Theatre director David Zinder talks about how the stage space reflects the various aspects of a narrative. Saatvik Jha listens in
One of the master teachers of the Chekhov techniques, David Zinder has formulated his own method of actor training, ImageWork. A world renowned Israeli theatre director with productions ranging from The Bacchae and Macbeth to The Real Inspector Hound, he has a signature style and deeply radical approach. With an illustrious career spanning over four decades, he is changing the content of theater across India. The theatre reformist inculcates the techniques that he has learnt in his play, The Dybbuk or Between Two Worlds held at National School of Drama.
The play is about a promise made by Sender, a rich merchant, to his former friend Nissan Ben Rivka, that if they would have a son and a daughter, they would marry them and join the two families together. Sender moved away and forgot about his promise, even though Nissan’s son, Hannan, wandered away from home and came to Sender’s village, and ate occasionally at his table. It was there that Hannan met and fell in love with Sender’s daughter, leah. During that time Sender never asked Hannan where he was from or who his parents were.
Initially, you adapted the play The Dybbuk in 2002. After all these years what made you come back to itIJ
Many of the plays that I do, research into passion. That’s the thing that fascinates me more than anything else. And this is a play about passion, amongst other things. So, almost every one of the plays I’ve done recently had that element in it.
Initially, I was asked to do a play with 19 people. I didn’t want to bring in an Israeli play because that requires another kind of cultural organisation. I wanted to bring a folk tale and this is one to its core — it’s about love and possession, death and parental authority — thus, very much a folk tale.
When I was offered to do it in Romania (in 2002), I was absolutely overjoyed. Somebody invited me to do it because I had been thinking about doing the play for many years. There’s something about most of my plays that borders on the mystical or spiritual. So, that’s what brought me to the play.
How has working with the crew at the National School of Drama (NSD) been for youIJ
For the actors, I know that it was a completely different experience. They’ve never done anything akin to this — not the way I direct or the idea of working in a play which is the basis of conceptual theatre. It took them a while to get used to the idea but they were very well disciplined.
Also, different stage images mean different things and putting them to use is part of the way I direct. My knowledge about the Indian theatre is very limited so, I don’t know how much of it they can apply to the Indian theatre. Nevertheless, any experience is good as long as it enriches them in any way.
I worked with an Indian choreographer, lining designer, musicians and the kind of cooperation they showed was wonderful and there wasn’t a single issue. One of the most interesting aspects is that my designer is the same one who designed the performance in Romania. Since the space is completely different — it’s a different play altogether. The costumes of the three characters towards the end of the play are long bright orange robes.One of my actors told me, ‘you know that this is the colour of the BJPIJ’ I said, that it never occurred to me. Since those characters are authority figures, all of a sudden the play became political. luckily, the costumes came by a week before opening so we dyed them. They’re not the same colour, still orangey, but not the same.
You’ve taught theatre all over the world, you must have observed the distinction in style that actors from different parts of the world have to offer. What do you feel is distinctive about Indian actors vis-a-vis othersIJ
There was one thing. Again, this was a cultural thing that I was not aware of. When we started working, all the actors were speaking very loudly. I told them that this is an intimate set and an intimate play. Finally, I asked them, ‘tell me, is this a cultural thingIJ’ They said, ‘yes, that’s the way we were taught how to really project things.’ It took a lot of work to get them down. You want to tell a story like you’re talking to a baby, not like you’re addressing a crowd of 500 people.
I’ve taught in Taiwan, Singapore, Europe and America. Everybody gets it, because it’s a very natural form of acting. The students understood this aspect and the only problem was sheer volume. What’s more hilarious, is that some of them went too far in lowering their volume, ending in me telling them, ‘you’ve got to come back a bit, so we can hear you because the space is very large. Beyond this, there was nothing. The kind of work that I do — physical theater using the concept of images and connection between imagination and the body is universal. No matter which culture one belongs to, it always works out at the end.
What is the contemporary resonance of the playIJ
looking at the way it was done, costumes and everything, the origin of the play is placed somewhere in the 18th century. It’s about two young people and their passion, the fact that they’re being denied that possibility. Now, part of it is their fault. The young man Hannan is a cabalist who deals in Jewish mysticism, Cabala. One of things in Cabala is looking for signs. Everything means something. Numbers mean things — there’s a section in the play where he talks about numbers. He searches for all sorts of signs. As a result of that, he doesn’t actually talk to her. He’s so concerned with finding the right sign to do something, that he doesn’t do it. She does, she tries. She gives him all sorts of signs, but he doesn’t get it. She tries, at least in my production unlike the other productions where she is portrayed as a very weak character. For this production I have turned that around. She’s a very strong character. Especially when she has his spirit inside her. So I think, the question of emotion and passion is ageless. But there’s no particular message that comes out of this play at this moment. Passion, parental control and rebellion are the three points in this play which are totally universal.
There is another version of this play created by American playwright Tony Kushner, who turned it into a play about the Holocaust. He adapted the play in order to do that. Personally, I don’t think the play was written like that. Kushner’s adaptation is legitimate and he’s a fine playwright, one who’s extremely well known. However, for me it’s just a personal event between these two young people.
Israel is a melting-pot of ethnicities, Jews from world over have flocked to and built their lives. However, the original playwright S Ansky wrote it in context of South-east Russia, is that contrast a point to be notedIJ
It’s more general than that. Although I’ve reduced this enormously, it’s about orthodox Jews. In the original copy there’s an elaborate ritual which I’ve taken out. I don’t think it’s important as it would look like an anthropological play and I don’t want it to look so. It’s a play about two young people in love.
