Readers of ROT will know that on 23 January, I published a post called “Dispatches from Israel” by my friend Helen Kaye. It included Helen’s 2008 review of Not by Bread Alone, an extraordinary performance by the Nalagaat Deaf-Blind Theater Ensemble of Tel Aviv. “I was very moved when I saw it,” Helen wrote when she sent me the review, recommending very strongly that I see the performance that was coming to New York City. As it happened, the company was performing its U.S. début at the Skirball Center for the Performing Arts at New York University just off of Washington Square South, a few blocks south of my home. So, on Tuesday evening, 29 January, I walked down to catch the 8 p.m. show. (The performance schedule was very erratic, with shows at different times on different dates and the production was dark not only on Mondays, the traditional day off for theaters, but also on Fridays.)
Nalagaat (the name means “Please Do Touch” in Hebrew) began work on Not by Bread Alone, the troupe’s second production, in 2005 and it took two years to gestate. It premièred in 2007 and toured to London in July 2010 (among other places) before coming here this year. It was the first work of the ensemble at its new home, the Nalagaat Center in Jaffa, the oldest part of Tel Aviv. The troupe began almost accidentally in 1999 when Zurich-born stage director Adina Tal was approached by a social club for deaf-blind people to conduct a two-month theater workshop. She’d been asked to lead programs for disabled people before, Tal explained, but, she confessed, “It didn’t interest me, though I thought it was nice that others did it.” But Tal, who had no previous experience with this kind of work and has characterized herself as having “little patience and even less sense of pity,” agreed this time. Her intention was to run a general drama workshop, but she was enthralled by the enthusiasm of the group and, particularly, the challenge to find a new way to communicate, especially with a large audience rather than one on one. The director wasn’t interested in doing standard works like Shakespeare plays with deaf-blind actors and when one participant said he wanted to do a play by Maxim Gorky, Tal responded, “You are deaf-blind and non-verbal. How are you going to do Gorky?” (Most of the actors suffer from Usher syndrome, a genetic disorder that causes hearing impairment and deafness often at birth. During adolescence or later, retinitis pigmentosa develops, resulting in gradual vision loss and ultimately complete blindness. Only one of the 11 company members was born blind and later became deaf as a consequence of meningitis.) Tal told the group, “Other people can do Gorky better than us. But what they can’t do is what we can do. The strength of Nalaga’at is in being us. That’s what we do really well.” So after a year of work on rhythm, improvisations, body movement, and touch-sign language until the performers learned to pantomime their feelings and dreams, the troupe’s first production, Light is Heard in Zig Zag, was born. About the actors’ “heart-wishes,” Zig Zag premièred in 2003. (Highly regarded, the production went on to play before the Knesset in Jerusalem; in Toronto and Montreal, Canada; and at the U.N. headquarters in Geneva.) Nalagaat, the only group of its kind in Israel and perhaps the whole world, was officially launched by Tal, who became the president and artistic director, in 2002 and moved into its own home in Tel Aviv’s ancient port district five years later.
Not by Bread Alone, also directed by Tal, explores “the districts of their inner world; the world of darkness, silence” as the 11 ensemble members make fresh bread. “Welcome to our darkness and silence,” says one Nalagaat actor. “We invite you to share our everyday lives together.” Over 80-minutes and ten scenes (many accompanied by music of guitar and accordion, composed by Amnon Baaham and Zvi Tal), the cast shares the individual memories, experiences, aspirations, and fantasies of the actors while the loaves bake in the ovens on stage behind them. (The aroma of the baking bread is an ever-increasing presence. Bread Alone is the only stage piece I can remember ever having seen in which the sense of smell forms such a real part of the performance experience.) The 11 bakers tell us who they are with bits of their autobiographies. As each actor introduces him- or herself to us, telling us where they were born, when they lost their hearing and sight, what they like to do, when they came to Israel, each one takes off the blank, featureless white mask they all wear. Each actor thus transforms from an anonymous, faceless being—the way I imagine they feel they’re regarded by the hearing-and-seeing world—into an individual with not just a face, but an expressive visage. Just like you and me. Later, each performer tells us whom they’d like to share part of their bread with (a pregnant woman, an abused child, soldiers in the army, horses, birds) and what they think life is all about. Nalagaat’s most successful production so far, Not by Bread Alone ran at the Skirball from 16 January to 3 February. (Following Bread, the troupe has staged a children’s show, Prince Rooster, and launched a new multi-cultural ensemble of deaf-blind Jews, Muslims, and Samaritans that premièred Luna Park in 2012 after four years of work.)
