It’s like no bakery you’ve ever seen.
At a long wooden table, the 11 actors, dressed in aprons and billowy toques like so many workers at a French boulangerie, knead dough in bowls. They lean into the bowls, pressing their hands into the gooey dough as they rock back and forth in a motion that brings to mind worshippers at prayer. When the bakery workers are all seated in a row at the lengthy table, you’d be forgiven for thinking this might be the Last Supper.
But soon you realize that the scene is being played in near silence. All the actors on stage are deaf and blind.
Welcome to the strange and poignant theatrical universe of Israel’s Nalaga’at (“Please touch” in Hebrew) theater troupe, the only deaf-blind company in the world.
When Michael Harrington saw the Nalaga’at ensemble perform “Not by Bread Alone” at the LIFT Festival in London last year, he was so touched by the experience that he vowed to bring it to New York. Luckily, Harrington is the senior director at New York University’s Skirball Center for the Performing Arts. And after two years of planning — including the installation of ovens at the back of the stage — the groundbreaking Israeli play will have its American premiere at the Skirball in a three-week run beginning Jan. 16.
During the 80-minute production, the actors share their hopes and dreams in 10 acts while the bread bakes behind them. Due to their disabilities, companions assist them and sometimes speak their words. However, the vignettes are performed expressively with costumes and props — a feat, given that the actors can neither see nor hear directions. In one scene, actor Yuri Oshorov describes how he wants to get married, and the other players help him find a bride, who is played by Genia Shatsky.
“It doesn’t interest me to do Shakespeare with deaf-blind actors,” Adina Tal, the company’s artistic director, told The Jewish Week in a phone interview from Israel. To the Zurich-born Tal, it’s “no coincidence that they’re making bread. Bread has deep meaning in many cultures, including in Jewish culture. Once upon a time a rabbi would visit with bread and salt.” There is also a practical reason for the bread-baking, she said. “The bread is a common time frame for the actors and audience.” Throughout the show, the audience can smell the bread baking, and at play’s end everyone is invited onstage to taste it.
For actor Yury Tevordovsky, this is a special moment. “I love meeting the audience at the end of the show,” he said through a translator in an e-mail interview. “And if there are deaf people in the audience, it is great because I can communicate with them and do not need a translator.”
It is not surprising to hear that this is “hands down the largest theatrical production — if not the largest event in general — that the Skirball has ever put on,” according to Harrington. Besides accommodating the deaf-blind cast and their assistants, the Skirball is providing a scaled-down re-creation of the immersive theater experience offered in Jaffa, where Nagal’at has its home.
This includes recreating the BlackOut Restaurant and Café Kapish, which are part of the Nalaga’at Center. The Skirball version of Café Kapish, where the lingua franca is Hebrew sign language, will be open before and after the show and will be staffed by Israeli company members as well as hearing-impaired NYU students. The BlackOut will offer a three-course meal served in complete darkness. Famed (Jewish) chef Danny Meyer along with his Union Square Events team developed the menu, which is kosher-style with Israeli elements.
The play, which is in Hebrew, will be translated via English supertitles at the top of the stage and on plasma screens. There will also be four performances with American Sign Language interpretation and pre-show touch tours of the set for the visually impaired.
Most of the members of the ensemble were born deaf and lost their eyesight around age 12 due to an ailment called Usher Syndrome, a rare genetic disorder that results both in deafness and blindness. Since they had their sight for a time, sign language is their mother tongue. During the show, the challenge is communicating through touch, which “makes for chaotic rehearsals,” according to Tal. In order to relay stage cues, Tal and her team use music broadcast on loudspeakers through which the troupe can feel vibrations. Drums are used to indicate scene changes in the show, and the actors use mime and sign language during the performance.
Says Oshorov, 44, of Krayot: “It is hard to work on stage when you are deaf and blind. It is hard to find your way around. There are very basic things that are easy if you can see and hear, but we learned to feel the drums. At the beginning I was really shaking and frightened, but now it seems easy!”
Auditions, the common performing arts selection process, are not held by this company. “I believe if you work in the process we work in, anyone can be a good actor,” noted Tal. It is also difficult to recruit new talent. Nalaga’at staff traversed Israel to find actors.
The actors are grateful for the opportunity to perform. “It really changed my life,” noted Shatsky, 59, of Petach Tikvah. “I meet a lot of people and have a meaningful life. I love to perform and be on stage and feel how much the audience loves our show.” Shatsky grew up in Russia where her father was a theater director and her mother was a ballerina. “When I still could see, I spent a lot of time backstage when my parents were at work,” she said.
The Nalaga’at Center opened in December 2007, after the surprising success of the troupe’s first play, “Light is Heard in Zigzag.” The group longed for a home of its own and bought an abandoned warehouse in Jaffa. “It is a meeting point,” says Tal of the diverse section of Tel Aviv. Some 650,000 people have seen “Bread Alone” at the center.
The international success of the show (critics in South Korea, Copenhagen and London have written glowingly about it) has been a boon not just for the company. “I think we are the best ambassadors for Israel,” said Tal. “We are proud to represent a different kind of Israel with a project that is the only one like it in the world. We are proud that people all over the world will see it. It’s important to see a different kind of Israel.” To that end, NYU will host a panel discussion entitled, “Understanding Nalaga’at Theatre in Israeli Society.”
The lure of New York is not lost on members of the troupe. “Coming to New York means opening a completely new door and world for the New York audience,” Tal noted. She also mentioned the group’s anticipation of American-style standing ovations.
Tal attributes the success of “Not By Bread Alone” to its relatable subject matter: “It’s about not being perfect. It’s about a cultural meeting place, believing that we are all equal though we are different. We have a tendency to be patronizing [to those with disabilities], but they are equal when they are on stage. It’s not about charity; it’s about a gift.”
The Nalaga’at Theater Deaf-Blind Acting Ensemble performs Jan. 16-Feb. 3 at the NYU Skirball Center for the Performing Arts, 566 LaGuardia Pl. (at Washington Square South). For showtimes and information, call (866) 811-4111 or go to http://nyuskirball.org/calendar/notbybreadalone. For tickets, $40-$75: https://web.ovationtix.com/trs/pr/915599.