Almog Pail in conversation with Paul Meltzer

Almog Pail, playwright and performer, does not shy away from the challenges introduced by solo performance. And if tickets selling out is anything to go by, her solo show Me, Myself, and Rita at the United Solo Festival in New York has really struck a chord—they sold out weeks ago. A conversation with her over a cup of coffee exposed something of the person behind the 50+ minute demonstration of theatrical stamina: She’s just as spirited and even more intent off stage. A brave young woman in a strange land, she has elected to tackle a subject most would choose to forget – early onset Alzheimer’s, conveyed through an imaginary stage appearance by Rita Hayworth, who suffered from the disease when it was much less well understood.

Almog was born in a small city near Tel Aviv, studied theater, and eventually made her way onto an Israeli TV series, also voicing characters for Disney’s Handy Manny and Angelina Ballerina.  She later made the most of a two-year stint based on Malta appearing in a production of David Mamet’s Speed the Plow and touring with a commedia del arte troupe in Germany and Israel, all while developing the first version of Rita.

She now makes her home in New York, pursuing and getting interesting film, TV, and stage roles, playing everything from an accomplice to murder on I’d Kill For You to Hillary Clinton in the Midtown International Festival production Fuel.  But her abiding focus is nurturing and developing her own original creation, Me, Myself, and Rita.

PM: How much of you is there in Rita? What’s the attraction? You created this whole production. What was the drive for you?

AP: That’s usually the first question, because the story is so specific. It’s like a choice—Rita Hayworth, Alzheimer’s. There’s the long version and the short one. Which do you pick? (Laughs.) Because it goes back years ago.

I used to live in Malta, which I don’t know if you’ve heard of the place, but it’s a small country, part of the European Union, that’s just south of Sicily. But it’s an island. So it’s in the middle of the Mediterranean. And I used to live there for two years. I had a relationship with a Maltese guy.

PM: That’s how you got there.

AP: Of course!   And of course you would ask why would you be in such a random place, even though it’s beautiful. When I was there, I knew the artistic director of this national arts festival that happens every year in Malta. And we spoke. Then he mentioned the opportunity, or the idea, of me possibly writing a one-person show, a one-woman show for the festival, because there was this famous Italian actor—I don’t remember his name—who was going to come to the same festival, and he had a one-person show, about Orson Welles. And the artistic director thought it would be interesting if I would write a one-woman show about Rita Hayworth [because Welles and Hayworth were co-stars and each other’s second spouse], and therefore we will have this conceptual link in the festival.

And I was, like, “Yeah, that’s very interesting. Let me see what I can do.” Because I knew very little about her.   What’s my attraction to this actress who lived in an era that I don’t belong to, and heard very little of? And I just know it from movies from, whatever, from my grandparents. So I looked her up a lot, read a lot of things from different sources. But when I read about her struggle with early onset Alzheimer’s, I knew it. I knew that that would be my key. I didn’t know how exactly, but I knew that would be my key, because I had a huge experience with Alzheimer’s in my family, with my grandfather who just passed away by the way.

PM: I’m sorry.

AP: A bit over a month ago. So I had that experience for many years. It really touched me. I thought, that’s very interesting. Because what’s the connection really? My grandfather [Meir Pa’il] was a public figure in Israel. He had a magnificent military career that was followed by a political career in the Knesset, in the Parliament.

PM: Exactly like Rita Hayworth.

AP: Exactly like Rita Hayworth, right!…followed by a career in the academy as a professor of military history. He was a well-known figure in Israel. And then he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. It was a very, very long struggle. And I watched to see a person who’s so intelligent and so strong become deteriorated. And his mind, which is his most important tool, that made him what he is, is the thing that got deteriorated.

And I thought, that’s my link. Sure, obviously it’s hard to compare, but—public figure, someone who you like to remember this or that way, you now, and all of a sudden this disease comes from nowhere–especially at that time, there was no awareness of the disease. It just takes away everything, takes your life away. That affects more than the person himself, the patient. It affects the surroundings, the people around, the family or the colleagues. And that was very interesting for me, to draw those links, and to see how that affects the environment, how her disease affects the people she works with, the people that see her for the first time, and how that, combined with the public figure that she is, that she knows she is, kind of knowing that she has something wrong with her, but in denial, that was very interesting for me to work on. So that’s how I decided to write the play, about Rita Hayworth and Alzheimer’s.

Then on the way, this Italian actor in Malta that was supposed to come to the festival kind of cancelled at the last minute because he had a gig in Australia, whatever. And I was left alone with Rita Hayworth and Alzheimer’s. No Orson Welles. Though it did have a specific reference to Orson Welles for him, for that Italian actor! But it was actually for Rita Hayworth, too, so that was fine.

I decided after a while to come over here with the aim of producing it here as well. So the show brought me to New York.

PM: So you didn’t come to New York in general to be an actor. You came to New York to be the producer of Me, Myself, and Rita.

AP: It was a good combination. I always wanted to come to New York to be an actor, and I knew before I moved to Malta, I was not supposed to move to Malta. It was just like a stopover on the way that just happened to last for two years. But my plan was to go to New York and be an actress! It was, what do you call it—a pushing factor or a pulling factor? I’m always confused.

PM: Some of each.

AP: Yeah, some of each! I didn’t know how and what exactly, but I knew that I would like to do that. And I wasn’t sure what exactly is going to happen.