NYU’s Skirball Center on LaGuardia Place in Greenwich Village was funded in part by the Skirball Foundation ($2 million of the approximately $40 million total cost) and named for Jack H. Skirball (1896-1985), a rabbi who became a Hollywood producer (Alfred Hitchcock's 1943 Shadow of a Doubt) as well as the producer of S. N. Behrman’s Jacobowsky and the Colonel on Broadway (1944-45). The 860-seat performing arts center, opened in 2003, is part of the Helen and Martin Kimmel Center for University Life, the NYU student center on Washington Square South. The largest theater in New York City south of 42nd Street, the Skirball didn’t exist when I was a student at NYU (the Kimmel Center replaced the Loeb Student Center which was demolished in 1999) and I’d never been there until this experience.
With only one notable exception that I saw, everyone with an opinion has embraced this performance. I’ll confirm that Bread Alone was a remarkable and astonishing experience, both humanly and theatrically, but I can’t help feeling that some of the enthusiasm from the professional commentators (that is, reviewers) was considerably influenced by what the performance was and who the performers are and the feeling that they were supposed to appreciate and laud the event. There’s a proverb, supposedly Russian (which is appropriate since so many of the Nalagaat ensemble are Soviet-born), that says: “The wonderful thing about a dancing bear isn’t how well it dances, but that it dances at all.” I mean no disrespect by a dubious comparison—the Nalagaat performers are not dancing bears—but I wonder if there isn’t an element of that mindset operating here. Bread Alone was both interesting and, as Helen said, moving, there's no doubt of that. But it's such a personal piece—to a degree that's not common in mainstream theater—it may approach an encounter session. I don’t think it’s a play in the ordinary sense of that term, so if I address it like The Piano Lesson or Harper Regan, this report would be misleading and incomplete. At the same time, it wasn't exactly The Famous People Players, either. I probably won’t know what I feel about the performance until I've actually written it—to paraphrase Gracie Allen.
Nonetheless, I won’t take the kind of stance that Adam Feldman, that one outlier, took in Time Out New York. Feldman savaged the production, thoroughly though briefly, declaring, “That it exists at all is remarkable”—echoing the very Russian proverb I quoted. “Not by Bread Alone means to explore its subjects’ dreams and memories,” the reviewer continued, “as well as their overwhelming isolation, frustration and loneliness—to shine light on their darkness, and give voice to their silence.” But the performance, “alas, is a mitzvah gone wrong,” resulting in “a maudlin mash-up of The Miracle Worker and Weekend at Bernie’s.” (A mitzvah, for non-New Yorkers and others benighted in the quirks of Yiddish and Hebrew, can mean an act of kindness, a good deed. I won’t comment on Feldman’s invocation of Weekend at Bernie’s, a 1989 juvenile farce I’ve never seen, but from what I know of it, the comparison strikes me as unnecessarily cruel.)
While it seems to me that the positive reviewers were influenced more by the sociological impact of Bread than by its artistic merits, I feel that Feldman was responding to a misreading of the performance. When he wrote, for instance, that the performers “enact a series of hackneyed, awkward vignettes,” he seems to have forgotten that he just pointed out that the ensemble is revealing the members’ “dreams and memories,” which they’re exposing as basically the same as everyone else’s. Tal’s intent was to show the audience that what the Nalagaat actors want from life, what they imagine and fantasize about, are the same things for which we all yearn. Perhaps Tal could have selected more dramatic examples of those dreams—I assume the material was all drawn from what the company members told her during the development period—but the less common the memories and reveries are, the less forcefully the point of Bread is made. I don’t know anything about Tal’s pre-Nalagaat stage work, so I don’t know if she leans toward the sentimental and clichéd habitually, but it’s certainly not the fault of the actors that they dream about the same things the rest of us do. (One of Feldman’s complaints was that in a scene about a trip to Italy, the characters are all costumed “cartoonishly,” and that’s almost certainly Tal’s choice. I have no idea what the Italians imagined by the Nalagaat players would look like, since most of the actors will have lost their sight years ago, but the company members surely wouldn’t have much inkling what the costumes they were wearing, credited to Dafna Grossman, look like.) Bread has two main points, one of which, as already noted, is to show the audience what the deaf-blind long for and that those dreams are much like ours. (The other point, which I’ll get to momentarily, is to let us in a little on what their darkness and silence is like.) Of course acting them out will seem familiar. We’ve all seen the same scenes before—in our own dreams and fantasies.
