Getting a feel for it

The 28-year-old Jerusalem-born actor, director and musician will present his My Heart Almost Stood Still show on Tuesday.

Ari Teperberg: Hearing with his entire body (photo credit: YAIR MEYUHAS)
Ari Teperberg: Hearing with his entire body
(photo credit: YAIR MEYUHAS)
Ari Teperberg wants us to feel his performance.
Sounds like a given for any work, right? Art is, by definition, supposed to evoke a certain degree of emotional response. In Teperberg’s case we are talking a palpable sensorial experience.
The 28-year-old Jerusalem-born actor, director and musician will present his My Heart Almost Stood Still show on Tuesday at 9 p.m. at the YMCA as part of this year’s International Festival of Puppet Theater, Jerusalem, which will take place for the 26th year, under the auspices of the Train Theater, August 6 to 10. As usual, there is a broad range of entertainment on offer, from tiny-tot fare to decidedly adult plays. The Teperberg work tends toward the latter age group.
The inspirational premise for the production is a letter sent by Helen Keller to the New York Symphony Orchestra in February 1924. In it Keller talks about “the joy of being able to tell you that, though deaf and blind, I spent a glorious hour last night listening over the radio to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. I do not mean to say that I ‘heard’ the music in the sense that other people heard it; and I do not know whether I can make you understand how it was possible for me to derive pleasure from the symphony. It was a great surprise to myself.” That was a life changer for Keller and, almost a century later, spurred Teperberg to explore how we experience sound.
The multidisciplinary artist – his creative spread also takes in dance and directing opera, in addition to a penchant for puppet theater – is clearly the right man for the job. He is largely on his lonesome throughout the 50-minute wordless show, although naturally there is an abundance of musical accompaniment, and he is eventually joined on stage by composer, co-creator and musician Avshalom Ariel, and Tomer Demsky, who is also credited as co-creator, along with taking charge of sound design.
Teperberg also makes generous use of all manner of self-created props – puppets and various other objects, and his training in shadow theater also comes to the fore.
“When I was at the School of Visual Theater, I was mostly interested in working with objects,” he explains.
“That’s a sort of hybrid thing whereby you employ the technique of working with objects and animation in order to bring ready-made objects to life.”
For Keller, music was brought to life by having her hand placed on her radio speaker to physically experience the vibrations she felt from the various instruments in the enormous orchestra. Possibly due to her physical condition, she was blessed with a finely honed sense of how sound feels and the vibrations that people with normal hearing faculties miss.
“I could actually distinguish the cornets, the roll of the drums, deep-toned violas and violins singing in exquisite unison,” she wrote in 1924. “How the lovely speech of the violins flowed and plowed over the deepest tones of the other instruments!” While Teperberg is unable to entirely recreate that sensory state of affairs, the members of his audiences get at least some insight into how to tone up their ability to hear, to listen.
“Music has this amazing power to bridge gaps – between people, between states of loneliness and disabilities,” he notes. “I have been working on this show for two years almost obsessively, looking at Beethoven and this letter and Helen Keller.” It did not escape Teperberg’s attention that the great classical composer was completely deaf by the time he got around to writing his final and best known symphony.
Another character who passed through Teperberg’s background work radar was Dame Evelyn Glennie, a Scottish virtuoso percussionist who has been profoundly deaf since the age of 12 and claims to have taught herself to hear with parts of her body other than her ears.
“She talks about how to listen with your whole body,” says Teperberg. “We experience very limited hearing, from here,” he says indicated his ear. “In practice, we hear with our entire body.” Anyone who has ever been passed on the street by a car of youngsters playing bass-loaded music with the amp turned up to 11 will have some idea of how that feels.
Teperberg ups the sensory ante by employing various speech-impediment- replicating techniques, thereby engaging his audience in an effort to grasp his meaning. “Some understand part of what I say, and some understand everything. I try to be as clear as I can.”
One of the aforementioned prop-augmented techniques involves speaking into a balloon.
“My speech fills the balloon,” Teperberg explains. That invokes youthful memories of reading comics and seeing a character’s thoughts in a bubble shape. “You get to sense the physicality of the sound and of the words,” he adds. “That is a very powerful image.”
Naturally, he could have installed a nicely proportioned screen near the back of the stage and complemented his acting with enlightening objects and text. But that would be missing Teperberg’s approach to the art form, and the work in question.
“This production is based purely on physicality. There is just me and the other two, and repeated attempts to talk and to be part of everything.”
The latter sentiment was also drawn from Keller’s experience with Beethoven’s Ninth.
“‘Hearing’ the music made her feel as if she was part of the world, that she could enjoy music like everyone else,” Teperberg suggests. “That is part of the way we communicate.”
Keller’s world was turned on its head when Anne Sullivan came into the picture. Sullivan, herself severely visually impaired, became the young Keller’s instructor and lifelong companion.
“Avshalom [Ariel] plays a character like Anne Sullivan and he tries to get me to do things. That adds another dimension to the play.”
My Heart Almost Stood Still is not a biographical work.
“It was inspired by her letter and the incredible gesture of touching the radio speaker, and how she felt the music like blood coursing through her body. I work with those elements in a very abstract way. I bring my own story, my own journey to it and what interests me. The show is based on what I call mechanisms. It’s a bit like jazz, because they are improvisational mechanisms.”
It is also Keller’s journey, after a fashion. Teperberg flits between physical and emotional states, from being a normatively enabled young man to having to cope with all kinds of impediments. In a way, that is the flipside of Keller’s path. She did not have the ability to hear with her ears, but found a different way of doing that and of being able to communicate with the world around her.
As a stage performer, Teperberg has to master the art of communication, of conveying the material or concept of a work to the audience. It is odds-on that he will manage that at the YMCA next week and that the festival patrons will find themselves thoroughly engaged and entertained.
For tickets and more information about International Festival of Puppet Theater, Jerusalem: