Leading the Ramat Gan drama school in a new direction

Micah Lewensohn appointed head of Beit-Zvi school after being there just under a year.

Theater.311 (photo credit: Nathan Brusovany)
(photo credit: Nathan Brusovany)
When school lets out at the end of this month, Micah Lewensohn, 57, will have been at Beit- Zvi just under a year. His appointment as head of the Ramat Gan based drama school came through in May “but I was busy then directing Azulai [the Policeman] at Habima.”
Lewensohn is a director, and looks at his world through a director’s eyes, the eyes that see the shape of a production, or anything else he undertakes, and how he’s going to take it there. He’s been at it since the late 1970’s, and heading a drama school is the newest in a list of self-chosen challenges that keep his step jaunty and his pouched eyes bright.
He led the Israel Festival from 1994-2001, and has directed award winning TV commercials, musicals, festivals, and of course, stage performances.
A Lewensohn production is always lightly solid, whether it’s the blistering Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf at the Cameri, or the farcical Azulai the Policeman at Habimah.
“In theater you deal with the now, always,” he says, accepting gratefully a cup of coffee on the school’s patio that doubles as café and meeting place, “and an acting school is about the future. When [Beit-Zvi board chairman] Muli Dor approached me I didn’t even consider taking the job initially because I was busy directing, but then I began to be passionate about the idea.”
He has always taught, he says, even at Beit-Zvi some 25 years ago, during the heyday of its founder and longtime head, Gary Bilu. He has taught acting and directing at Tel Aviv University, the Sam Spiegel Film School in Jerusalem, and at Seminar HaKibbutzim in Tel Aviv.
Looking back over the last year Lewensohn says quietly that “I can’t say I’m fully satisfied with what we’ve achieved. There’s a lot more that needs to be done, but we have turned over a new leaf.”
Never one to mince words, Lewensohn says that he spent the first six months at Beit-Zvi “putting out fires and defusing mines deliberately planted,” although he will not elaborate which and by whom. Bilu had resigned in January, leaving a six month gap before Lewensohn actually took over and “found a fractured, demoralized institution,” encompassing both students and faculty.
Nobody seemed to know where anybody was going at any given time; students, especially the third year, were pulled out of classes for rehearsals, there was seemingly no connection among the teachers, scheduling “was a mess,” and worst of all in Lewensohn’s eyes, “there was intense competition even among the first year students. There wasn’t the feeling that it’s OK to fail, which of course it is.”
The situation was especially grievous because for many years Beit-Zvi was a jewel in the crown of local theater schools, “and its graduates are everywhere, in theater, film, TV, and that’s Gary's achievement.”
Indeed, some of the school’s most illustrious grads, such as Rita, Gil Frank, Anat Waxman, Itai Tiran and Shmuel Viloszny star in a promo for next year on the school’s website.
So in response, over the first few months Lewensohn brought the scheduling into line, created a curriculum, returned third year students to their classes and expanded their scope. He instituted staff meetings, and hired some big guns, such as Gesher’s Yevgeny Arye, linguist and scholar Ruvik Rosenthal, the founding artistic director of Itim, Rina Yerushalmi, and even found time to mentor a gifted third year student who wants to be a director.
A directing track at Beit-Zvi is naturally in the works, as are tracks in stage management, and enabling students to get an academic degree, if they so desire.
Stage management is due to start in September 2010 with eight – ten students for the first year, and Lewensohn is negotiating with the universities on the academic front.
He does not want to make Beit-Zvi an academic institution but believes with all his heart that “the richer the background, the greater the available acting choice, which makes for a more interesting actor.”
And indeed, to broaden their cultural horizons, the students have been given a list of summer projects as well as a three year reading list. On their return to school in the fall, each student will give a 10 minute presentation on the movie, play, book or other cultural activity of their choice.
The list Lewensohn has compiled is a who’s who of everybody who’s anybody in Western culture, from Bocaccio to Garcia Marquez, from Kishon to Kurasawa, and from Moliere to Williams, leaving Shakespeare in a category all to himself, and not forgetting professional literature.
Lewensohn wants to produce “graduates capable of working not just in mainstream but also in alternative, multidisciplinary theater, as well as in film and TV.”
The 17 rooms in the rambling building are full from 9 am to 11:30 pm, six and a half days a week.
Lewensohn knows all his students by name, having studied their photos and committed their names to memory.
He’s also head of the adjacent Sifria (Library Theater) that Gary Bilu established as a sort of way station for Beit-Zvi grads to get their feet wet in the professional world. Lewnsohn hopes to establish a company, “sort of a fourth year, hopefully with a salary, for two to three productions a year.”
Financially, Beit-Zvi was also a mess. Lewensohn inherited a close to NIS three million deficit, and cutbacks had depleted entire departments, such as wardrobe. Thanks to cooperation and understanding from Ramat Gan mayor Zvi Bar, the deficit is being addressed by initiating summer courses for adults, a 10 week preparatory course for prospective students, and a summer camp for kids. And on top of all that, he’s fundraising, something he got good at during his time at the Israel Festival, which also taught him the value of cultural exchange. Beit-Zvi students were in Arizona at a Gershwin musical evening in May, and contacts are ongoing with the University of Arizona, and London is also on the agenda.
The graduating student cast of David Mamet’s Glengarry Glenross are unanimous: “He’s brought a new, good spirit. We like him. It’s not about favoritism anymore. It’s about talent,” they say. “He doesn’t push, doesn’t condescend. He listens.”
There are some 200 students at Beit-Zvi, 88 of them in their first year, but less than 50% make it to the third. Lewensohn has been very busy viewing all the end of year productions.
He’s involved, engaged, enveloped.
“The big switch is to get up in the morning and be thinking about your students. To be surrounded by young people is energy, life.”