November 18, 2019

Israeli Director Shakes Up USC Theater Program With ‘Amsterdam’

Jacob Litvack (left) and Yahm Steinberg in a scene from “Amsterdam.” Photo by Craig Schwartz for the USC School of Dramatic Arts

Israeli director Lilach Dekel-Avneri likes to break all the rules of traditional theater. With a background in interdisciplinary arts and post-dramatic theater as well as being the 2016 recipient of the prestigious Rosenblum Prize for Performance Art, it was no surprise she was chosen to participate in the Israel Institute visiting artists program. 

The program brought her to USC, where she taught a cast of actors for approximately six weeks, changing the way they looked at stage performance. 

Dekel-Avneri, 48, told the Journal she started out as a ballet dancer, not a director. It was only after experimenting at Tel Aviv University, where she received her Master of Fine Arts degree in writing, dramaturgy and directing, that she found her calling. She said she loved simultaneously playing with narrative and movement to tell a compelling story. “It moved faster than me,” she said.

She, along with those in the USC School of Dramatic Arts, decided she would direct Israeli playwright Maya Arad Yasur’s “Amsterdam,” a modern theater piece centering on an Israeli violinist in Amsterdam who receives an inflated gas bill that hasn’t been paid since 1944. The violinist later discovers the bill and its owner were involved with the Holocaust.

Dekel-Avneri chose this play for a variety of reasons. “I came in with two plays. I was asked to bring a new female voice from the Israeli playwrights,” she said. “They are very, very new. Both have been produced, and the dean [David Bridel] and I talked about it, and we realized it would be better for the school to do ‘Amsterdam.’ ” 

USC’s performance of “Amsterdam” on Oct. 10 was its debut in the United States. The cast and Dekel-Avneri want American audiences to know the contemporary show doesn’t follow the rules of a musical or play you might see on or off Broadway.

“It’s no ‘Hamilton,’ ” Jacob Litvack, USC junior and cast member, told the Journal. “It’s insane. You will never see a show like this again.”

Dekel-Avneri said it’s been interesting to watch her students interact during the rehearsals because at first they tried too hard to make the show fit into the traditional theater norms with which they grew up. She says being open in rehearsals allowed them to break away from conventional storytelling. Rather than having actors with specific characters and traits, they act as a Greek chorus that speaks the violinist’s inner and outer thoughts.

“It’s no ‘Hamilton.’ It’s insane. You will never see a show like this again.” — Jacob Litvack

“What is so unique is that it mainly deals with the way we tell stories and questions the conventional way [theater works],” Dekel-Averi said. “There are no characters. There are dashes that represent the amount of text that everyone says. The play is written for a minimum of three performers, but we have 10, like a chorus of performers rather than a mathematic way of storytelling. It’s very associative, expressive.”

The audition process threw most of the actors off their game. Rather than coming in with a rehearsed monologue for a five-minute time slot, Dekel-Avneri told them to play games with one another, and even reworked their monologues, turning Shakespeare into a religious confession or a dramatic piece into flirting.

“I didn’t know what to expect,” senior Francesca Jacke said. “Reading the play motivated me to do it, and I was confused about it not having any characters. But I was intrigued by it.”

Litvack said once it was cast, the original plan for the show was for the actors to memorize all 88 pages of the script, then spontaneously say the lines, like a theater trust exercise. With the students’ heavy school and work schedules, Dekel-Avneri compromised, reworking the idea to make a more cohesive production. “Lilach is truly amazing,” Litvack said. “She knew her stuff.”

Dekel-Avneri said she was surprised by the cultural differences between Israeli and American theater. She noted American actors ask permission more often to make choices rather than just making the choice and discussing it later.

“I told them, directing is to direct. They go and I help them,” Dekel-Avneri said. “It doesn’t need to be precisely the same way every time. … . We need to figure it out [the frame] in order for them to feel safe enough so they can be creative in a slightly different way every time.”

Sophomore Yahm Steinberg said it was the first time any of the students had done post-dramatic work that excited them but also pushed them out of their comfort zones. After this experience, they feel better prepared for whatever comes next.

“The first four days of rehearsal were more of a class about post-dramatic theater. The basic rule is, ‘Any rule of theater you know, you’re breaking it,’ ” Steinberg said. “It was definitely this battle of pushing back and forth between what we want to do and what she’s asking us to do, because it just isn’t natural in our bodies. Especially here [at USC], because there is so much American realism taught here. Focusing on an action and using the body to tell the story rather than trying to connect the action and the text is a challenge.”

The director also enjoyed talking about the relevance of the project with her students. The show focuses on the Holocaust but also touches on how immigrants are perceived once they travel to a new land. The cast is diverse in background and faiths, which provides a platform for discussion where Dekel-Avneri can ask, “Does their previous culture echo wherever they go?”

“I’m German by nationality, so that’s helped me with the Dutch [in the script], but I grew up in South Africa and I’ve lived in the U.S. for two years now. The play does deal a lot with national identity or cultural identity,” Jacke said. “I definitely feel like coming in with the experience of being an immigrant or a foreigner or feeling out of place helped me connect with it a lot.”

“All of us come from very, very different walks of life and very different backgrounds. And I think we all offer a unique perspective on the thoughts that are happening in [the character’s] head and a new perspective of ‘What can we add to the story?’ ” Steinberg said. “It creates something very interesting.” 

“Amsterdam” will be performed through Oct. 20 at the Scene Dock Theatre at USC. Tickets are available at the USC box office, by phone at (213) 740-8686 or online.