Jaffa Port venue’s Hebrew name says it all – “please touch.” That is not only an immediate and heartwarming approach to interpersonal relations, it is the only way many of the center’s patrons can communicate. Nalaga’at is a nonprofit arts and culture venture that caters, primarily, to the deaf, blind and deaf-blind.
Mordy Weis is one of the latter, and has become an integral part of the creative core of the place. Tomorrow evening he will star in Edgar, the latest offering from the Nalaga’at theater. The play will be performed by a seven-member cast, which includes hearing and seeing people who will help the physically challenged actors navigate their way around the stage.
40-year-old Weis was born in New York and made aliya nine years ago.
“We all came together for a visit. The rest of my family went back and I stayed,” he says with a broad smile. In fact, Weis constantly exudes a sense of bonhomie and appears to be enjoying life in his adopted country and, particularly, as a now bona fide member of the local thespian community.
“I never acted before we started working on this show,” he notes, through sign language interpreter Adva Oren, who doubles at the center’s human resources director.
Weis will show the public just how far he has taken his newfound professional stuff at the premiere of Edgar in Jaffa tomorrow.
“I never acted before I came here,” he says.
“We started rehearsals in February. I love it.”
Beaming countenance notwithstanding, Weis is clearly a tough cookie. He lives in Holon and regularly takes three buses to Jaffa and back, on his own. He suffers from Usher Syndrome, a rare genetic disorder resulting in hearing loss and also visual impairment.
Weis does retain some vision, but it is diminishing.
Even so he does not use a guide dog, and says he only uses a white stick when he goes Stateside.
“In New York it is crazy. Everyone rushes around there, so I use a stick to make sure I can make my way through the crowds. I always felt pressurized in the States. In Israel I feel more relaxed.”
That, at the very least, is a refreshing viewpoint on life in this part of the world.
Edgar is, essentially, based on Weis’s own story. The script was written by Ofer Amram, who also directs. It is a highly poignant piece about a man who loses his ability to see and hear, and, with the help of three angels, embarks on an odyssey to come to terms with his fears, combat a sense of loneliness and discover what he really wants out of life.
Amram admits to having traversed a pretty steep learning curve with the project.
“I had never worked with physically challenged actors before. This is a wonderful experience. I have learned a lot about myself as well as about the actors, and this place. I have learned a bit of sign language, and working with actors who can’t see or hear has forced me to reexamine the way I direct. I always had to make absolutely sure that the actors got the precise message or instruction I was trying to convey to them.”
It took Weis a while to start treading the boards. He first approached Nalaga’at a couple of years ago, with the hope of slipping into one the theater productions, but the casts of the two shows that were up and running at the time were signed and sealed.
“I asked that if a new production starts, that they should consider Mordy,” Oren explains.
“Edgar came along, and that’s when my love story with theater really began,” adds Weis, naturally with a smile.
Mind you, Weis’s natural gifts had to fight their way around some pretty hefty personal obstacles to see the light of day.
“Acting here has changed me,” he says.
“I was very shy before I became an actor. I would never really express myself with other people. But now I have confidence.”
In truth, Weis came across in our chat as anything but lacking confidence – palpable proof of the healing powers of the arts, and of the Nalaga’at philosophy.
“At first, it was very tough for me, trying to understand what Ofer wanted from me, and how to do it. But I gradually got the hang of it.”
The same goes for Amram.
“Seeing and hearing are very important channels of communication, in theater and in life in general,” notes the director. “For example, I found myself in a situation when I wanted to correct something Mordy did. I wanted him to have the same look but to do it more quickly. The interpreter told him to do it more quickly, so he did it like this,” says Amram shifting his head rapidly to the side.
“But there are all sorts of fast movement. So I had to demonstrate it to him. I had to take his hand, place it on my own head, and to show him how I wanted him to do it.”
Clearly, getting Edgar to tomorrow’s premiere has been a painstaking process.
“It was constantly a matter of finding a way to communicate and pass on the required information,” Amram continues. “There are scenes that are built entirely on Mordy’s counting.” In one such slot, Weis is on his own, on stage, for a full quarter of an hour.
Edgar comes replete with video art and with a score written by stellar cellist Yuval Masner.
“Mordy will, say, count to 20 and then get up and move somewhere, and then count to seven, and so on,” Amram explains. “And he stands in one spot on the stage which vibrates when the music starts and he has to move, and there is string running along certain lines to help guide the actors. This has been a lot of work, and so rewarding, for all of us.”
And, just in case anyone thinks Edgar is just a vehicle for giving Weis and his cohorts a chance to get on the stage, come what may, think again.
“This is a class production, by any standard,” says Nalaga’at CEO Oren Yitzhaki.
“The public is invited to come to see for themselves.” Judging by the first Nalaga’at production, Light Is Heard on Zig Zag, which I caught at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem a full 15 years ago, Edgar should be well worth the trip to Jaffa.
For more information: (03) 633-0808 and http://nalagaat.org.il.