Shut up and act

"You have to be very disciplined to improvise."

The Overcoat 311 (photo credit: Richard Haughton)
The Overcoat 311
(photo credit: Richard Haughton)
Amit Lahav clearly isn’t looking for a cushy life. The hardworking, envelope pushing, 37-year-old codirector of the British-based Gecko Theater company will be in Jerusalem in the first week of June for four performances of The Overcoat, as part of this year’s Israel Festival (June 2-5).
As his name suggests, Lahav has something of a close bond with this country, even though he has lived in Britain since infancy. He was born in Rehovot and spent the first three years of his life in Rishon Lezion where, among other childhood pleasures, he enjoyed eating his Yemenite paternal grandmother’s jahnun. “Food is such an important thing, isn’t it?” Lahav muses rhetorically and very Jewishly. “I suppose that’s the Jewishness and Israeliness in me coming out again.”
Lahav sounds as British as they come, but there is an edge to him which suggests more than a modicum of extraneous cultural baggage. Part of that is duly channeled into his professional life which, since 2001, has centered on Gecko.
There is almost nothing conventional about his work. He rails against anything that smacks of orthodoxy and ceaselessly pursues alternate routes to high artistic expression. Gecko engages in physical theater and is based largely on improvisation and music.
“I don’t seek different avenues for the sake of it,” declares Lahav. “I follow the heart and my instincts. It is about the way I feel. I feel when something is right, and when the work is done properly.”
That generally entails taking a jump or two off the deep end. “Yes, risks are always taken and you can never really know what the final product will be. In a way it’s like jazz, where there’s a written piece, let’s say a chord structure, but there is freedom to move around within that, to improve the creation of the work.”
That, however, necessarily does not include laissez faire. “You have to be very strict and disciplined, like with jazz, to follow some defined guidelines, in order to be able to play around and improvise.” Sounds like a tall order.
Lahav says following that ethos does not make it easy to find the right professionals to join him for the undulating artistic ride. He also admits that he can be a demanding taskmaster, and that substantially narrows his field of prospective cohorts.
“You have to be very skilled to do what we do in Gecko. I can’t work with people who are not incredibly skilled, and it’s a problem to find people who have that level of expertise but who are not locked in to their own individual approach. I am constantly searching for these kinds of people. It’s not easy but, I’m half Israeli, what do you expect?”
Nonetheless, Lahav has found like-minded professionals, and Gecko continues to ply its way through uncharted waters, taking no prisoners en route. Lahav doesn’t balk at entering political minefields either.
Considering Lahav’s Israeli origins, you wouldn’t naturally think he’d choose to throw in his professional lot with a London-born man with an Algerian father. But he and artistic codirector Al Nedjari have been running Gecko’s highly successful affairs together for the last nine years, touring the world and putting on three award-winning productions in the process.
True to his no-holds-barred, in-your-face philosophy, Lahav and Nedjari naturally gravitated to their own respective ethnicities and two years ago put on an acclaimed show called – what else? – The Arab and The Jew. In fact, Lahav says neither of them consciously targeted political issues in the work, but he is not so ingenuous as to believe that, given the protagonists’ backgrounds, that wouldn’t come into the mix – both on stage and behind the scenes.
“It was a real journey. We tried to stay clear of politics – which was a bit naive on our part – and we didn’t want it to be political. Al and I are not political beasts.”
But there was a dynamic which would not be denied. “We wanted to explore the issues, not in a didactic way, and the show was not driven by words, so the audience has to interpret it in their own way. Look, whatever you do with it, The Arab and The Jew is going to be politically construed.”
Sometimes Lahav got more than he’d bargained for. “I was very proud of the production but it was sometimes a chilling experience for some members of the audience, but also funny and sad. It was packed with metaphor which could be interpreted in so many ways. I’m grateful for the creative process.”
That process focused on artistic considerations but, inevitably, also led to some friction between Lahav and Nedjari as each brought his cultural-political baggage to the rehearsal room. “We argued about the Israeli-Palestinian issue but only through the metaphor of the theater. For example, in one scene there are arms coming out of a wall on one side of the stage, which I climbed up. For me, these were arms relating to the Holocaust. At the top of the arms, there was a very old hand and an old head with a scarf. The hand gave me a little light which I took and buried it.”
Rather than show the way forward, the light became a point of debate. “We argued about what Al should do to the light. I said smash it, and he said no. That led to an argument about the Arab-Israeli problem and then we stepped over into the political stuff. It was a fascinating process.”
True to his derring-do approach Lahav says he has no qualms about bringing The Arab and The Jew to this part of the world. In fact that was all lined up and ready to roll, but a regional spat intervened. “We were booked to do the show at Acre in 2006 but the Second Lebanon War broke out and that was that. Hopefully it will happen someday.”