So, where do I focus when I try to describe and assess this performance? Do I stress the ensemble’s intent, its heart? Or do I emphasize its aesthetics and skill, its artistry? Adina Tal declares, “Nothing is impossible,” when she discusses Not by Bread Alone and Nalagaat, suggesting to me that her focus is on the message more than the aesthetics. Remembering the Russian bear, she seems to want us to see that the players are simultaneously like us and different from us more than how well they reveal this truth from the stage. If I’m right, then she and Nalagaat have succeeded marvelously, because the revelation was, indeed, touching, striking, and eye-opening. The overall feeling emanating from the stage was “sweet.” (Yes, and some of it was painful, too. But even those memories were tenderly, even wistfully depicted.) However clichéd the players’ vision of their trip to Italy is, it was imbued with happiness and affection; if that’s how the players see their Italian hosts, it flows from tenderness and pleasure, not meanness. (As I suggested, however, I suspect Tal had a hand in the visual portrayal we saw, and she should know better. Aside from her ability to see and hear, we should remember that though the director grew up in German Switzerland, the confederation’s official culture is a quarter Italian.)
It wasn’t hard to accept that the deaf-blind players have dreams and fantasies much like ours in the seeing and hearing world—though it was remarkable how much of those musings was devoted to or derived from the senses of touch, smell, and taste. It was also notable that many of the events depicted in the imaginings were the humblest human activities: going to a hairdresser, eating an ice-cream cone, swinging on a swing, slow-dancing. One Nalagaat member found an immense feeling of gratification and freedom from just smoking a cigarette outside. Even the fantasy wedding staged at the end of Bread expressed a basic human need: the desire for companionship. I’m not sure if Tal selected such fundamental acts to reinforce the message that the deaf-blind think the same way the rest of us do, or if it’s evidence that they yearn for the simplest of human interactions because that’s what they miss. (In several of the exchanges depicting the world of the deaf-blind, players stressed how much they depend on touch—shaking hands, having a stranger touch their hand or arm—just to know that someone else is there, that other people are real. It is, indeed, how the deaf-blind communicate, by tactile signing, where the receiver reads the signs of the signer through movement and touch. I believe the importance of physical contact is where the company’s name comes from.) This is where I feel TONY’s Feldman missed an important point and read basicness as cliché. The commonness of their visions isn’t a bad selection, a flawed theatrical choice—it’s the very point Tal and Nalagaat are trying to make.
The second main message of Bread, as I noted, is to show us a little of what the eternally dark and silent world of the deaf-blind is like. This is harder to do, of course, and possibly a more disturbing experience for us in the audience. (In an adjunct to the show itself, Nalagaat transported versions of what they call their “immersive culinary offerings” from Tel Aviv to New York City. Elsewhere in the Skirball Center, the company set up BlackOut and the Café Kapish. In the first, diners, served their meals by blind waiters, ate in total darkness, guided by taste, smell, and touch; at the second eatery, guests engaged with the deaf and hearing-impaired staff by sign language only.) While the dreams and fantasies were acted out, often in pantomime, the depiction of the real world in which the players live was principally accomplished by autobiographical narratives and anecdotes. Many of the stories were from the players’ childhoods, frequently telling what it had been like when they first lost their sight (remembering that except for Itzik Hanuna, the man who was born blind and lost his hearing at 11, most Nalagaat members were deaf at birth and gradually lost their vision) or realized that they’d never know what a new-born nephew’s face looked like or no longer be able to read poems and stories as they’d loved to do before. It’s not so difficult to grasp the notion that a deaf-blind woman has the same wishes and yearnings as you or I do; it might take a Nalagaat to make the point, but the idea’s not hard to conceive. Conveying what it’s like to live in darkness and silence, to experience the world entirely through the remaining senses of smell and, especially, touch (taste is only occasionally suggested on stage—and I suspect it’s actually less effective as a gateway to experience than the other two senses) requires a leap of the imagination that was harder for me to make.
