Acting in

A group of actors creates a successful repertory theater company dedicated to social commentary and change.

psik theater 88.298 (photo credit: )
psik theater 88.298
(photo credit: )
Like many young actors, when Assi Shimony, Shmuel Hadjes and Uzi Biton graduated from acting school, they decided to start their own theater troupe. Yet unlike the vast majority of such groups, their once fledgling project, Psik Theater, created in 1997, has matured into a professional, mainstream company. In 2003, it was named the most watched theatrical group in Jerusalem. According to Shimony, the secret to their success is unwavering commitment to their company. "We each decided not to take on any other project, no movies, no plays in Tel Aviv and just stay in Jerusalem and produce projects that come from the Israeli imagination," he explains. The core members, all graduates of Jerusalem's Nissan Nativ Acting Studio, made a pact to focus on their craft in a methodical way and to use their talents to contribute to the society around them. They began by producing theater for children, traveling with their plays throughout the country and often performing for special education groups. Soon, they added an amateur school for acting to their list of projects. Once a week, a variety of people of all ages and hailing from all over the country converge in Jerusalem to study acting with Psik. Among them are lawyers, security guards, students and soldiers searching for their way after the army, all with one thing in common - they want to act. "As a creative person, [for me] it is a truly amazing experience to be involved with it. It is the rare place that people of all stripes can come together to create something," says Shimony. Unlike most other schools, there is no audition process to be accepted to the program and the most emphasized aspect of the process is the experience of each individual actor. The teachers help each participant to locate the emotional state and motive of the character, so that the acting moves beyond mere recitation of text. The members of the company use the same philosophy in their own creative work. It took years of thought and methodical decision before they collectively decided to focus more completely on theater for the general public, leaving their six-year specialty in children's entertainment behind. The core members joined up with about 10 other actors who make up the casts of their current productions. Their first project, The Days of Adel, set completely in Jerusalem, is based on the true story of a young schizophrenic Arab man who believes he is a Jew. Written by emerging Israeli playwright Uri Nitzan and directed by Isaac ben Abu, head of the theater studies department at Hebrew University, the play turns on an encounter in a mental institution between the delusional title character and a disturbed haredi boy, whom he befriends. Plumbing the depths of individuals, especially those overlooked by society, is the theme of much of Psik's work as well as the fuel for their creativity. That interest in the individual also makes Jerusalem a natural home for them. Currently, they are based in an office at Hebrew University's Mount Scopus campus, but if they get their wish, the Municipality of Jerusalem, which helps fund them, will locate a more permanent home somewhere in the city. Says Shimony, "You have a collection of people in Jerusalem that you don't have anywhere in the world: Jews, Muslims, Christians, elitists, weirdos, artists. The stories available in Jerusalem are endless. The fountain flows and you can just take from it." Their latest project is also dedicated to telling the stories of individuals, but with the distinct challenge of a play that takes place, not only during the Holocaust, but also in the day-to-day lives of concentration camp inmates. The Court Jesters, based on a novel by Czech-Israeli writer Avigdor Dagan, tells of the unique friendship of four Jewish inmates at Auschwitz who are forced to entertain at SS officers' parties during the night, after a full day of work at the camp. "We didn't try to tell the whole huge, indescribable horror of the Holocaust. The director, Shmulik (Shmuel) Hadjes showed us a picture of thousands of victims and he pointed to four of them and said, 'We will try to tell the story of just these four,' and that's what we did." Uri Nitzan's adaptation of the novel focuses on the relationship between the four "entertainers," among them an astrologer, an acrobat dwarf, a judge with a near perfect memory and a juggler who doesn't speak. The performance scenes, in which the SS officers speak only in German and the inmates must keep them laughing if they wish to survive, serve to sharpen the scenes in the camp at night. There, the men are able to show a fraction of the pain they are suffering, trauma which remains with them throughout the play, even many years later when two of them meet in Jerusalem. In many ways, the play is about the trauma suffered by victims of the Holocaust, an insidious, underlying reality that is always present but can never quite be expressed. In an almost magical way, the play succeeds at suggesting that painful feeling with a subtlety rarely seen in the theater. During a recent performance at the Gerard Behar Center, the sobbing of audience members is mixed with the sounds coming from the stage. There is a raw, emotional quality to the performance as the inmates must do everything necessary, including losing all social dignity, with the one constant goal of surviving. Yet the play succeeds in capturing the incredible bravery and the deeply Jewish dignity involved in the act of survival. As a result, it has become something of a favorite among Holocaust survivors themselves, who according to Shimony, who plays Adam Wahn, the silent juggler, have reacted emotionally to the experience. Before opening night, the group performed the play for a select audience of Holocaust survivors. "At first I felt bad that they would cry and feel emotional after seeing the play because you don't want them to suffer any more than they have, but then I realized it was a good thing, returning to those terrible moments but sanctifying them as well," he says. The group took great pains to make sure the play incorporated the spirit of the experience of survivors. They spent nearly a year preparing for the role, talking to survivors and visiting Poland together with survivor Miriam Lahav. With Lahav's permission, they practiced scenes from the play while in Maidanek and Auschwitz and actually lay down on the wood bunks that served as beds for the inmates. Shimony describes the long, difficult process of preparing for the role of Wahn, explaining that most challenging was the attempt to understand why his character does not speak and how to express the difficult choices forced on the character. "Whoever has experienced separation from a loved one can understand that, but in trying to depict the experience of a concentration camp inmate, everything becomes sharper, more extreme. It was an extremely arduous, long process, but we were not afraid to go there emotionally," he says. The attention to detail that is an important part of the Psik style also means that they can't produce many plays at a time, but for the company, quality is far more important than speed. They prefer to create original pieces that have the possibility of becoming Israeli classics rather than cater to passing trends or to the avant-garde. Their plays travel throughout Israel and they hope to bring The Court Jesters overseas, where they see it becoming an effective form of Holocaust education, for audiences of all religions. The group also plans on a long run time for the play. With two currently running plays for a general audience and another one, Mutants, in the works, Psik is coming into its own, proving that the dream of three young actors is paying off. "We aren't the Cameri, that's true. But we are something completely original. We are creating a new language of Israeli theater," says Shimony. The Days of Adel will be performed on February 15 at 8:30 p.m. at Beit Shmuel. The Court Jesters will be performed on March 2 at 8:30 p.m., also at Beit Shmuel. For information: 581-8002.