PM: When you perform, what kind of a journey is that for you to go through?

AP: It kind of puts me in a place where–I’m a person who has a great memory. I remember things I don’t want to remember, I swear. I remember details that people are bothered by. They’re like “Why do you remember that?!” This is not even related to my life, like someone else’s life. I do remember a lot. So it’s kind of weird. It’s a weird concept, like, how do you play an Alzheimer’s patient? You should be able to do that. But you have to find a place where you can actually, really find it hard to remember, like, lose the words, lose the ability to finish your sentence, lose the ability to recall something from your past. How do you really do that without really doing that? When it’s obviously not really happening. How do you actually do make it happen to you? It’s weird.

For me, because of my personal experience, I was just thinking about all those moments with my grandfather that, for years—we’re talking about twelve years of suffering—all those moments, all those nuances with my grandfather as the disease was progressing and getting more and more, like, taking over his brain. All the things he’d said and done. I was just trying to feel for him, the frustration that I could sense he had by not recalling something. It was about, without really having a loss of memory, trying to experience what would it feel like if I really couldn’t remember now the end of my line. And from that point of view, it kind of made sense to me. In a way, I was kind of voicing my grandpa? Who is…Rita Hayworth? It was my personal experience.

PM: Does it all come from the same place, in terms of what motivates you as an artist—the acting, the singing, the magic you do in the show? Are the drives to perform in those ways different?

AP: I think the core is from the same place, because I wanted to tell this story in the best way possible.

And understanding also what performance is, trying to be also on the other side of the stage where the audience is, watching a one-person show, I kind of realized immediately that you have to be a one-person orchestra. You have to be the clarinet, you have to be the guitar, you have to be the piano, you have to be everything. You have to make it all work together although you’re just one person. So how do you do that? You have to use whatever it takes basically. So if I was absolutely terrible at singing, I would never dare do that. Rita Hayworth was not a good singer. And if I was absolutely terrible in movement, I would not dare to do that. And if I thought that the magic part doesn’t work for me because it’s silly and I’m not able to pull it off, I wouldn’t do that. But I thought that I could take all my performing abilities and try and put them all together in a nice wrap and see how that could work.

PM: You use a lot of clips from movies featuring Rita Hayworth in the show, which naturally invites comparison. That’s kind of a bit risky, don’t you think? How does that feel to do that?

AP: It’s one of the points that I stress a lot in the play, because I’m touching that part where, it’s not only about the battle of Rita Hayworth with her public persona. It’s about this battle between film and stage. Not to mention that Rita Hayworth was never really on stage. It’s my invention. It’s my take on it. It’s my interpretation or my fantasy. The whole show is a stage show, obviously. At the same time bringing on stage this combat, instead of competing with it, bringing the concept of the combat on stage. I’m not trying to compete with it. I’m trying to show a different angle of it. I’m trying to show the real life behind it, the juicy stuff, stuff that will always look different with every performance because it takes an audience for it to happen. Whatever happens live, no matter what, will never be the same from one performance to another—as opposed to those video clips which will always remain there, somewhere distant and glamorous and beautiful that you always kind of look up to and aspire to and are inspired by. But it’s very remote. It was very interesting for me to do that and to show the imperfection of life, through her.

PM: What do you see in the future for you, yourself, and Rita?

AP: It’s all about the future. My entire idea of taking it to an international solo performance festival like United Solo was coming from the idea of exposure and a kickstart to something much bigger for the long-term future. And that could happen on many levels. I would either like to find a home for it in New York, like a venue that would cater for the show, that would be a good fit for it, and continue with spreading the word out and getting into more audiences to see it. The other level is hoping to go on a tour. The concept is a tour. This is a touring show of Rita Hayworth trying to reach out to those audiences before she will forget and will be forgotten entirely. So before she forgets, and before she’s forgotten, she wants to make herself present. So taking this on a tour would be something for me.

And the other thing is, which is not less important, is the cause of the show—trying maybe to put Alzheimer’s more under the spotlight, in the heart of the discourse about why is there no cure for the disease yet. How can we promote awareness of Alzheimer’s, to increase the maybe research, and making it more urgent. Because, well, it sounds awful but, cancer is very popular, and HIV–people talk about it all the time. It’s very popular. It’s very trendy. But Alzheimer’s? People don’t talk about it, but so many people suffer from it, just as much. I have to tell you, it’s just as bad if not even worse. In my opinion, it’s the worst disease because it damages so many people that are involved with the person, the entire environment around the person. And it’s probably one of the worst ways to die. And I would like to use the show, and hopefully collaborate with either Alzheimer’s associations or pharmaceutical companies that are researching for a cure, collaborate somehow to help spread the word out as much as possible. That’s something that was always very important for me, but even more so now that my grandpa has passed way.

I find it beautiful and amazing to tell a story through music. I would like to even take it further. I’d like to incorporate even more of the songs or elaborate them. I’m thinking more and more of going into the cabaret style of show. I like people enjoying themselves. I mean, not having dinner, but drinking, enjoying themselves, seeing it as that kind of an event. The story is hard enough, so ease up on the audience with that makes more sense to me. Maybe I would be looking into venues that offer that kind of set-up, you know, cabaret.

PM: Sounds like fun. Make sure to invite!

AP: Of course!