There’s a theatre troupe in the Judean Wilderness called Raise Your Spirits and it shines. It casts light where there is the darkness of unspeakable violence against three boys this past summer and going back in time, to the darkness of past violence to others. There was, for instance, Sarah Blaustein, a wife and mother, and Esther Alvan, a young hitchhiker, both shot dead on their way from Efrat to Jerusalem in 2001. Sarah was on her way to pray at the Western Wall. In the wake of the heavy pain that gripped the Gush Etzion community, a novel sort of summer stock group was founded by Sharon Katz under the artistic direction of Toby Klein Greenwald, both of Efrat. Raise Your Spirits (RYS), would produce musical theatre by and for women only. And 13 years on, the brave little theatre troupe is still putting on shows for women who come from all over the country to get a dose of theatre for the soul. The troupe is currently in production with Count the Stars, the Journey of Avraham and Sara, set to premiere on December 3, 2014. It seemed only appropriate then, for me to interview the two principles of this show, Avital Macales (Avraham) and Rachel Moore (Sara), the two “stars” who feature in Stars, an original musical written by Katz and Macales, and directed by Klein Greenwald. I thought the best way to explain this feisty theatre troupe would be to have the actors speak for themselves. As it happens, I had an in: this is my second time around as a cast member of an RYS production. So I had Avital and Rachel come by and we had a nice long chat. I want you to get a real feel for what this is, so get yourself a nice hot cup of tea, sit back and relax, and get to know these two women who are bringing their own brand of light to the fore, to banish the darkness and raise the spirits of their sisters.
Rachel Moore, left, and Avital Macales VE: Avital, how did you end up in the performing arts? AM: I come from a musical family. Music was always a part of my home. But as a teenager, I was shy and quiet, and not many in my grade knew who I was and I didn’t know who I was. Also, this was in the 90s, and there still weren’t many artistic megamot [high-school majors], so there was nothing I could do in theatre at school. Then when I got to my senior year we put on The Sound of Music. I auditioned and thought, “Maybe I’ll have a chance to be Leisl.” ( Far right, Sharon Katz, left Deena Lawi) I was cast as Maria.
I decided to keep my role a secret from my mother until she sat there in the audience on opening night and realized it was me on stage. I kept the rehearsals a secret all that time and during the rehearsals I was developing into the real Avital. I began coming out of my shell, and that was the beginning of the rest of my life. The beginning of who Avital is today. VE: Rachel, how about you? What’s your background in the performing arts?RM: I started singing when I was about eight. I sang in my shul choir, and at a young age was apprenticed to the cantor, a woman. I started private lessons when I was twelve, thinking I would go into chazzanut. I was lucky to have as my teacher, Elizabeth Coss, a soprano at the Metropolitan Opera and a big advocate for classical training. She was friends with Pavarotti. I was twelve, mind you, and I said, “Whatever you do, do not make me sound like an opera singer.” (Laughs) So I sang wherever I could; whatever musical theatre came my way, whatever choirs I could find; but mostly I focused on private lessons for over fifteen years - until my fifth child was born. I continued to study privately in Boston, Montreal and eventually in Israel. I was in high school when my family moved to Boston, so I was able to participate in the Boston University Theatre Conservatory summer program. Many of the participants are professionals with agents and budding careers. It’s a very intense program where you are treated like a professional (child) actor and the staff is brutally honest - it was great training. Some time after graduating university I began the process of making Aliyah. I came on a pilot trip and auditioned for singing teachers. I was fortunate to find Judi Axelrod and moved to Jerusalem to work with her and to prepare for entry to conservatory. I became more religious and at one point Judi said, “You’re preparing to audition for conservatory and I think you can make it if this is what you decide to do, but I want you to think about whether this is still what you want.“If you study opera, you will have to leave Israel, Shabbat will always hurt your career, and you’ll be lucky if you can have two kids, because that’s the life of an opera singer.”
Rachel Moore with daughter Shira and Avital MacalesSo I took a deep breath and made the decision not to go to conservatory. It was a big moment for me to decide this would be a hobby and not a vocation after so many years. And then I basically stopped singing altogether when my fifth child was born. I didn’t realize I would be taking a decade-long break from music and theatre! Other than, of course, watching. And… it’s been amazing for me. Amazing to be back! I didn’t realize how much I would miss it. It was part of a different chapter of my life. It’s life-changing to have it back. VE: Avital, what about the kol isha issue, the prohibition against men hearing women—other than close family members—sing?AM: I came from a circle where it was a complete given. It was completely natural to me to sing in front of women only. In recent years, I began to better understand the complexity of [Kol Isha], and I challenged myself more about whether or not I wanted to get out there and perform in front of mixed audiences. I wanted to see where my boundaries were, as my understanding grew. After much thought I came to the decision that I’m still going to sing only in front of women and my personal reason is… Gosh, this is where it gets a bit tough… There’s a certain intimacy that I want to bring to the stage. I want to be completely intimate with my audience, and I don’t want anything to block that. I just want to be completely open, and I feel completely open in front of an all-women’s audience. VE: What does RYS mean to you?AM: RYS is unique in my eyes because while there are now quite a few theatres for women who put on musicals, RYS is one of the only ones who put on biblical musicals. It seems that as you go more to the right on the spectrum, religiously, there is less of a tendency to adapt a biblical story into a play because it is almost taboo to give righteous biblical characters a face, and to give a psychological and emotional interpretation to the biblical text. So RYS is one of the few who does that, and at the same time has clear boundaries based on Halacha and takes into consideration the geist of the target audience.
