Always fighting for the underdog

Director Nola Chilton rejects all comparisons of her new work to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, insisting it's about people's basic indifference to humanity.

Nola Chilton 88 224 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Nola Chilton 88 224
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Terre Sainte (Holy Land), now previewing at Jerusalem's Khan Theater, "is about Darfur for me," says director Nola Chilton. "It's about our total indifference to humanity, to people that are helpless and abused. I think that's our basic human problem, that we don't care enough - and more, that we don't think enough." A prize-winning play by Algerian-born French author, poet and playwright Mohamed Kacimi, Terre Sainte (Adama Kedosha, in Hebrew) is set in a surreal and unnamed ruin of a place in an unnamed town in an unnamed country, where the locals are fearfully huddled to avoid the violence raging in their land. Alia and Iyad (Florence Bloch and Arye Tcherner) are trying desperately to salvage whatever they can of their land and their lives. Imen (Irit Pashtan) wants to find her mother and her cat; the woman disappeared at a checkpoint and the animal was shot by a soldier. Iyad's son Amin (Vitaly Friedland) is desperate enough to become a suicide bomber, while the soldier, Ian (Yoav Hayman), is desperate, too. He's the one who kicks down doors and searches for terrorists - and even the classical music he hears on his Walkman can't drown out the gunfire. People's almost knee-jerk equation of the play to a parable about the Israelis and the Palestinians has Chilton very much up in arms. "I have dealt with the Israeli-Palestinian issue. I haven't avoided it," she says with very real bristle. Winter in Kalandia ('05) is us and what we do at the checkpoints. Cappuccino in Ramallah ('06) is about what a Palestinian woman goes through with the Israeli bureaucracy. "I'd never have done this play if I thought that once again people would think it's about us and the Palestinians. I don't believe our soldiers are like that. I'd never tell a young man not to go into the army. To use this play as a portrayal of us would be incitement. If an Arab author has the courage to criticize his own people, to deny that would be to pervert [the play]." Nola Chilton uses her theater work to fight for the underdog, for the powerless, for any people whose voices aren't heard. That is generally the theater she's been involved in ever since she immigrated from her native New York in 1963. She says now, "I do nothing but political theater anymore, because of feeling that society is disintegrating, that denial [of the terrible] has become the norm, because if you deny, you're safe." THIS IS the first time that Chilton, used to working only with people she has trained, has worked at the Khan, so she began "with trepidation." But to her delight, "the actors are open, willing and probably the most hard-working and disciplined group I've ever worked with." Likewise, the actors think "she's amazing, just amazing," says Tcherner. "We've all become her groupies. How does she work? With sense memories. She builds around the actor, bringing him to a state in which he truly connects with the character." Chilton was born some 80 years ago, an only child. Her parents had immigrated from Odessa. Her father was a sign painter. Her mother made toy airplanes from balsa wood and ran the small-but-successful business from their apartment on New York's Lower East Side. In high school, Chilton played an old lady in Synge's Riders to the Sea - and that was the start. She left a growing career as an actress and director to come here. She had studied for six years and then worked with Lee Strasberg. She had acted in successful productions, directed for stage and television and had founded her own very well-regarded drama school. The problem was, as she told David George in a 1981 interview with The Jerusalem Post, "that I didn't feel that I was doing a heck of a lot to justify my existence. I came to Israel, and since then I've not had much of a problem understanding what my life is about." Indeed not. She has taught acting all over the country, to professionals and non-professionals alike, including a yearlong project she and 10 professional actors undertook with teachers, counselors and youth in Kiryat Shmona, using theater as a tool for enhancing their lives. She has directed in all of Israel's repertory theaters, created and directed film and TV documentaries, and won piles of prizes along the way - not least the Israel Theater (2000) and the Landau (2002) prizes for Life Achievement. Chilton, dressed all in black the day we meet, radiates energy. Her hazel eyes are bright. Her conversation is easy, yet she chooses her words with care. She's still teaching acting at Tel Aviv University, and, her voice lifting, she talks about her work that reaches IDF inductees via counselors: "volunteers all who work through the arts to help others because they believe in change." After a lifetime spent in theater, what does it really mean for her? There's a long pause before she answers. "A chance to give the disenfranchised a place to be seen and heard."