Expect the unexpected

Rod Ben-Zeev is one of several top artists improvising at Tzavta this week.

Improv Festival 370 (photo credit: Berney Ardov)
Improv Festival 370
(photo credit: Berney Ardov)
According to Rod Ben-Zeev, he and his fellow professionals have good material to work on at this week’s annual Improvisation Festival, which kicks of at Tzavta in Tel Aviv tomorrow (Monday) and ends on Thursday.
“Life in Israel is all about improvisation,” notes the 30-something Ramat Gan-born, Amsterdam-resident actor and improviser. “People just adapt to situations and make things work.”
Ben-Zeev is one of several top artists who will be in hand at Tzavta this week to put participants with various levels of experience and expertise through their improvisational acting paces.
The four-day event follows last year’s highly successful inauguration and incorporates a wide range of activities. The program includes the Israeli improvisation championship, in which improv performers present off-the-cuff slots, the appeal of which is judged by the decibel level produced by the audience applause. There will be three stages to the contest, divided into three levels of skill. The advanced level features trained actors who engage in improvisational acting on a regular basis, acting students and amateurs who just have a penchant for improvising. The finals will take place on Thursday.
Ben-Zeev and his coprofessionals at the festival, including festival artistic director Amitai Yaish Ben- Ozilio, Inbal Lori and Anna Preminger, will moderate 20 workshops.
Ben-Zeev’s schedule includes an advanced-level workshop based on Lars von Trier’s disturbing 2003 drama Dogville, an intensive session, naturally called Boot Camp, in which participants will learn about the rules of improvisation, and an Englishlanguage workshop called Here We R in the Center of Town, on how to improvise in a foreign language, and how to turn to the linguistic disadvantage to a boon.
The onlookers at the performances will be “roped in” to the evolutionary process, with members of the audience asked to come up with suggestions such as topics, locations or a backdrop to the improvisational work, and each day’s program will end with a “late night” slot with some hard-core improvising.
Ben-Zeev, whose parents hail from the United States, got into improvising in Chicago during a post-army visit to the US. He has been based in the Netherlands for several years, and performs and runs acting-improv workshops in Amsterdam and all over the world. He says that taking the left-field approach to acting is highly liberating.
“There is something really special about knowing that, in the environment you are in, you are kind of expected to make a mistake, to fail, and then there’s all this interesting stuff that comes out of the mistake, or supposed mistake. I think that’s the freedom that attracted me to improv,” notes Ben-Zeev.
“Mistake” is, in fact, something of a misnomer as, when it comes to playing around with the acting craft and material, there really is no such thing as a wrong move per se.
“Yes, I always mean ‘mistake’ with quotation marks because, in improvisation, that is the best thing that happens,” Ben-Zeev continues. “It’s just the moment the pattern is broken. We are constantly gravitating toward repeating patterns in everything we do. If we can identify that moment when the pattern is broken, that’s where the original stuff comes from.”
Ben-Zeev brings a wealth of experience, with all sorts of groups, with him to the fray in Tel Aviv.
“I studied with the best improvisational teachers in the world in Chicago, and I worked with elderly people there and I got a chance to learn how to teach it.”
He says that he gets a lot out of working with people with different cultural backgrounds, and of different ages.
“It was great working with the senior citizens in Chicago, because improv is mostly restricted to people aged 20 to 40, and older people have such a different outlook on life and a different vocabulary, and different abilities – whether it is physical or mental – and it was interesting using improv just to keep them in the moment and some really nice things came out of that. They actually did a show at the Chicago Improv Festival, which is the biggest festival in the world in this field.”
In Tel Aviv, Ben-Zeev will be working with improvisers of varying skill levels and experience, and also in different formats.
“There is the short version of improv, with is more of gamey stuff where you constantly return to the audience – you might ask them for a word, or a suggestion to inspire the scene which usually has some tricks to it, like a bell goes off and you have to do something different, or change the last thing you said, when you hear the bell, or you have to use a particular letter, or you are physically restricted to a certain part of the stage,” he explains.
The Dogville-based slot will follow the lengthier format of improvisation.
“In the long form you usually break the fourth wall [by addressing the audience directly from the stage] one time, at the beginning of the show, and you ask for a suggestion, just as a means of showing the audience that it’s improvised. Then you just start improvising. It’s more like watching a play, although you don’t have a set, like you would in conventional theater, so you just explain things to each other, like saying ‘I really like being in a supermarket,’ and then the audience will instantly imagine a supermarket – it’s sort of a contract you have with them.”
According to Ben-Zeev, neither the actors nor the members of the audience know what they are going to get, and that he also likes to see newcomers.
“Many people in the audience will have some idea of what they are letting themselves in for, but it is great to see the smaller percentage who are coming along for the first time and can’t believe that what they are seeing is improvised. The longer format is generally for people with more experience of these kinds of shows, and they are more up for it, but I think anyone can enjoy it.”
The four-dayer will end with “a giant party with all the participants and the audience, with alcohol and improvised surprises.”
If you’re looking to take some risks, and like the unexpected, Tzavta is the place to be this week.
For tickets and more information: (03) 695-0156-7 and www.tzavta.co.il