UNUSUALLY FOR Lahav, the current show is something of an adaptation of an existing work – The Overcoat, written by early 19th-century Ukrainian-born Russian novelist, humorist and dramatist Nikolai Gogol. On the other hand, the Gecko rendition of the story owes very little to the original.
“I was asked by the artistic director of the Lyric Theater in Hammersmith [London] to read the script and was told there were the funds to invest in a theater production if I was interested,” Lahav explains. He was interested but, as usual, he interpreted the raw material in his own way. “In a sense it’s a bit dangerous to call the show The Overcoat, because I’ve digressed so far from the original story.”
Still, an improvisation is, by definition, a take on original material, so it might be worthwhile to know something about Gogol’s work. It was published in 1842 and caused such a stir in the literary world that Dostoyevsky famously observed, “We all come out from Gogol’s Overcoat.” The original story has been adapted numerous times over the last century, both on stage and in film, starting with Rae Bergher’s 1916 silent movie of the same name.
Briefly, the Gogol novel relates the story of an impoverished government pen pusher by the name of Akaky Akakievich Bashmachkin who has only a threadbare coat to keep himself from freezing to death in the harsh Ukrainian winter. After being ridiculed by all and sundry for his tatty appearance, Bashmachkin manages to scrape the necessary funds together to acquire a gorgeous new coat and subsequently, briefly, manages to gain the respect of his work colleagues – that is until disaster strikes when two hoodlums rough him up on the street and steal his coat.
True to his free-flowing spirit, Lahav did not initially pay too much attention to the original book. “I got into Gogol late, and then everything made sense. What I understand about Gogol and his life all fits in with the way I worked on the show – the type of character he was, his slightly acid and insecure laugh, and there was a certain sense of danger, and a viciousness in him. I found that really interesting and I was attracted to that aspect almost more than in the story.”
Lahav says he has always been drawn to stories, and gradually formed his own unique approach to the business of storytelling on stage, always looking beyond known confines for a vehicle for his artistic expression. Some of that came from home. “My maternal grandfather was of European Jewish extract and he told me stories endlessly. All that now plays a part in Gecko, with the pictorial mythology of Eastern Europe.”
That familial grounding in the art of storytelling was upgraded incrementally before Gecko came into being. Lahav enjoyed working stints with the likes of envelope-pushing actor Steven Berkoff and dancer, actor, mime artist and choreographer Lindsay Kemp – and with David Glass, with whom he worked for several years accruing acting experience and, far more importantly, an abundance of life experience.
“I spent four years with David Glass doing theater in Southeast Asia with street kids. I grew exponentially during that time. The education I got then as a human being was so beneficial, and gave me far more than I could possibly have got in three years at drama school.”
The work he did with those children continues to inform his work. “It was very much a growing-up period for me, and I gained a lot of confidence. I learned compassion from working with kids on the street, and I learned about the universality of imagery and about metaphor and how to talk to kids who have lost absolutely everything. Those poor kids lived like adults. There was nothing childlike about them and no childlike pursuit of wonderment. They lived like adults, just trying to survive. But, when they opened up there was a whole world of imagery there. That was fascinating.”
Besides feeding off Nedjari, Lahav also says working with percussionist, composer and actor David Price has been an important part of the Gecko creative process. “Music is central to our work. We use live music for inspiration, and some recorded music, and we get ideas from the music and use it in the early stages of material origination.”
And it’s not just music per se. “As we rehearse and the show takes on form it all becomes a sort of symphony, and the whole show is very dependent on rhythm. I am very blessed to be able to work with someone of David Price’s caliber.”
Lahav’s unique take on the theatrical arena is very much driven by emotion, and he says he wouldn’t touch cerebral theater with a barge pole. “What we do is not led by dialogue, so we exclude the intellectual process that a lot of theater involves.”
“I got into Gecko and music because I was sick of some of the conventional theater in London. I am not interested in the often over-intellectual pursuit of an intellectual bullet point. That’s not me. You can get incredibly dull, overspoken text-based stuff which is too close to TV and it doesn’t really grab you at all.”
Does that – God forbid – include productions of material writ by the Bard? “The worst kind of cancer grows in Shakespearean theater. There is some great work out there and some really, really bad work too. If I ever decided to do Shakespeare I think it would be more respectful.”
Lahav also says his personal cultural hybrid helps to fuel his artistic endeavor. “You get generalizations about the British, how correct and stiff they are. But, for example, just look at Monty Python. That’s very far away from that particular generalization about the Brits. I never feel wholly English myself and I don’t know which part of me is Israeli.”
The latter component of the Amit Lahav makeup veers the conversation smoothly back to gastronomy. “The way I eat, for example – I often eat with my hands – is an Israeli thing. And I squeeze lemon on everything. I got that from my dad.”