Behind the scenes: The King & I

The Light Opera Group of the Negev moves into its 27th year of popular musical productions.

pirate 88 (photo credit: Wolfgang Motsafe-Haller)
pirate 88
(photo credit: Wolfgang Motsafe-Haller)
Things may have been a "puzzlement" for the King of Siam and his court back in 1860, but as the LOGON - the Light Opera Group of the Negev - players move into their 27th annual production with Rogers & Hammerstein's popular musical The King and I, everyone's whistling a happy tune. Israel has changed in 27 years, and according to co-producer Paul Hare, LOGON is evolving, too. Hare - who's been involved in amateur theater for most of his 85 years - enjoys a unique perspective. This year's show is bigger than ever, he says. "It's bigger in every way," he says. "We have more kids involved, more people on stage, we've added a new venue, and we're expecting bigger audiences. Because The King and I is a show everybody loves, with music most people know, ticket sales are up. We've added a new venue, in Or Akiva, so this year we'll play there, plus in our hometown of Beersheba, and also in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Netanya, Kfar Saba and Haifa. We open on February 18 and finish with our last show in Beersheba on March 13." Technical changes will bring in larger audiences, too. "This year, for the first time, a simultaneous translation into Russian will be added, as well," Hare says. "The show is in English, and a light bar offers a line-by-line translation into Hebrew. But this year, Russian speakers will also be able to follow the dialogue and lyrics. That's something we've wanted to do for a long time." That said, growth isn't always painless, even when it's good. "Things are changing in Israel," Hare says, "so we have to adapt." One change only the players themselves notice is the language used backstage. "In LOGON's early days, almost all the players were immigrants from English-speaking countries, Anglos who made aliya in the 1970s and 80s. But over the last several years, fewer English speakers have made aliya to the South," Hare says. "That means that the make-up of the company has been evolving, too. More and more, Hebrew has become the language of rehearsals. "It began to be noticeable last year, when the choreographers decided it was more efficient to direct the dancers in Hebrew, with translation into English as needed. This year, although our excellent director, Yaacov Amsellem, speaks English, he's more comfortable communicating in Hebrew. So he directs in Hebrew and someone is designated to translate it into English, to help those of us whose Hebrew isn't the best. Hare jokes about his own Hebrew limitations. "In spite of all our years here, I'm still fairly monolingual," he laments. "When people are surprised I'm still not fluent, I explain that because it's such an ancient language - over 5,000 years old - it's taking me a while to catch up. I just don't have much of an ear for language. Over the years, I've taken lessons in at least 12 languages, including French, Spanish, Papiamento, Swahili, Yoruba, Tagalog and Hebrew, but I'm sorry to say, I can't do much more than say 'no' in any of them." Another challenge for the LOGON producers this year comes about because of the unusually large cast, many of whom are children. "We have our standard, full contingent of adult actors. But because the cast of The King and I includes all of Anna's pupils, we have 23 actors on stage who are under the age of 18, including two 10-year olds. At times, we have 52 people on stage at the same time - which can create utter chaos backstage. Each of the seven theaters we play in has different backstage setups, and with each we've had to allocate space very carefully, so that everyone who needs it will have room to make the quick costume changes required. In one location, we may even have to use the scenery transport vans as additional dressing rooms." Having so many new children in the production also required a teach-in. "Because so many of the children hadn't been on a professional stage before, we arranged a tour. We took them to the local theater and showed them what 'backstage' was like. We explained all kinds of foreign concepts - like the 'green room' is where they wait to go on." The huge cast put pressure on the microphone system, too. "Our electronic system has 16 plug-ins, to connect throat mikes for individual players. But with 23 kids on stage, and only six throat mikes available for them, we had to reallocate some of the speaking parts, which caused a few tears. There just weren't enough microphones to supply every individual actor." Rehearsing with so many children has been interesting, Hare says. "All the kids aren't in every scene, of course, so we worked out a plan with the parents, intending that one set of parents would be present at all times, helping keep order among the kids. That hasn't always worked quite as well as we planned," he laughs. Another situation arises when anyone - child or adult - forgets to turn off their microphone when they leave the stage. "It's easy to forget," Hare says, adding that he's done it himself. "But when someone forgets, what happens is not only that they broadcast their own conversations to the whole theater, but also that of anyone standing near. We've had some fairly entertaining moments." For all these reasons, installing Paul Hare as producer was a stroke of genius. Professionally, Hare is a psychologist specializing in group psychology. "I didn't set out to be a producer," he says. "Everyone who belongs to LOGON wants to be onstage - that's the purpose. But the fact is, in a community theater like LOGON, if no one volunteers to produce, then there is no show. So when no one stepped forward to do it this year, I said I would. Then Frieda Gilmour - who's also produced any number of shows - agreed to work as co-producer. This year, we have our hands full." Producing a LOGON production tends to be an all-consuming, no-glamor, high-stress job. Producers take responsibility for everything except the actual on-stage performance and