Theater: Inspiring Chilton

The 90-year-old theater director’s latest venture takes a look at the brilliant, pathetic, eponymous character from the Amoz Oz novel ‘Fima.’

‘Fima’ 521 (photo credit: Gadi Dagon)
‘Fima’ 521
(photo credit: Gadi Dagon)
Nola Chilton wants to make a difference – not that she’s going to make a big fuss about it, mind you. The 90-year-old New York-raised theater director has been doing her best to change the world for nigh on seven decades. Close to five of those decades have been spent furthering her craft to the benefit of various disadvantaged groups here, and to raising awareness of the human side of the Middle Eastern political conundrum. Chilton’s latest venture, a production of Fima, based on the 1991 book of the same name by Amos Oz and starring Dovaleh Glickman and Efrat Lavi, will be performed at the Herzliya Ensemble Theater from August 18 to 25 and will have its official premiere on September 5.
Oz wrote Fima towards the end of Yitzhak Shamir’s last term as prime minister, at a time when the writer felt the political situation had stagnated dangerously and the Israeli intelligentsia felt helpless. The eponymous character is a ramshackle man who tries to reconcile his personal and political woes, albeit none too cleverly or successfully.
Chilton, now a resident of Kibbutz Sdot Yam, feels we have a long way to go before things can improve here.
“Something I just put on at the [Tel Aviv] university, David Grossman’s Yellow Wind, was also written about 20 years ago,” she notes. “I found, tragically, that Grossman’s book and Amos’s book are even more valid today than they were then, because the situation has gotten even worse. People knew about the situation back then, but somehow there hasn’t been enough protest or activity or change. I think we are sliding down into a deep hole.”
In fact, Grossman vetoed all attempts to have Yellow Wind performed for the general public, notwithstanding Chilton’s artistic excellence.
“He said it wasn’t applicable [to the current situation].
But when he saw the play at the university he said: ‘I regret what I told you, I was wrong. It is applicable.’ But he said I shouldn’t get any ideas about doing the play for the public. He said that the Left was tired and the people on the Right certainly didn’t want the play. We knew the education system wouldn’t take it on, because it was too contentious.”
But it is not all doom and gloom, and Chilton finds the odd glimmer of hope – in that she is managing to get some message across, from time to time.
“A group of Ethiopian children came to see Yellow Wind, and one girl wrote that she watched it and understood that the bad things I had done to me [by Israeli society], I am doing the same thing to the Arabs.
The same racism, the same denigration that I suffered – I have simply taken and pushed over onto the Arabs.
She said it was shocking for her and an eye-opener for her, and that, I found, was wonderful.”
Chilton says she was taken with Oz’s book as a means of expressing the haplessness of Israelis on the Left side of the political divide, but that she was looking to portray something more positive.
Fima is a criticism of the impotence of the Left, that is where I started from. But I didn’t want to do that, to be critical of this or that. I wanted to present a situation, and all the elements of the situation. And if there is a man there who is convinced of his beliefs, I wanted to do that without judgment, so that you see and understand why the man does it, what is happening to him, what his fears are and what his needs are – not that he is an evil person, or that he talks and doesn’t act.
“I wanted to say he is frightened, broken and incapable of doing more than he is doing,” she adds.
For Chilton, it all boils down to seeing the spark of optimism in a dark and foreboding time.
“I was asked to give some quotes for the [play] program; I didn’t want to start ranting about what I thought. I gave a quote of [Polish Nobel Prize-winning author and poet Czeslaw] Milosz that said, ‘the search for ways to survive spiritual ruin in a ruined world.’ That, for me, was essentially what I was after.”
Chilton has been using her craft to express her political and social views, and to try to make the world a better place, from the word go. About 70 years ago she studied with legendary acting teacher Lee Strasberg and quickly set off to utilize her newfound theatrical skills for the good of society.
“I worked with black and white actors in a rundown area on the West Side [of New York],” she recalls.
“When we came out we had to get by some pretty tough characters on the street.”
She first made it over to Israel in 1962, returning for good the following year. She came here with an impressive track record, and was quickly wooed by the major theater companies. But Chilton wasn’t looking to go mainstream.
“I went to Kiryat Gat to learn Hebrew, and when the Cameri [Theater of Tel Aviv] asked me to work for them, I said I wasn’t interested in doing commercial theater because I wouldn’t be able to do the things I wanted to.”
Eventually, however, she agreed to give it a try for a year, after which she left for the less prestigious but far freer artistic climes of various kibbutzim in the Galilee.
Chilton was keen to use her professional skills and experience to improve the lot of people around her, working with senior citizens, children and other people who might otherwise not have had a chance to get a taste of theatrical entertainment.
In the 1970s Chilton adopted a documentary approach to the plays she wrote and directed, including Coexistence, which addressed the Palestinian issue, Bicycle for a Year about development towns, and The Coming Days about old age. She began working with the Haifa Theater, from which she launched a social theatrical project that involved a bunch of talented young actors, including Arnon Zadok and Ofra Weingarten. They worked with various sectors of the population in Kiryat Shmona that had very little or no access at all to cultural activities.
In this country, you can make the most innocuous remark and have it misconstrued as a political statement, so Chilton’s attempts at conveying the human face of highly contentious issues are quite remarkable and, possibly, doomed to failure.
“I am trying to open people to why we are in pain, and why we are so lost. I am trying to open them to think about it, and not to judge it and not to curse it.
That’s all I want,” she explains, adding that we need to take a less cerebral approach to life. “I think that if we can get more of the heart of the problem from the stage, rather than the head of the problem, it would help. I least I try to do whatever I can.”
At the grand old of age of 90, after over 60 years of doing her utmost to convey messages of hope and to enhance social consciousness, Chilton remains steadfast in her belief that the arts can bring about change.
“I got an award, I don’t want to blow my own trumpet but I need to tell you what the award was for. It was an award from the League of Professional Theater Women [conceived in San Diego in 1981]. They say they are interested in artists’ responsibility to society, to try to understand the workings of the world around them and use their gifts to elucidate its meaning, and thereby contribute to a better future. The candidates chosen are women artists whose work inspires and educates us.”
“That’s essentially what I’m trying to do.”
For tickets and more information about Fima: (09) 955- 2921,