Cast members Racheli Ettinger and sister Chaya LapidotVE: Rachel, what is the scope of your part? So much dialogue, a lot of staging to memorize. I mean, how many pages is it? How many hours?RM: Every word and every line and every thing that’s asked of me is a gift. Every single one, so I’m not really looking at it as this huge heap of how am I ever going to get all of that, but rather, I don’t know if I’m ever going to do this again. So I don’t spend a lot of time worrying about whether I can learn it all. I spend time worrying that I can do justice to the other people, who have worked so hard and have learned so much and are so amazing and have been doing this for ten years, twelve years, and I’m just coming in, that I feel like I owe it to them. To be performing in this show together with both of my daughters (Michal Moore, Ishmael, and Shira Moore, Yitzchak) is the opportunity of a lifetime for me. I never imagined it possible to have a theater experience that was such a supportive, kind, generous, holy group of people. It is like a dream.
The cast of Count the StarsVE: What’s next for Rachel Moore?RM: I hope I am blessed with lots more opportunities to perform. I don’t know where, but I will not be on a ten-year hiatus ever again. That will not happen. VE: Avital, how did you end up in the RYS theatre troupe?AM: It was very unpopular for religious girls in my circle to consider the performing arts in general, so it wasn’t an option for me. But after I finished high school I met a girl from Efrat in sherut leumi (national service), and she said, “We have a women’s theatre.”And I didn’t even know where Efrat was. But she said, “You must come audition for ‘Ruth.’”With some encouragement from my mother, I had just begun my studies with Nomi Teplow of Ginot Shomron. She’s wonderful. So I did audition, but I thought, why am I auditioning? I live in Rehovot, what am I going to do with this play in Gush Etzion? I don’t even know how to get there. But I went anyway, I got in, and the rest is history.And all I knew was that there was something bigger than me that was making me willing to endure all this sacrifice that I was making. Wanting to be on that stage, on the Raise Your Spirits stage, was bigger than I could understand. In fact, if we rewind a little bit, the first Raise Your Spirits show that I saw – and frankly, the only one I saw, because after that I was IN the shows – was “Noah.”At the end of that show that evening, RYS director Toby Klein Greenwald invited everyone onstage to speak to the actors, so I went over and I said hello to Noah and “his” wife Naama, when this strange voice came into my head out of nowhere, and said, “This is going to be your stage one day.”
Younger cast members have girly-girl fun in between rehearsing their scenes VE: So what was it like, writing a musical?AM: More than any solo, more than any lead role, creating this musical has been the epitome of so many things that I love, in one project. I love Tanach (bible), emotions, writing. I love composing, singing, and drama, and I got to do everything in one project. There was a learning process, a lot of learning. We read any book we could get our hands on, looked at any website we could find. We learned, studied, thought, and analyzed. We spoke to scholars. We did all these things until we had our artistic idea, because you could take the same story and do it 70 different ways. So we had to choose our way. And I found that I was putting my own stamp on Avraham’s story, because it could be told in many different ways, but that this would be my own journey that I’m going through in this particular period: the journey of singlehood. Avraham wants to become a father. Avraham and Sara want to become parents on a universal level. They start a new nation, but they also want to become parents because they’re human beings and they want to have a child. They want to nurture, give. I want to become the head of a family too. After I began co-writing this show, I started looking up at the skies whenever I despaired. I was searching for stars. I’m looking for my stars.
There was a night I went with my family to pay a shiva call to Racheli Frankel, the mother of one of the three boys who were kidnapped and killed. It was a dark night and there were no stars and I just wanted one star. I just wanted one star to glimmer and to... there’s a line in the show, “We searched for a glimmer to console us,” and there was not a single glimmer in the sky. So Avraham’s story of counting stars is my story and the Jewish people’s story, of just finding glimmers here and there: reminders that Hashem is here, “I’m here. You may not always see me. You may be in a dark time, but I’m here.”VE: And now you’ve co-written Stars. You’ve watched this thing grow from a glimmer to something real.
AM: Yes! It was all about the connection between my heart and my mind. As if my heart and mind connected and then flew forward. And I want to write at least a hundred more musicals, a thousand more musicals! I want to inspire people. COUNT THE STARS – The Journey of Avraham and SaraOpens December 3Gush Etzion Community CenterFor more information: http://www.raiseyourspirits.org/count-the-stars.html (All photos, Bati Katz. Poster design, Chana Singer)