Spivak’s fringe benefits

A veteran actress receives a Lifetime Achievement Award for her work in the less commercial side of the business.

Tammy Spivak 521 (photo credit: Moshe Aisen)
Tammy Spivak 521
(photo credit: Moshe Aisen)
Tammy Spivak says she was not expecting official kudos, but she is nonetheless delighted. The honor in question is the 2012 Fringe Theater Lifetime Achievement Award and, by all accounts, Spivak has paid her dues.
“I don’t know,” says the 60-something veteran of countless theatrical productions, “I expected someone older than me to get the award.”
Spivak will receive the accolade at the 2012 Golden Hedgehog Awards ceremony, which will take place at Hasimta Theater in Jaffa on November 2.
Although the award does imply some kind of summation of a life’s work, Spivak says she is far from done.
“A Lifetime Achievement Award sort of indicates that you can rest. But I am so busy with so many projects, and I have lots of ideas and things coming up. I am at the pinnacle of my creative powers right now. If this is a Lifetime Achievement Award, for me it’s an ongoing achievement award. I am not planning on slowing down for quite a while yet,” says the grandmother of four. “It’s lovely to know that people appreciate what you do on an artistic level, and also the work I do to try to help self-employed actors.”
Spivak’s resumé to date is impressive. Besides being one of the leading thespians on the fringe side of the theater divide, she is a director, playwright, presenter, storyteller and a teacher of acting and diction. The lengthy list of projects she has contributed to covers wide exploratory and less-exploratory terrain, and includes such works as Terence Rattigan’s Separate Tables, Tommy Lapid’s Catch the Thief, Arthur Miller’s The Last Yankee, Bertold Brecht’s Man Equals Man and Yosef Mundi’s It Spins. Her musical ventures – she describes herself as “an actress who sings,” rather than “a singer” – include My Fair Lady and even a role in Bizet’s Carmen.
Having put in her time in the mainstream theatrical field, Spivak’s decision to try to keep the wolves at bay from the less financially rewarding domain of the arts is all the more admirable and presumably demands a certain amount of courage. Spivak offers a take on the Gertrude Stein tell-it-like-it-is ethos.
“I say an actress is an actress is an actress,” she declares, adding that she cast her professional net far and wide before settling on her current exploratory path. “I worked in repertory theater, I have been on the stage for 45 years, and I don’t think there is a genre in which I haven’t worked. I have acted in musicals, commercial theater and children’s theater.”
She was also among the pioneers of her chosen field. “I worked in fringe theater before it was called that. There was fringe theater in Israel in the late 1950s and in the 1960s. There were people like [playwright- directors] Yosef Mundi and Michael Almaz, and the extensive activity there was in Tel Aviv in the 1960s and 1970s, in all sorts of basement places, like Beethoven and Hamadregot Theater and Hakoma Hashlishit. And there was the Pargod Theater in Jerusalem. I remember we would go to Jerusalem to perform and we’d have no idea how many people would turn up. But these were all initiatives taken by artists who wanted to address various topics and material they knew would not be taken on by the repertory theater sector.”
Rather than bang her head against a brick wall and rail against the injustice of the lack of popularity of fringe productions, Spivak prefers to get on with her business.
“I understand why all these nonmainstream ventures attract less attention and less remuneration,” she says. “You can’t market theater that is more complex, and is alternative and sometimes complicated and not so communicative, to an audience that mostly comprises subscribers and workers’ committees from various companies and organizations.”
Then again, there are inestimable rewards to be had from treading the non-mass appeal boards. “All over the world you get fringe theater productions that might bring in crowds of maybe a few dozen people,” she continues, “but you know that they really want to see what you have to offer them. They are not looking for conventional material.”
Spivak believes that mainstream culture has its place too. “I worked in Habimah and Beit Liessin and I appreciate what institutions like that have to offer. When you work in fringe theater, you venture into uncertain territory. You know, you don’t get thousands of people going to art galleries either. People who come to fringe theater come to see something that may not be too clear to them, and that’s something the repertory theater world can’t afford to do.”
She says that the fringe sector has also changed over the years. “I was in fringe theater before it was known as such, and before it became institutionalized,” she notes. The irony of the notion is not lost on her. “That’s a contradiction in terms. Fringe theater in Israel became institutionalized around 1994 or 1995.”
Spivak’s take on “institutionalization” primarily refers to the financial side of the business. “Fringe received some support and, very importantly, the Acre Festival got some backing. It took a long, long time for that to happen.”
For Spivak, there is no substitute for going out on a creative limb and the spiritual and professional payback is invaluable. “We’d go to places like Pargod, with Mundi, and we didn’t know if we’d come home with any money. We did it because we were mad about doing that kind of work and performing for audiences that were hungry for what we had to offer, for material that was provocative. With all due respect to places like Habimah and the Cameri Theater, which also engage in art and lots of commercial theater, we don’t perform all sorts of musical productions countless times. We often grapple with plays that are very original, with young artists who have no idea what to expect, how the audience will react. There is a genuine and passionate artistic urgency that drives fringe theater.”
Even so, Spivak says she does not take the Catholic road. “I love fringe theater, but I’m quite happy to work in repertory theater if I like the material. I have to be moved by the work. That’s the bottom line for me.”