Throw Away the Script

How Ruth Kanner Uses Stories to Amplify a Polyphony of Voices

In 2018, as the associate director of arts programs for the Israel Institute in Washington, DC, I was in Israel seeking talent for our residency program. When Ruth Kanner’s name came up in conversation with trusted local sources for a third time, I was intrigued. I immediately accepted an invitation to see her three-hour triptych At Sea, a devised performance based on the literature of Israeli novelist S. Yizhar—a writer known for dense, almost incomprehensible language. Despite the flurry of complicated words hurled at the audience, I started to understand Ruth’s lure. She and her disciplined company of actors and designers managed to make the arduous text interesting, visceral, and accessible through their extraordinary elocution and mesmerizing design.

In the months to follow, we secured an invitation for Ruth to teach in the Drama Division of the Juilliard School during the spring 2020 semester. And, for a few weeks, it was amazing to witness the power of academic and cultural exchange, as Juilliard students learned and performed the methods of storytelling theatre Ruth has developed over twenty years with the Ruth Kanner Theatre Group in Israel. But spring 2020 did not turn out exactly as we—or anyone—planned. In the wake of COVID-19, universities closed, courses moved online, and suddenly teachers and students—coming from different backgrounds, societies, and traditions—began to create new art inspired by their experiences living during a pandemic.

I spoke with Ruth about her unique methodology, her experience teaching in an American classroom, the impact of cross-cultural exchange, and how artists expand the diversity of stories we share and celebrate.

a group of students in movement with ruther kanner in the center

Ruth Kanner and Second Year Juilliard Drama Division students, Spring 2020. Photography by Jessica Katz.

Flo Low: You specialize in storytelling theatre. Can you define the practice for people who aren’t familiar with it?

Ruth Kanner: There is no singular definition of storytelling theatre. It can be any theatrical piece based on written narratives or documentary texts, sometimes mixed with dialogues. As much as storytelling theatre is an ancient tradition, it is also a post-dramatic, contemporary practice. Storytelling theatre gives voice to narratives through two systems of time and space: the storyteller and the event they describe. These two systems meet, collide, and conflate through a polyphony of points of view.

Flo: You don’t work with scripts, then?

Ruth: No, I don’t, and that’s the point. There are many adaptations of novels or films into plays, but my work maintains the original text without using a playwright as an intermediary. When I prepare for rehearsals, I develop mechanisms that transform the written word into live performance through theatrical situations and imagery.

Flo: What is unique about storytelling theatre?

Ruth: The essence of storytelling lies in the magical power of the spoken word and its ability to create endless imaginary worlds that constitute a unique mix of past, present, and future. I am repeatedly drawn to a beautiful statement by the German philosopher Walter Benjamin, who explained, “The storyteller is bringing in a proposal concerning the continuation of a situation that is just unfolding.”

This is what we practice in storytelling: transformations of character, space, place, and time, serving the storyteller’s need to react to urgent contemporary issues, sometimes through ancient tales. What is unique about the form is that it forces you to realize there is more than one point of view to an issue, more than one concurrent truth, and that makes the practice very political.

The essence of storytelling lies in the magical power of the spoken word and its ability to create endless imaginary worlds that constitute a unique mix of past, present, and future.

Flo: So your work is political?

Ruth: Always. Every utterance is political. It is political in the sense that it resists something, that it fights for humanism, for the necessity to listen to other people. My work invites you to listen to diverse perspectives and, in so doing, to realize that we are all human beings with rights. That’s one reason I always strive to include voices in my works that are difficult for me: to enhance the realization that we need to give place to voices that make us uncomfortable, rather than trying to ignore them.

For me, “political” is more about form than content. The strive for liberty is embedded into our training and process, because an actor who has shaken off his habits becomes more liberated. And I think that is part of the reason why audiences come to see my pieces again and again—you may not be able to see or pinpoint the impact on the surface, but you can feel in your gut that this actor has liberated something internally and, therefore, can liberate something for you. This for me is a political act.

Flo: How do you choose your stories, or what draws you to them?

Ruth: It’s a very physical thing. When I read a story and my heart burns, really burns, I just know I have to do it. Then, in the beginning of the rehearsal process, there are always crises, because I find out it is impossible—I can’t make a show out of it! But by then I’ve already promised to premiere it at a festival. So I’m forced to find solutions, expand my limits, and identify new techniques and forms.

Flo: Maybe the stories choose you?