One reason may be that while the dreams and aspirations can be acted out and portrayed visually and theatrically, the biographical anecdotes that illustrate the sensory deprivations are largely verbal and intellectual. Ironically, the dream portrayals may have been commonplace and mundane, but the stories about the darkness and silence in which the players live were unique and personal. Whether related directly by the actor, some of whom still have speech, or translated by the black-clad interpreters who functioned on stage much like Japanese stage assistants, the tales were moving and arresting—even as several contained humorous aspects despite the underlying anguish. (One of the revelations of Bread was how good-humored and light-hearted the ensemble is. A number of the ensemble members affirmed that what they liked most was to clown around or make people laugh. What those of us outside their world might perceive as tragic, the players seemed to see as much more like red hair or left-handedness: a fact of their lives, though certainly more challenging.)
This dichotomy brings me to an assessment of the stage work, the artistry of Not by Bread Alone. First, I have to go back to the Russian bear—and I don’t mean this as a put-down in the least. After a few minutes, one pervasive fact took over my perception: these actors can’t see or hear what’s going on on stage. Not only that, but they couldn’t see or hear what they were doing during the development and rehearsal of Bread. Several techniques were employed to overcome some of the obvious disadvantages of that fact, but I still kept wondering how Nalagaat managed to do what I was watching them do. Some of the performers had sighted guides (the interpreters) to help them navigate the stage, but many didn’t. No one carried a cane and though I know that blind people learn how to gauge distances in familiar places like their homes or workplaces, the Skirball stage is different from their home stage and any other space in which they’d worked. How did they accomplish this so apparently fluidly and smoothly? Since the actors can’t hear themselves (and never had heard not just their voices, but their intonations and other vocal variations), how did they manage to deliver lines (those who did) so expressively? (To be honest, some of the performers were more affectless than others—though the least vocally expressive were usually the interpreters who, when they voiced an actor’s words, seemed deliberately not to convey emotional content, as if to avoid adding a layer of their own personal responses.) In addition, the Nalagaat players couldn’t hear or see Adina Tal, either, as she had pointed out. “Nobody could see me or hear me,” Tal explained. “I couldn’t imagine how we might begin to work together. So we sat in a circle and squeezed hands and tapped knees and tried to find a way of communicating.” They must have found one, because they communicated like gangbusters—straightforward, unmediated (to a great degree, not counting Tal’s input and the work of the interpreters), honest, and, often, blunt. As Helen Kaye put it, “They were/are saying ‘Here we are. This is what we do. Take it or leave it, but don't pity us.’” Well, I didn’t pity them—they seemed to be having too much fun—but I did marvel at their accomplishment.
Not by Bread Alone was very theatrical—some of the pantomime came very close to homages to Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Harold Lloyd, yet the actors aren't likely to have ever seen them (or, really, to know if they looked like those actors since they can't see themselves). One of Tal's remarks was that these performers have never seen Pacino or Brando act, so they can't imitate them (an asset in her assessment), so how could they imitate Chaplin and silent movies? (Of course, all movies would be silent to the Nalagaat actors, but you know what I mean. According to one reviewer, however, one of the actors especially adept at channeling the Little Tramp had been a fan of the silent film great before losing his sight.) Furthermore, I found the blatant (but genuine) sentimentality a little off-putting. I mean, a fantasy wedding for two deaf-blind middle-agers: could you just cry? It ought to have been cloying, but wasn't. It was, as I said earlier, sweet—but it was also immensely revealing.