Speaking of 2002, how do you feel this version of the play is markedly different from the 2002 adaptation and how do you feel you’ve evolved as an artist since thenIJ
The play in 2002 occurred in a completely different space. It was a rectangular space. Scaffolding all around, you could go on top, you could go underneath the scaffolding. The audience sat on either side of the stage. The space dictated a completely different form for the play. One of the things we decided, my designer Miriam Guretzky and I, was to do away with the second level-the height. Because, to the best of our knowledge, in Europe the concept of the spirit is somewhere up there. It’s very different in different spaces. In the East, the spirits are here and around us. You don't have to look up to find the spirit. We cancelled the second level and made a completely oval space. The space means something. I wrote in the program, “an oval is a flawed circle”, but this is even more flawed because it has six entrances. This is even more penetrable and the move from the spiritual to real is effortless. So it’s very different from the 2002 production, though some elements are the same.
One of the greatest departures is that I’m doing something in this play that I don’t do very often. I have more than one actor playing a part. There are three layers and there are three protagonists. There’s an element of simultaneity that I do all the time. Things happen all over the space, simultaneously. This expanded the whole concept of the fact that she’s possessed. I hope it works like that. So it’s very different. In the other production I had one layer, one Hannan. He was there, on-stage, all the time.
How is this version of the play different from the 2002 adaptationIJ And how do you feel you’ve evolved as an artist since thenIJ
The play in 2002 occurred in a completely different space. It was a rectangular space with scaffolding all around - one could go on top or underneath the scaffolding while the audience sat on either side of the stage. The space dictated a completely different form for the play. One of the things my designer Miriam Guretzky and I decided upon was to do away with the second level — the height. Because, to the best of our knowledge, in Europe the concept of the spirit is somewhere up there while in the East the spirits are here, around us. One doesn’t have to look up to find the spirit. We cancelled the second level and turned it into an oval space. The space means something. I wrote in the program, ‘an oval is a flawed circle’. But this was even more flawed because it had six entrances, making it even more penetrable, and the move from the spiritual to real is effortless. So it’s very different from the 2002 production, though some elements are the same.
One of the greatest departures is that I’m doing something in this play that I do very often. I have more than one actor playing a part. There are three layers, and there are three Hannans. Thus, an element of simultaneity. Things happen all over the space, simultaneously. This expanded the whole concept of the fact that she’s possessed. In the other production I had one layer, one Hannan. He was there, on-stage, all the time.
You’ve taught theatre for about 30 years at Tel Aviv University. Being well acquainted with the ins and outs of how theatre and the craft works in context of a university, what would you recommend to students of colleges in Delhi and at other universities in India looking to practice theatre by themselvesIJ
The acting profession is a difficult one anywhere. From what I know, in India it’s doubly difficult because you don’t have any other repertoire theatre apart from NSD, though I may be wrong. But in Israel, there are five major repertoire theaters and three smaller once. What that means is there’s some kind of security as we have a theatre culture and people go to the theatre endlessly. So a young actor, who graduates from any acting programme, whether it’s a studio or university, has a lot of places to go to. Also there’s a huge children’s theatre movement in Israel, there are fringe theatres — there’s an awful lot going on.
Here, I don’t know what to tell them. I met a lot of my former students from the time I’ve taught here these past few years. I ask them what they’ve been doing. They say they’re doing theatre here and there. It’s extremely difficult because a lot of them are looking towards films. I think NSD graduates are not looking to break into film, they are more theatre oriented. I know what to say to an Israeli graduate. I don’t know what to say to an Indian graduate, unfortunately. I’ve been teaching and working here for the past five years, and I still don’t know what to say to them.
How has your experience of teaching theatre to Indian actors evolved over the course of these yearsIJ
I’ve found over the years that the kind of work that I do is universal. Anyone can adapt to it. It’s a fundamental part of the creative mechanism of an actor. The technique that I use is partly my own, called the Image work. It feeds into the Chekov’s technique of acting - the symbiotic connection between imagination and the body.
It was a pleasure here, because most of the actors are mature. They have a degree in some other field. They’re all from 25 years up to about 30-31. It took them a while to get used to the way I was working, but they’re very good. I really enjoyed working with them.
If students of theatre in India were looking to incorporate Image work into their own craft and they were not fortunate enough to have you guiding them, how do you suggest they go about itIJ
Read my book. It was written as a manual for people to use — for directors, for teachers, for students or whoever wants to learn the technique. It’s full of exercises where I explain exactly how the exercise is supposed to work and what are the problems one should look out for. It’s also a structure which you can follow. However, it’s not easy to study acting on your own. For this particular work you need a space, somewhere you can move. So it’s a bit difficult but I know a lot of people who have taken bits out of it and they’re learning from it. There are a number of people in India that I know of who teach Chekov’s technique. I think there’s one here at NSD. But I think it’s very different from what I teach. The Chekov technique has developed enormously over the past decade. In America and in Europe, it’s been revived and has become mainstream. There are people over here who could teach it, — in Kerala, Hyderabad — whom I have taught.
There’s somebody in the department here who is going to be Head at Hyderabad University — Mohammed Noushad. He was a student of mine in Singapore and he has worked with me. He knows the technique and he teaches it, in his own way. There’s a very famous Indian director, Sankar Venkateswaran, who was also a student of mine in Singapore few years ago. He works in a very similar way. That’s all I can tell you. Read my book, that’s the only practical bit of advice I can give you. There is somebody who approached me here about translating it into Hindi so maybe it’ll be more accessible.