Yevgeny Aryeh
in conversation with Rivka Jacobson

Yevgeny Aryeh (Russian: Евгений Арье; Hebrew: יבגני אריה) is a highly controversial Russian theatre director who, although he has lived in Israel for the last 26 years, does not speak Hebrew. He is the director of the Gesher Theatre, which he founded in 1990. Aryeh’s productions are invariably challenging, and he refuses to shy away from controversy.

Having seen Aryeh’s mesmerizing production of King David Report at his Gesher Theatre in Tel Aviv-Yaffo, I sought an opportunity to meet with him myself; Roee Chen’s adaptation of Stefan Heym’s book and Aryeh’s direction are clear evidence that the theatre deserves its reputation as one of the best in Israel, where bold and challenging productions are part of its repertoire.

I met Yevgeny Aryeh for a brief twenty minutes at the theatre before my flight. He is heading to Russia to direct a new opera based on Dostoyevsky’s ‘The Idiot’. The old theatre veteran admits relishing the challenge and experience. He explains that ‘Originally I come from Moscow; I also lived in New York and was a guest professor at NYU. Previously, I have worked with Nathan Sharansky, who was the chairman of the Zionist forum of Soviet Jews here – before that he was in prison for nine years, he is quite famous. So we had an agreement with him that as soon as they found some money to establish some kind of Russian-speaking theatre, they would get in touch with me and I would come. So, during the Persian Gulf War, I came to Israel’.

I wondered whether the idea to set up a theatre in Israel using Russian actors aimed at serving the increase numbers of Russian immigrants. I asked him if he wished to set up a Russian theatre in which the actors speak Russian.

YA: No, we started with everybody in the theatre speaking Russian for a Russian-speaking audience because at the time, as you know, there was a huge aliyah [immigration] here. There were a lot of professionals from the theatre field, not only actors. They were technical people, designers, musicians and so on and so on. So we were here to provide a theatre for them: ‘Gesher’ means ‘Bridge’.

RJ: For all performing arts?

YA: For drama. We could think about musicals, and we did a huge- let’s call it an opera here with Haim Topol, our play [The Devil in Moscow]. It was based on The Master and Margarita by Bulgakov; it was quite a project, we were running it like on Broadway, every day for 3 months. It was very very successful here.

RJ: You are known in Israel as an innovative, challenging director – how does your work relate to the work of Israeli directors?

YA: It was a huge shock for them when we arrived – nobody expected that we would take a new approach to theatre, which was not avant-garde, I never did avant-garde in the theatre. You can call our approach conventional or not conventional, it doesn’t matter to me.

RJ: So what is your approach?

YA: You have to see performances. Someone asked Tolstoy what War and Peace is about; he said, ‘read the book and you will know what it’s about.’

RJ: Since you don’t speak Hebrew, do you draw on Israeli plays or only on European plays? What sort of plays challenge you?

YA: I think of what we do here as national theatre. It’s not enough to be good European or Russian theatre, we have to be theatre from here; for that you have to understand the audience, what they want, something I think we did more than many other Israeli theatres. One of our first productions, for a festival, was based on a novel by Yoram Kaniuk, Adam Resurrected. It’s set in a circus, for which we built a tent especially. And after that we did a lot of adaptions based on the work of Israeli or Jewish writers. I did a trilogy based on Bashevis Singer’s novels and won the Stanislavski prize for a production in Moscow, which they have been running for 6 years already in one of the best theatres. We also did a play based on David Grossman, one of the most famous, called Momik, in a line of stories that’s called Look for the Love. And then we did Meir Shalev’s book A Pigeon and a Boy. And Sobol’s play, Kfar [Village], which performed all around the world. So you can see, the fact that I do not speak Hebrew is not an obstacle; we can still draw on current Israeli novels, the mood of the place, and so on.

RJ: How do you deal with working with different languages?

YA: First of all, I understand a lot of Hebrew already. The logic of the language is very close to Russian, I think, especially with regard to something like intonation. Intonation in Russian and Hebrew are based on logic; the music in English is completely different. That’s why I can hear when intonations are wrong, because I know what I want from them and then I can show to the actors and they accept it. Maybe because before I came to Israel I worked a lot with students on improvisations in Russian. You have to understand clearly what’s important and what isn’t, what you have to stress, and so on.

RJ: What makes you decide on a particular novel to adapt it to the stage or to a play? Is there a particular thing that makes you say ‘that will be perfect for the stage’? Are you the person who decides on which play to direct, or is there a team?

YA: It’s a group decision first of all, the dramaturgs discuss it, but the final choice is mine because I have to do it. I pick something which I think is interesting for both the actors and the audience. Like, for example, Stefan Heym’s novel; it’s a combination of a German author and a very Jewish topic, very relevant today.

RJ: What’s the next step after choosing a play?

YA: To find a language for the story. When I say ‘language I don’t mean Hebrew or Russian, I mean the language of the theatre, because theatre is a completely different art from. And if I feel that we can find a language and it can be interesting, only after that do I bring it to the actors to realize those ideas. And from time to time it’s very difficult. For example, the story of David Grossman, I didn’t have much of an idea how this very metaphorical kind of literature could be staged – most things we came up with during rehearsals. But still before you start those rehearsals, you have to have some impression of what you’re going to do.

RJ: How different is your first vision of the play on stage to the final production?

YA: Very different. There is always some kind of compromise. Sometimes the end result is quite close to your first idea, sometimes very far from it. For example, with Meir Shalev, we adapted the novel A Pigeon and a Boy, in which there are 3 different timelines. Initially I decided to keep this structure, and 10 days before the opening we found out that the whole second act, which was one of the timelines, just didn’t work, so we cut it. The whole act. And the production was successful because we had a clear story.

RJ: What is your relationship with the actors?

YA: When we first came here, a group of my previous students in Moscow came with me, who are still here. They are the nucleus of the company. And after that young Israeli actors were accepted to the company and they are the main group in the theatre right now. We go to the drama schools here and we try to catch some of the young actors – like Effie Ben Zur, for example, who is a star right now in Israel. I saw her perform when she was studying in Nisan Nativ school, and now she has been here for almost 20 years.

RJ: What is the level of collaboration between you as the director, and the actors?

YA: You cant think of it like that, because when you see something as ‘my idea’ or ‘his idea’, it doesn’t work. You have to forget who’s idea it is and work like one group, like a real company. Of course, the director has to be a leader. He has to know the main direction, what he wants from the actors. But good actors bring many things. And I hate to work with actors who are like puppets, who just want to be told what to do. When I go and meet them I always tell them, ‘don’t be afraid to be foolish. It’s OK.’ Foolish ideas might be the greatest ideas. Right up until the end, then you have to become a dictator and then there are no discussions. Just do what I’m telling you and that’s it.

RJ: With regard to drama schools in Israel – you said you go to drama schools and pick students. What do you think of the current drama schools? Do you think they are producing a better generation of actors?

YA: No. There are too many schools. Too many people are accepted and I don’t see any good education for directors, for example, in this country, so only some elite groups can succeed. I worked for years at NYU and Juilliard. At Juilliard, for example, they accept 15 people every year, it’s a really elite school. We live in small country so we don’t need this many actors. That’s why for years we were trying to establish our own school, but we did not succeed. All the schools wanted me to teach them but I can’t teach in the system that exists now. Sometimes there are people whom you cannot kill during education, you know, they are still talented, but you cannot rely on finding them. We need to find a new way to prepare actors and, as I said, especially directors. It means that we see the same thing over and over again, there is no innovation because there is no training.

RJ: So what sort of revolution do you want in the world of directing?

YA: In some schools in Moscow, before I left, we were teaching actors and directors together. So in one group you could have 20 actors and 5 directors studying together. They had slightly different programs, of course, but they could work together from the beginning in the same way that they are going to do in their professions. I think it’s very important and I wanted very much to establish it here, but we didn’t succeed because of a lack of funding.

RJ: And you can’t open a private school?

YA: No. At Juilliard they pay $38,000 a year – you can’t even come close to that. And we can’t cover the expenses because if you are doing this kind of school you have to have good directors, good teachers, which we can’t afford.

RJ: So how do you see the future of Gesher theatre?

YA: That’s a very difficult question. We need a completely different way of financing because right now we get too little from the government and the city. And to keep our line of repertoire, we need extra money. In Germany, they complain that their 95% funding is now 80% we are getting less than 30%. When I speak about it anywhere, people don’t believe that we still survive with this amount of subsidy. We have to bring more than 70% of the money from our income which is, in repertoire, absolutely impossible. We have to run like crazy for private money. Our director Lena Kreindlin spends 90% of her time on that.

RJ: Do you think Gesher is different from all other theatres in Israel?

YA: Yes. Very different, in every way. We are doing fewer productions. We are not doing 10 or 15 productions a year, we are not playing 4-5 performances every day. We are doing 5-6 new productions.

RJ: You said you are going to direct an opera. Have you ever directed one before?

YA: No. I have been invited to several times, but was always unable to do it. It’s Idiot, based on Dostoyevsky. It was written in the 80’s by Weinberg, who was Shostakovich’s best friend. A very interesting person. So the idea is to do this and another of his, Passazhirka, which we’ve done many times around the world, including NY. It was played in an armory, this huge place. But Idiot is less performed; we’ve done it once in Germany and once in Russia.

RJ: How will directing an opera be different from drama?

YA: In opera, the music is first. You have to find an agreement with the music. From time to time your vision of the scene and what the music is telling are not the same, so you have to find some compromise; I expect I will do it differently than most opera directors would. The actors will also be challenged, because they are not primarily opera singers. It’s a completely different style of acting.

“..Aryeh’s mesmerizing production of King David Report at his Gesher Theatre in Tel Aviv-Yaffo.”