On the other hand, I contend that declaring “Here we are. This is what we do” is precisely a description of something that's not a conventional play in the usual sense of the term. There are no characters—the actors all appear as themselves, though they play “manipulated” versions of themselves—or unified plot. If the actors appear as themselves, the performance is out of the mainstream of current theatrical practice. Western theater still relies on the Stanislavsky paradigm, irrespective of the method by which it's reached, where the performer subsumes his or her persona in the character's. Actors who appear as themselves, telling their own actual stories, are not giving standard performances; even performers like the late Spaulding Gray (that is, monologists) and Anna Deavere Smith are considered theatrically radical or avant-garde. Bertolt Brecht demanded that his actors appear as themselves while demonstrating the behavior of the characters, a tactic sometimes called “schizoid acting,” but he was also a radical writer and director even by today's standards. (I described schizoid acting briefly in my ROT report on Venus in Fur, 11 July 2011. And, yes, I know the concept is misapplied; I didn’t coin the term.) Further, a performance piece like Bread in which there's no unified plot is also non-traditional, more like a non-musical revue or collage, neither of which is a conventional play structure. Whether or not any of that's dramatic is a hard question to answer—it depends on how you define ‘drama’—but I still say it’s not a play per se.
The decision to bake bread was both a practical and philosophical one. First, director Tal wanted to give the actors a basic physical task to accomplish while they’re telling their stories. Nalagaat experimented with making salads and other basic foods because Tal saw the preparation of food as a “binding experience” for the troupe. But kneading and baking bread became the activity that brought the company together and connected them to the audience. Bread is one of the most basic foods, existing in every culture from before history was recorded. In Jewish tradition, visitors often bring bread as a gesture of friendship and at a Jewish table, along with wine, bread is specifically blessed (in a prayer repeated on stage when the loaves are removed from the ovens). It symbolizes life in many cultures (“the staff of life”) and, as the players remind us, Jews are commanded to share 10% of our bread with others—as the Nalagaat members share their lives with us. “Breaking bread” is a custom that demonstrates sharing and offers of friendship and peace (especially among strangers or former adversaries). God provided manna from Heaven to sustain the Jews during the Exodus and after many Sabbath services, the rabbi invites the congregation to share a challah loaf before leaving the synagogue. At the end of the performance, the company invited the spectators to come up on stage and partake of the freshly baked loaves and meet the actors.
Theatrically, the aroma of baking bread, one of the homeliest and most pleasing odors known to humans, connected the audience to the performance and, thence, the performers. (When I was in second or third grade and we were studying food and nutrition, one of our field trips was to a commercial bakery. Even after nearly 60 years, I still vividly remember the smell of the fresh-baked bread we got to taste after the bakery tour.) The process also served as Bread’s hourglass: the performance started when the 11 bakers, standing behind long tables dressed in white aprons and wearing tall, white chefs’ toques, began kneading the dough and ended when the finished loaves were brought out of the oven; when the smell began to fill the theater, we knew that Bread was coming to a close. The separate vignettes give Bread the structure of an old-time TV variety show (think Sid Caesar or Carol Burnett), but the bread-baking corrals them into a single theater event—the string for the beads, so to speak. Further, as one of the players explained: “While the bread is in the oven, thoughts appear.” It was a perfect symbolic and practical vehicle for this show.
I have no substantive comments on Tal’s direction, aside from reservations I’ve already expressed about some of her choices. She conceived and staged a successful and communicative presentation in Bread Alone and clearly drew effective performances from the troupe. She overcame many impediments, most visibly with the employment of the interpreters who translated not only the performers’ sign language but also sometimes their Hebrew. (The production used English supertitles for the Hebrew dialogue.) When the interpreters weren’t aiding an actor, she or he might get assistance from a castmate. (Both instances were practical examples of how much the deaf-blind rely on the touch of another person.) The staging used drumbeats to signal the ends of scenes because, though the actors can’t hear the sound, they can feel the drum’s vibrations. Tal’s job was to get the point of Bread Alone across to a sighted and hearing audience, to show us what she and her troupe wanted us to see, and that she accomplished without question. If there were cleverer or less stereotypical ways to do it, it might have been a more theatrically exciting show, but it also might not have made the point as emphatically. I suspect Tal would have rejected the trade-off.
