Although she was not formally trained in the theater, JEST director Leah Stoller has amassed a wealth of experience and a compendium of productions that could rival any Broadway past master.
With 23 years and 47 JEST plays under her showbiz belt, the 79-year-old Stoller is still going strong. In fact, she and the cast at the Jerusalem English Speaking Theater are now rehearsing her latest production, A.R. Gurney's Another Antigone, which will take to the stage at Kibbutz Ramat Rahel in January.
A former elementary school teacher, the native New Yorker would put on plays with her classes, teaching her students about the art of drama and the craft of acting, while honing her own skills at the same time.
When she and her husband, Larry, and their two sons made aliya in 1973, she continued her theatrical pedagogy with her students on Kibbutz Tzova, where they performed Broadway musicals to help the children learn English. In 1985 the newly formed amateur community theater group, having seen her impressive productions, asked her to direct their plays. A year later, dropping everything she was doing, such as going for an MA in literature at the Hebrew University, working at the university library and volunteering at an old age facility and an absorption center, Stoller accepted JEST's offer - and never looked back.
The company puts on three or four plays a year. While Stoller directs two productions a year, different directors do the other play or two.
"Directing is an extension of teaching," says the stage veteran. Her style of directing is to have the actors participate in the vision of the play, encouraging them to add their input and to take on the identity of the character in an innate, visceral way.
As a director, her work begins by looking for a play that strikes the right chord, reading about 100 scripts a year until she selects the two she will produce that year. Then she runs it by the JEST board of directors for approval. When the play is approved, she holds a set of auditions, as well as assigning roles to previous JEST actors she feels would be right for the part.
Once the cast is selected, the play goes into rehearsal for four months, from 7 to 9:30 p.m. two or three times a week. As they are all amateur volunteer actors who come to rehearse after either work or school, Stoller says she doesn't want to make them keep late hours and exhaust them. At rehearsals, she says that blocking is her most important function. This involves figuring out where each actor should stand or sit and which side of the stage would make the most effective entrance or exit.
At this point, she also meets with the stage designers and costumers to start to set the scene for the production. Here, too, she involves the actors, asking them what they think their character would wear and what props they would use.
As show time approaches, Stoller helps in preparing the publicity, such as having posters made and preparing the playbill, or program. And everyone, actors included, is encouraged to sell tickets for the five performances that take place within a two-week run.
Although the director and the cast are not paid for the work they do, Stoller says that their reward comes from the joy they bring their appreciative Jerusalem audiences.
"What I love about directing is the creativity, seeing it grow," says Stoller. "Watching your vision develop from the printed page to a living, breathing reality - and the audience is right there, living it with you."