Leaving Anatevka

The Rabbi (Tom Duemling), Tevye (Tom Kephart), and Lazar Wolf (John Klecha)
The Rabbi (Tom Duemling), Tevye (Tom Kephart), and Lazar Wolf (John Klecha)

Fiddler on the Roof closed last night after a three night run. It was community theatre at its best. Everything came together beautifully: the acting, the singing, the orchestra, the tech. Around 900 people saw the show and were generous in their praise of the production.

For me, it was a dream come true. Finding myself in Tevye’s boots on stage was as wonderful as I imagined it would be. So many moments will last in my memory: the opening number, “Tradition”; talking to Lazar Wolf (John Klecha) about selling my “new milk cow” and then launching into “To Life”; allowing Tzeitel (Elizabeth Wentzel) to talk me out of my agreement with Lazar so she can marry Motel; “Do You Love Me” with Golde (Christy Kreidler); listening to Hodel (Ciara Adams) sing my favorite song in the show, “Far From The Home I Love,” to me and then both of us crying real tears as the scene ends; denying Chava (Tyler Nevison) after she marries outside of the faith (more tears); and, of course, “If I Were I Rich Man,” a show-stopping solo number if there ever was one.

Obviously, I’m leaving plenty of names out here. Our entire cast and crew worked very hard, for nothing but the love of theatre, to make Fiddler a success. Thank you to all of you for your dedication. It was a privilege to be your Tevye. And special thanks to Sue Daniels, who directed me in my first show in 2001 (The Music Man as Harold Hill) and launched my life in a different direction, one that has provided years of fun, laughs and challenges.

I know some professional actors and directors who make fun of community groups for “trying to do theatre” (despite many of them getting their start with similar groups). I reject that type of snobbery. Every community deserves art, including theatre art, and everyone should be encouraged to participate. Acting jobs that actually pay a living wage are rarer than hen’s teeth. So bravo to those community theatre groups like the St. Clair Theatre Guild that work diligently to bring art to their communities and provide the opportunity for their members to express themselves artistically (while also having a lot of fun!).

As the good book says: “So I recommend having fun, because there is nothing better for people to do in this world than to eat, drink, and enjoy life. That way they will experience some happiness along with all the hard work God gives them.” (Ecclesiastes 8:15)

L’chaim!  

Adventures with Tevye

Lately, I’ve been spending a lot of time with a legendary character. He has many noble qualities: he works hard, he’s loyal to his family and his community, and he has a deep respect for knowledge and scholarship. When faced with a series of crises in his life, he reacts with wisdom and courage. He’s a good man. I like him; he’s a little crazy, but I like him.

I’m playing Tevye the Dairyman in an upcoming production of Fiddler on the Roof with the St. Clair Theatre Guild. It’s a role I’ve wanted to play at least since high school, and probably earlier, because I know I’ve been listening to the music since I was seven or eight. The music is wonderful, haunting and beautiful, and it’s a joy to get to sing the songs even in rehearsal.

I saw an interview with Harvey Fierstein (whose birthday is today), who played Tevye on Broadway a few years ago. I’ve heard Tevye described as an “everyman,” an ordinary man facing extraordinary circumstances. Fierstein disagreed with this, arguing that if Tevye were merely an ordinary man, he wouldn’t have had the strength and ability to react and change as his traditions were challenged by his daughters and by the world around him. I agree. And it makes theatrical sense as well, because we don’t go to the theatre to watch ordinary people do ordinary things, but rather to experience the lives of amazing individuals in larger-than-life situations.

Tevye is a devout man, but his relationship with God isn’t rigid, but instead is rather playful and informal. He believes that God is able to control things, but Tevye isn’t afraid to talk back to this all-powerful being. He believes in the power of tradition to hold his family and his village together, but is also flexible enough to see when a tradition no longer serves its purpose and needs to change.

But even Tevye’s open-mindedness has its limits. There is a line in the sand that even he can’t cross. And the moments where he struggles with these decisions are among the most challenging I’ve played as an actor. The emotions that I’m feeling as I react to my three oldest “daughters” are as raw and real as anything I’ve experienced on stage. (It helps, of course, that all three of them: Ellie Wentzel, Ciara Adams and Tyler Nevison, are wonderful actors in their own right.)

It’s easy to see stage musicals as something light and silly. Fiddler has always been much more than that, and I think its universal, lasting appeal to performers and audiences is the result of this realistic emotional depth. I’ve certainly enjoyed getting to know Tevye well. Like most memorable characters, I imagine he’ll be sticking around with me far after our final performance on Saturday night.

The St. Clair Theatre Guild presents Fiddler on the Roof this Thursday, Friday and Saturday, June 12-14, 2014, at East China Performing Arts Center, 1585 Meisner Road in East China Township. More information is available on the Guild’s website.

Tear down your wall

The wall. Photo: Lauren Manning via Flickr.
The wall. Photo: Lauren Manning via Flickr.

Walls keep us safe. They protect us from the cold, from danger, from the prying eyes of other people. They put a safe barrier between us and those who would rob, steal and harm us. Whether made of stone, brick, or wood (or virtual walls of electrons like a computer firewall), walls are intended to give us peace of mind from the worries of everyday life.

The building of our own personal walls begins when we are very young. Roger Waters depicted the building of this type of wall in Pink Floyd’s 1979 double album and its subsequent film and stage adaptations. The “hero” of The Wall is indoctrinated at an early age to conform, to stop asking “stupid” questions, to stop questioning authority. He builds the wall around himself, assisted by parents, teachers, his wife, and others whose intentions are both benign and self-serving.

What does a three year old ask endlessly? “Why?”

What does a three year old ask endlessly? “Why?” Everything is unknown and needs to be explained. “Why?” If you were never told to stop asking “why,” consider yourself fortunate. Most of us were, although those who told you stop asking  “why” probably weren’t malicious, just tired of being asked the same question over and over. Or perhaps the questions became uncomfortable or unacceptable. “Don’t ask why, it just is.”

As an actor, the most important question I can ask about my character and his actions is “why?” In building my wall, though, several of the blocks represented the barrier between what I wanted to know and what I was allowed to ask about. It wasn’t until I allowed myself to ask “why?” about anything again – just as I had as a child – that I started to become a decent actor.

And as an unintended circumstance, I became a much more confident and peaceful person the rest of the time. I allow myself to ask “why” about everything, and while I don’t have answers to all of the questions (yet), I am free to inquire and think about whatever interests me, without fear of being told to stop asking the questions.

There are risks. My wall isn’t as rigid (though it does still exist), so I’m not as protected as I used to be. But the benefits, both professionally and personally, have been worth it.

Tear down your wall.

Audentes fortuna juvat.