As for the acting, I have to equivocate some. Though the company has been learning the craft for a number of years now, the Nalagaat players aren’t trained professionals. (I’m not dismissing their commitment, which is clear.) It should go without saying that this company had many obstacles with which to contend—learning how to communicate to a mass audience with no tradition on which to rely is just one—so as actors, the players had a burden unlike that faced by any other troupe, professional or amateur. That they came up with successful solutions at all—remember that Tal, too, had nothing on which to fall back—is truly remarkable. As for their acting skill, however, I’m still astonished by the resemblance some of their turns came to Chaplin-esque silent-movie pantomime, the timing the whole company displayed, and the joy the actors all exuded as they told us what they dream and how they live. (Several of the Nalagaat players are excellent physical comics, though how they learned to do it is a mystery to me.) In one scene, the cast did a Busby Berkeley-esque routine with coordinated twirling parasols! If theater is communication, then this was top-notch theater, even if there were cavils here and there about some choices and occasional execution. My college theater teacher used to say that in theater, whatever works is right. Not by Bread Alone worked. That’s never wrong.
In the New York press, as I said earlier, all the publications I saw save one praised the company and the production. (I won’t recap what Feldman said in TONY. The other weeklies, including the Village Voice didn’t cover the performance, and neither did Variety or the usual on-line theater outlets.) The reviewers pretty much all spoke in the same terms. You’ll notice, though, that there’s a dearth of commentary on the quality of the theatrical art on view. Ben Brantley declared in the New York Times that the actors “possess memorable and distinctively expressive faces,” though he observed that “it’s their hands you’re likely to focus on.” The Timesman affirmed that “the show is never stronger than when they depict . . . the sensory content of their lives” even as he acknowledged that some vignettes “descend into sticky mawkishness.” In the New York Post, Elisabeth Vincentelli asserted that Bread “isn’t a traditional way to approach theater” because it “isn’t so much a play as a collection of autobiographical vignettes, skits and anecdotes.” The vignettes are “sometimes emotional, sometimes funny,” wrote Vincentelli, even “heartbreakingly intimate.” The Post reviewer noted, “It would be lying to say that the show flows so smoothly that we forget these actors can’t see or hear,” but reminded us that it wasn’t supposed to. In the New York Daily News, Joe Dziemianowicz observed that “there’s nothing cookie-cutter about ‘Not by Bread Alone,’” and he declared the Nalagaat company “remarkable” and “a one-of-a-kind professional company.” Describing the scenes as “colorful,” Dziemianowicz affirmed, “These moments flow with a surprising ease,” and concluded with: “‘Not by Bread Alone’ is filling on various levels.” “[D]isturbing sense memories flood back in the first moments of a new play called ‘Not by Bread Alone,’ wrote Linda Winer in Long Island’s Newsday, adding that “I do mean just the first moments. Almost immediately, the feelings change to wonder, then to amazement, then to something tough but tender—like awe.” In the theater press, Lisa Jo Sagolla of Back Stage opened her notice with what sounds like a caveat:
Creative practice in the visual and performing arts has lately shifted from the production of an art object—a painting, a dance, a play—to the orchestration of an “experience,” centered perhaps on something of the artist’s own making but substantially dependent on what you, the audience, bring to the game and how you choose to play along.
Sagolla, however, finished her introduction with a reversal: “While many such experiences seem devised simply in compliance with trendiness and sometimes out of laziness or inability on the part of the artists, “Not by Bread Alone” is prodigiously different.” She went on to describe Bread Alone as “a sublime testament to the power of experiential theater to enrich our understanding of humans as innately social beings.”
In the end, though, the reviewers may have been right, at least on one score, to focus on the experience rather than the art. A great part of the effectiveness and edification of Not by Bread Alone was in experiencing the joy which the Nalagaat ensemble displayed during and, especially, after the performance. I imagine, after seeing Bread, that a similar response must hit each of the deaf-blind players when they reach out of their silent darkness and connect with someone. Normally, that’s a one-on-one occasion, but in their theater, it happens night after night with hundreds of people at a time. The impression was that all the actors support and help one another—we saw them do that on stage—but touching a stranger from the seeing-and-hearing society that probably usually ignores them or encounters them in discomfort and making contact this way seems to be an extraordinary feeling. For us, I suspect, it’s mostly a revelation, a lesson learned, an idea broached. For them, who do the touching and the contacting they rarely get the chance to do, it seems much more than that; it seems like a piece of one of their dreams, which are filled with light, colors, and sounds. No wonder they tell us how much they love this work and how it has become so important to their lives and their senses of themselves. If that’s not magic, I don’t know what is.
And you know what? It hardly matters that Bread may or may not be a play. It is whatever it is—and that’s magical enough for this world.