playing the music. "Everything else falls to us," Hare says. "That means we're responsible for all the publicity, acquiring all the props and costumes, promoting ticket sales in seven venues, and making all the transportation arrangements - not just for the actors, musicians and backstage people, but for the scenery, too. Managing the finances - making sure we're on budget - is a monumental task, all by itself. Producing is a huge undertaking, and not one that wins many admirers. Producers make the final decision on all sorts of conflicts, and it's hard to do that and keep everyone happy at the same time." That said, this year has been much more serene than usual, Hare says. "In past years, I applied my professional expertise and actually put together a three-person conflict resolution team to deal with controversies as they arose. You can imagine, in a theater group this size, how many different opinions there are about everything. So having minimally-trained people ready to listen and resolve helped smooth lots of ruffled feathers. This year, though, we haven't needed it. The interaction among our three professionals - director Yaacov Amsellem, our musical director, David Waldmann, and our choreographer, Osnat Kashi - has been so smooth, no one has asked for conflict resolution." This doesn't mean Hare's professional abilities haven't been needed. He is, after all, the elder statesman of the group; someone who began his amateur theater career as a kid in Washington, DC, where his father was with the US Secret Service guarding former president Herbert Hoover. Theater was in his blood. His first productions were marionette shows. "I wrote the plays, I built the stage, made the marionettes and did the production," he says. "My mother was my inspiration. She was an osteopath, very unusual in her day - she was the first woman in DC to drive an automobile. But she encouraged me by taking me to productions at the National Theater and other venues in the DC area. That's where it all started." World War II brought Hare to Europe. "As luck would have it, my assignments were such that I never fired a bullet in anger or in any other emotional state," Hare laughs. What Hare did do, especially in Paris, was pursue art. "I saw a notice posted by a woman who said she'd take Army people to visit local artist's studios. Our first visit was to Pablo Picasso's, where he showed us around but didn't give out any samples. When a return visit was offered, I went armed with a book of his prints. Picasso signed one of his harlequins for me. As it happened, it was his birthday, October 25, 1944. We gave him cigarettes and sang 'Happy Birthday.'" As soon as the Hares made aliya in 1980, LOGON became a part of their life. "A fellow from South Africa, Denis Weintraub, came to the merkaz klita (absorption center) where we were staying and made a pitch to all the new immigrants. He told us about a group of people in Omer who were putting on shows, all Gilbert & Sullivan. My wife, June, became involved right away - she'd sung professionally for many years, playing the older daughter in Fiddler over 900 times. So she was onstage right away. But we had two young kids, so until they were old enough, I stayed at home with them." June Hare is a familiar face in LOGON productions, having played major roles in nine different shows. Paul says he's played bit parts only. "I grew a beard to play a villager in Fiddler on the Roof; I was a cowboy in Oklahoma!, a handyman in The Pajama Game, a train conductor in The Music Man, two different characters in Singin' in the Rain, and the hotel manger who discovers Annie, in Annie Get Your Gun. But most people - if they remember me at all - will remember me for a sight gag when I played Erroneous, in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, a role made famous by Buster Keaton in his last feature film. Erroneous was supposed to walk around the hills of Rome seven times, so my task was to walk across the stage seven times, announcing each trip - 'Three!' 'Four!' But then I remembered a show I'd seen years before, something called Hells A-Poppin,' that included a similar gag. So instead of announcing each trip, I carried an ever-growing cactus. Each time I went around, the cactus grew bigger and bigger. People laughed every time they saw me coming." This year, there's no cactus, and Hare's not singing, either. "I tried out for the chorus and did that thing of mine - which is something like singing - but David, our musical director, said 'No, I don't really think you should be singing.' So Yaacov, our director, said he'd find another place for me on stage. But then the need for a producer came up, and that's what I'm doing this year." As the curtain is about to go up on The King and I, a book Hare wrote tells how it all came about. The Stage is Our World: An English-speaking Amateur Musical Theater Group in Israel offers behind-the-scenes tales from the first 25 years of LOGON productions. "At every stage of my life, I've tended to write a book about what I was doing," Hare says, explaining his official list of publications, which runs to several pages. "Old professors never retire, they just publish less and less," he says. Even so, Hare has two more publications in the works: one, The Desert Experience, features interviews with a variety of people who live in the Sde Boker Midrasha. It focuses on how living in the desert made a difference in their work. "We interviewed artists, writers, scientists, all kinds of people," Hare says. "And living in the Negev - as compared to commuting - had a significant impact on their work. It was a fascinating project. My other upcoming publication has to do with the transfer of technology - how scientists, people in agriculture or solar energy, have been able to utilize innovations made in Israel to their advantage in other desert climates." It just goes to show: In LOGON, where in real life everyone is something else, there's a lot more going on behind the scenes than you'd ever imagine. For information about venues and dates of performances and to order tickets: (08) 653-2126