BIAS in the theater

An amateur acting troupe of religious Anglo students from Bar-Ilan Universitytakes to the stage for yet another production.

israel theater award 88 (photo credit: )
israel theater award 88
(photo credit: )
It's early evening in Bar-Ilan University's Schleiffer Hall, and the sound of young actors practicing their lines fills the air. Rehearsal for the present production, Jonathan Kesselring's Arsenic and Old Lace, is already well underway. Almost all of the enthusiastic young actors were born or raised in the United States, and the lingua franca in the hall is American-accented English, peppered with a few Hebrew words. Most of the performers are observant Jews (as are the majority of Bar-Ilan students) with the boys in kippot and the girls in long skirts. Shimi Weiss, director of the current production, tells Metro about the troupe's history. Weiss, who teaches after-school classes for youth in Ramat Hasharon, became involved with the theater group while studying English literature at Bar-Ilan. In the past, he says, students had put on plays, but the productions stopped due to a lack of funds. "Then, four years ago, a core group of students got together and I offered to produce new plays under the name BIAS - Bar-Ilan Acting Society." "We were looking for a fun name," Weiss says. "We had no budget, so the first production we ever did, a play called The Actor's Nightmare, was completely funded out of our own pockets." Eventually, Weiss continues, the troupe staged one performance of The Actor's Nightmare at Bar-Ilan, followed by two others in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Despite the fact that the play was publicized entirely by word of mouth, 130 people attended the opening night. "That was why we decided to continue BIAS into the second semester, when we put on The Princess Bride. That one was an incredible success and brought us our largest crowd ever: 220 people, for two nights in a row - almost a full house," he says. The Princess Bride was funded out of the proceeds from The Actor's Nightmare. But Weiss says the publicity and ticket revenues it attracted, together with the new director's "pull" at the university, allowed BIAS to stage two more productions at Schleiffer Hall, one of which was The Importance of Being Earnest, which was also a great success, Weiss says. "Once BIAS started to branch out, a lot of people were anticipating the next play. We were able to put one on each semester. After The Importance of Being Earnest we put on The Three Musketeers, after that, The Lion in Winter, and then Twelve Angry Men. This is our seventh production since we renamed ourselves BIAS." Weiss's wife, Miriam, also a graduate of Bar-Ilan and now a high-school teacher in Netanya, adds: "The thing about BIAS is that we know that most of the Anglos in Bar-Ilan are religious… It's an [Orthodox] university, so when we started out, we'd decided that we were going to follow shmirat negia; there would be no touching between guys and girls on stage. We were going to keep things appropriate for the audience." BIAS member and English literature student Michael Somogyi concurs. "Just stating the fact that the play is shomer negia gives us a certain legitimacy with our audience, and Bar-Ilan is a lot more accepting of us because they know we follow the rules of the university." Naturally, this makes for some interesting production problems. Miriam says BIAS just has to "be a little more creative… it's always fun to try to figure out creative ways to manage make-out and kissing scenes between people on stage," she says, but notes that "even simple things can become a challenge." "In The Princess Bride, Buttercup falls out of the boat into the water and we had to pull her back in, but Fezzik can't actually grab her. So we had the actress wear a rope tied around her wrist which the actors used to pull her back in. She still had the ropes [around] her wrist throughout the play, so whenever a guy needed to touch her he would just tug on it," she recalls. "There are a lot of tricks you can pull if the play calls for making out," says Michael, "like blacking out the stage for the duration of the kiss." 'The one difficult issue I've encountered is that of head coverings for the married actresses," concludes Miriam. "I've had to use a lot of difficult wigs that always ended up looking artificial. Then again, I use wigs because I cover all my hair. Other married actresses, who don't feel the need to cover all of it, simply use suitable hats." BIAS members say they have to work within fairly severe constraints. "We are amateurs," admits Michael, "The stage we use was clearly not meant for plays, sound-wise or room-wise; we don't have any professional equipment," Somogyi says. However, being amateurs can also be an advantage. "It forces us to work harder… But that's why its fun - we can take the script and have artistic freedom with it." Miriam provides an example: "We can put in funny lines, like in the fight scene in The Princess Bride between Inigo and Westley. They're fighting across the stage, played by Shimi and me, and I backed him up all the way to the back, then came in [for a swoop] and he bent in slow motion in the famous move from The Matrix, and I just swung the sword around and the crowd went nuts, because they recognized it." "When he got back up, I said 'I've never seen anyone move that fast,' which is a direct line from the movie," she continues. "We put stuff like that in. When we were doing The Importance of Being Earnest, when Cecily walks on stage, she's holding the book Men are From Mars, Women are From Venus. Or an actor would keep putting spoons of sugar into his tea until it's more sugar than tea; we have a lot of fun, that's usually the most important thing." "Having fun is the most important thing," Somogyi chuckles dryly, adding that these days, the students were mostly bored because of the ongoing university lecturers' strike. BIAS tries to broaden its horizons with each new play. Somogyi directed the troupe's last production, Twelve Angry Men (changed to Twelve Angry Jurors in order to allow more roles for the actresses), which he says was their first real drama after comedies and adventures. Like most acting troupes, BIAS has also been the impetus for more than one shidduch. "It turns out that BIAS is a great place to meet people," Miriam confides, adding that she and Shimi met there. "You can track our relationship through the plays we put on. And there's another couple who got engaged during the performance of The Three Musketeers," she confides. BIAS's current management is also keeping a careful eye towards the future. "The idea is that whoever the current crop of students is, [those] are the people you want. I'd say the people we have now are mostly B.A. and even freshman students. That's important in order to keep the feeling and the atmosphere we've got right now," Weiss says, explaining that when BIAS, in its previous incarnation, stopped putting on plays, it was because "the people who ran it finished their studies and moved on." "We're aiming to bring BIAS to the next level, trying to make it a little more professional and work a little harder on set designs and costumes," Miriam says. Michael summarizes with a realistic view: "The hardest part will always be money…These plays come out of our own pockets and we are all students, so none of us have real jobs yet." BIAS's next play, Arsenic and Old Lace, opens on the week of January 20 at Schleiffer Hall at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan.