Greater than life

At 91, Nola Chilton, recent winner of the Israel Prize for Performing Arts, is still immersed in the world of theater.

Nola Chilton (photo credit: Courtesy)
Nola Chilton
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Nola Chilton refuses to rest on her laurels.
Even receiving the Israel Prize for Performing Arts, which she recently won, won’t stop her. At 91, when most people are living off their pensions, she is still moving ahead at full speed.
As she has for many, many years, she continues to teach theater at Tel Aviv University and at the Kibbutz Seminar Drama School. The day after the prize was announced, she went to rehearsals with the young actors for a show put on by a pioneering group of volunteers. Chilton is once again taking part in human rights causes, this time protesting the expropriation of Beduin land.
Chilton’s winning the Israel Prize has brought about a wave of accolades in theater circles. Some claimed that justice was finally served, if belatedly.
“I’m so happy for her; she should have been awarded this prize years ago, since she was responsible for revolutionary changes in Israeli theater. Actors began performing like people, instead of just reading their lines,” said author Yoram Kaniuk.
“There is no greater poetic justice than the decision to grant the Israel Prize to one of the creators of the largest theater in the country,” said actor Oded Kotler, who has been Chilton’s partner in theater for more than 40 years.
The 2013 Israel Prize Committee, headed by Lea Koenig, and including Prof. Shimon Levy, Zeev Revach and Prof. Hadassah Shani, said the following: “Nola Chilton created a path for Israeli theater, and her teachings have deeply impacted Israeli society. Her choices as an admired teacher, director and educator, played a part in the advancement and success of Israeli theater.
Through her work, she has had a great influence on people who have continued on her path, and as a result have changed the face of Israeli theater. Nola gave minorities a voice, brought the hidden to light, and liberated the oppressed.”
Chilton was born as Celia Truger in New York to immigrant parents from Odessa. “While I was studying theater, I made a living from modeling,” she says. “So that my teachers wouldn’t find out, I decided to use a different name. I had just met a Jewish boy named Neal Chilton. I loved his name. So I just changed it a little to Nola, which I thought was the perfect name for a model.
“As an only child, I experienced many lonely moments. My mother, who was sick with tuberculosis, died when I was only 10 years old, and I was left alone with my father, who made a living making jewelry. I used to read a lot and I was a good student.
“From a young age, I have loved acting. After finishing high school, I went to university to study theater. But I left after just one year. I received an honorary doctorate from Tel Aviv University after many years of teaching, even though I don’t have an academic degree.”
Chilton was involved in the beginnings of black theater in the US. “At the time, black actors were only cast in roles as servants,” she recalls. “It was painful to see.
What kind of way is that to treat people?” Kaniuk has known Chilton since the early 1950s. “I met Nola when I first moved to New York. We used to go to this jazz club called the Village Vanguard. Nola worked in the cloakroom – she had to pay her bills somehow. At that time, she was also running an Off-Off-Broadway theater. I knew that she was doing amazing work, but for some reason I wasn’t very interested at the time. She was beautiful, the prettiest girl there. Since then we have remained good friends.”
While Chilton was still young, but already married to her first husband, a non-Jewish man of Italian descent, she began studying at Lee Strasberg’s studio, the most distinguished theater around. Chilton admired Strasberg, but did not completely agree with his method: “He was able to reach inside an actor, and succeeded in helping actors reach these places by themselves. He demanded hard work and expected his students to expose their personal lives and deal with things that were special or painful for them. Strasberg was extremely smart, but he was also cold and hard – I would even say oppressive. I would never have been able to tell someone that they would never be a good actor.”
And what would Strasberg say? “He didn’t just tell people that they had no talent whatsoever, but would add something like, ‘You need to quit this profession. This is not worth my time.’ I don’t know how he could say that to someone.”
Chilton directed her first shows Off-Broadway. “I think Dustin Hoffman had his first acting job in my theater in the show Dead End Kids. I remember when he came for an audition. He kept chewing on a piece of bread. Later when I asked him about it, he said that he did it to draw attention to himself so that I would remember him.”
In 1962, Chilton visited Israel for the first time as a tourist. “They said to me, ‘Tochter [daughter], come here!’” she remembers. “That was the best feeling – that someone wanted me to be there. Within a year I was back in Israel as a new immigrant.
There weren’t many new immigrants in the 1960s so they made a big effort to keep everyone that came. It was completely different back then. It was so idyllic here.
They even used to play classical music on the buses, and I thought, ‘Wow, this place is so cultured!’ And one time, as I was walking down the street in Jerusalem, a girl stopped me and invited me in for tea. Would that happen today? It was a different country then.”
INITIALLY, CHILTON moved around from place to place in a pioneering mode. She even tried to open an acting workshop in the Galilee. On Kibbutz Neot Mordechai she met diplomat Ehud Avriel, who told her that before she did anything, she must first learn Hebrew.
She followed his advice and went to study at Ulpan Etzion in Jerusalem.
Later, she left and joined another ulpan in Kiryat Gat.
As she was struggling to find her way, she ran into Kaniuk, who was the Cameri artistic director at the time. He told her, “First you need to have a little studio in Tel Aviv. If you want to go back to Kiryat Gat afterwards, we’ll help you.”
Her Tel Aviv studio lasted for a year. She expected things to take off following her production of Summer of the 17th Doll at the Cameri Theater. “I’m sad that I came here with the rights to the show Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? she said. “The Cameri said that it wasn’t appropriate for them. After a short time, Habimah Theater put on a production of it, and it was a great success. But that’s not why I left the Cameri... I said to myself, if I stay in Tel Aviv, I might as well go back to New York.”
CHILTON BEGAN to roam around the country again. “I went to Kibbutz Yasur in the Western Galilee. This was much better for me than being in Tel Aviv, which was like a small New York, or was at least trying to be. And then one day people in Yasur told me, ‘This is not the place for you; you need to move to a bigger kibbutz.’ So I moved to Kibbutz Ma’agan Michael. And it was there that I met John.”
John is the late novelist John Auerbach, who was born in Poland and was a Holocaust survivor. When Chilton met him, he was living on Kibbutz Sdot Yam. “We met while I was working on a play, and the translation wasn’t very good. They told me John was a novelist and that he might be able to help me. He didn’t actually help me much, but the important thing is that we met. That night I slept at a friend’s house at Sdot Yam. We got married while we slept.
“Before I met John, I had been dating Abdel Aziz Zuabi, who was an MK and a member of the Mapam party (who died at a very young age). He was my first boyfriend in Israel, while I lived in Tel Aviv. He was very smart and gentle. ‘They might call you an Arab’s whore,’ he said, and so we broke up. He ended up marrying another Jewish woman anyway, though.”
At Sdot Yam, Chilton was offered kibbutz membership since she had married a member. She said that she never would have stayed had they required her to work in the fields. “I just wanted to enjoy the quiet, pleasant atmosphere. I don’t think I would have lasted in the city.”
Chilton directed plays in most of the theaters throughout the country, but the first one was the Haifa Municipal Theater. “That’s because of Oded Kotler,” she says. “First he invited me to teach acting in the Actors’ Stage studio that he had started. When that moved to Haifa, he offered me to move with them and become their director.
Oded is an example of the most beautiful aspects of theater; he is honest and gentle, and truly cares about people. He does what he thinks is right and has ideas similar to mine. He never once refused one of my ideas.”
When she wanted to direct Samuel Beckett’s Endgame in 1971, Kotler went along with it. They succeeded in convincing the legendary Aharon Meskin, who hardly ever left his theater – Habimah – to join them, alongside Gedalia Besser. “I have no words to describe him,” she said of Meskin.
“I want to cry when I think about what type of person he was, something out of this world. There was this freshness about him, almost childlike. When his son, Amnon, called to congratulate me on the prize, he told me that when his father received the Israel Prize, he said, ‘Good, now I can go and buy an electric fan.’ That was Meskin. It’s so sad that he and so many other beautiful people that I knew through the years are no longer with us.”
Since her arrival in Haifa, Chilton has been known as a director of modern and classical plays. It began with the play Coexistence by Muhammad Watad.
Within a year, she entered into a collaboration with Yehoshua Sobol in the play The Days to Come.
“I really wanted to put on a play about an old woman,” she recalls. “I asked Bulli [A.B. Yehoshua] if he was interested in writing such a play, and if I’m not mistaken, he referred me to Yehoshua Sobol, who was a journalist at the time. We used some of the sensitive recordings he made in nursing homes within the play. It was more of a documentary than a play.”
One of the most unforgettable plays that she directed in Haifa, was The Twentieth Night, written by Sobol, about diaries found from the previous century in Bitanya. Chilton surprisingly explains that “the most important part of directing the play was not the subject matter, but helping the new project that I had started in Ein Hod under the auspices of the Haifa Theater. I wanted the young actors there to grow and succeed.”
Chilton says that another play that she directed in those days was extremely significant for her. “I wanted to help promote people who were not getting noticed. And sometimes even worse than that,” she says.
“I wanted these unrecognized talents to call out, ‘We are alive and we want to be with you,’ or ‘We want to be in the light and not in the dark.’ What moved me more than anything was the reaction of a cleaner who saw the play and told me, ‘This girl had to come here from America to give us a place to live, a place where we can be seen.’ From all the years working in theater, these are the things I want to remember.”
Asked if theater can change reality, she said, “I think so, but I’m not really sure to what extent. Theater that speaks to people directly, with sympathy and from the heart, can help change reality. There was something different in the air following the production of Kriza. If you are in theater not to put people to sleep, and not just to entertain them, but rather to say something important, then you can make a difference. People nowadays prefer video clips.”
Chilton led two unforgettable projects while living in Haifa. Among the then unknown actors who were in the Ein Hod group were Moni Moshonov, Shlomo BarAbba and Sandra Sadeh. A second group moved up to Kiryat Shmona, which included Itzik and Ofra Weingarten, Rami Danon, Arnon Zadok and Dalik Volonitz.
Of all of her students, she is most excited when she talks about Moni Moshonov, saying that his success is due to her. “I think Moni is just fantastic, the best actor in all of Israel,” she says. “He has an unbelievable sense, and he is so open, which is what I look for in every actor.”
Her relationship with Bar-Abba is a little more complicated. When he moved over to the entertainment sector, she was very critical of him.
“I’m very sad what happened to him.
He ruined himself. If he had stayed in theater, he would have gone much further.
Maybe something has changed since I said what I did about him. It’s a shame when a talented actor does not live up to his potential.”
Dalik Volonitz was always likable. “I am crazy over Dalik, I just love him,” Chilton says emotionally. “He is a great person, not just talented, but he doesn’t work enough in theater. They all get stuck in these TV shows. Since he is so busy with TV, I don’t think theaters are running after him. Though I suppose being in theater is not as glamorous as TV.”
From the start, Chilton recognized that Itzik Weingarten wasn’t just a talented actor, and she entrusted him with the preparation of material for the shows Kriza and Bicycles for a Year. It was a different Israel – beautiful and painful.
After working in theater in Haifa, Chilton became involved in the founding of a theater in Neveh Tzedek in the 1980s, which was initiated by Kotler. The show Son of a Dog, adapted from Yoram Kaniuk’s book, which she directed, was a huge success.
You didn’t do any Shakespeare? No, I never directed any Shakespeare. I don’t have the talent and energy. It’s beyond my capability. I never aspired to directing a show just to have my name listed on the program. I wanted to fix and change things. I’m not so interested in directing plays that won’t fit this model.
Did you ever consider doing anything with TV? No, I’m only interested in theater. Not movies. Not TV. I need theater, live performances, people acting here and now.
I love the interaction between the actors and the audience.
Whatever happened to the documentary-style theater that you brought to Israel? I guess that audiences have tired of this type of theater. They see these types of shows on TV. They are looking for shows that can be summarized in a video clip.
These are the types of shows that people are looking for in theater today.
What are you thinking of doing next? For many years I’d wanted to do Chekhov. In the end I directed Three Sisters at the University and Uncle Vanya at the Library Theater, starring Doron Tavori. It was important to me to direct On the Way to the Cats. I loved that book by Yehoshua Kanz. It’s a wonderful story about people living in an old-age home that Kanz wrote with a lot of love. It came from a very deep place.You speak about love, but you have an image of being a fighter and a rebel.In the shows that I direct, I continue to fight against indifference in society.
Against the tendency to sweep everything that’s unusual or not profitable under the rug. I don’t think that love and showing people who live in the margins of society are mutually exclusive.
They are both a part of our society.
I love to talk about culture, but today if it doesn’t have anything to do with Eurovision or sport, people are not interested.
When there is finally a show about literature, they air it after the 11 p.m. news so as not to bother anyone.
People get what they want. We are a society of videoclips. Our world has fallen outside of the frame that used to hold it together. Something is a little off.”
ASKED IN what other fields she would like to make her mark, she replies, “Gesher Theater, an Israeli theater company founded by new immigrants from Russia, is doing great things. I would love to work with them, but they don’t need me. They have a great director, Yevgeny Aryeh. They are producing theater on an international level.”
Chilton’s life is dedicated to art and teaching. She doesn’t have a list of plays she’d like to direct. Right now she is working on a one-man show about the late Rabbi Menachem Froman of Tekoa, written by Asaf Ofek who held numerous discussions with him. Chilton is not revealing who will play the rabbi, but she promises that it will be a real crowd pleaser.
She says she went to Tekoa.
“I admire Rabbi Froman tremendously.
I also want to direct a show about Yitzhak Ben-Aharon, who lives not far from me on Kibbutz Givat Haim. Oded Kotler has invited us to hold the production at the Herzliya Theater Ensemble, which he manages. Ben-Aharon was a good friend of mine. When he died, I felt as if I’d lost a father.”Do we need more people like Ben Aharon? “We are half dead because we don’t have any more people like him. And not just Ben-Aharon. There was also Aryeh ‘Lova’ Eliav, whom I also loved. He was also a good friend of mine. And there was Sarah ‘Surika’ Braverman [the parachutist from Kibbutz Shamir]. She was a close friend of mine. I want to put on a play about her too.
Do you feel like you have a mission to accomplish? “No, I just do what I feel is necessary in order to live through all these terrible things that are weighing down upon me.
I don’t go to demonstrations. I don’t protest at roadblocks. My shows, such as Endgame, are my protests.”