Ruth: That’s a beautiful way to say it. One of my earliest productions was based on an amazing story I read in the newspaper about a mouse. When I read it, I had an immediate physical reaction and promised the production to the Akko Fringe Festival. But: a protagonist who is a mouse! That was it; a story about a mouse trapped in an irrigation pipe in a field. After I started working on it, I realized I was also trapped, because I didn’t know how to transform it into a performance. But I had no choice. Somehow I finished it, and it received first prize in the festival. It was only years later that I realized how much I had learned from this struggle with the impossible.

a group of students in movement with ruther kanner in the center

Ruth Kanner and Second Year Juilliard Drama Division students, Spring 2020. Photography by Jessica Katz.

Flo: You don’t pick simple texts. The first piece of yours I saw was At Sea. It was one of the most beautiful experiences I have ever had in the theatre—but the text is pretty inaccessible. As a fluent speaker of modern Hebrew, I may have understood about 65 percent of the language, and I’m told native modern Hebrew speakers only catch about 80 percent.

Ruth: The complexity of the text only troubles you if you focus on the meaning of the words. What I love about Yizhar is that his writing is not decorative; there is a lot of action in the words. The real work our group returns to again and again is to decipher the hidden actions in these sentences. The actors are not dealing with the meaning, and that’s why it is possible to not even understand the text but just feel what the words do when they are performed.

To fight for the sentence to be active really requires months and months and months of work. But when the actor reaches an original, significant, active use of those words, the result is limitless and audiences can feel it. That’s why I work so hard with my actors, so we can shake out this “deep telling.” The physical training we do is not so easy—it’s actually quite violent. But it allows us to achieve surprising and unexpected results on stage. The other central element of my process relates to the question of representation.

What is unique about the form is that it forces you to realize there is more than one point of view to an issue, more than one concurrent truth, and that makes the practice very political.

Flo: Representation, as you well know after a semester in the United States, is a critical topic of discussion here. It is a term that can have multiple meanings, including the question of whose bodies, voices, and stories are told and who tells them. What do you mean by it?

Ruth: We use representation to refer to both who is represented on stage and how theatrical situations are represented on stage. Amplifying oppressed voices is one of the crucial missions of our work, and many of our pieces give voice to marginalized individuals. We also use the stage to feature imagery that questions obvious concepts and ideas.

You mentioned At Sea. A central piece of this story relates to a person who is drowning and fighting for his life. We struggled with how to create waves and vortexes on stage, especially because we wanted to avoid simply illustrating the written text. So, while the words the actors spoke described the horrors of physical drowning, the images they created on stage portrayed people drowning in personal conflicts, intimate relationships, and professional situations. The physical imagery we presented thus depicted the cruelty many of us sometimes experience in our personal lives. This is just one example of how questions of theatrical representation in my work bring up penetrating questions about moral choices.

Flo: We talked about how your work is always political. Do you describe your work as Israeli?

Ruth: That’s an interesting question. I think the technique is very Israeli. In the 1970s there was a lot of awareness in Israel about dalut hachomer, the poverty of the material. This is something that was explored deeply in Israeli visual art, this concept of doing a lot from nothing, which really parallels how the State of Israel was formed. For me, having less has become a principle of my work, and that’s another reason I love storytelling theatre. You don’t need huge budgets, you just need the power of the spoken word and the hints of the image.

Authentic Israeli art reflects both Jewish art and Arab art because Israel encompasses at least two peoples. The wonderful poet Avot Yeshurun speaks about the Sabras (native-born Israelis) who tried to stamp out the influence of Jewish traditions, declaring, “No, no, we are new!” Yes—but we have a past! And I feel it is extremely nourishing to embrace it.

four actors onstage

At Sea, performed by the Ruth Kanner Theatre Group. Photography by Shiraz Grinbaum.

Flo: What about the content? A lot of people seem to think that work coming out of Israel is or should be focused on conflict, but I personally think that denies the incredible creative discourse within Israel today.

Ruth: My mission is to tell local tales. But “local” doesn’t only refer to the language or subject; for me, experiencing Israeli theatre is to touch the place, the sounds, and the colors. You may have noticed my actors never wear black, because it is not an Israeli color. We wear the colors of the landscape: brown, blue, green, orange, and turquoise. Also, folkdance steps seem to penetrate every piece I do, albeit in different contexts, because they represent the body language of this country. I have a lot of criticism, of course, about what happens in my country, but I love it, and I really want to be there and to give voice to it.

We do have some projects that deal with place and try to give voice to the conflict. It is a bleeding place, what can we do? And there are certainly oppressed voices, and we try to give them voice through a storytelling theatre perspective. My goal is to tell local stories through the techniques I’ve developed with my group in Israel.

Flo: Can you share an example?

Ruth: Well, in the Jewish tradition and specifically in the Talmud, which is a text of arguments, there is a polyphonic principle of having many opinions about the same issue contained within the text. This is also a tradition of Israeli people! So, for the past year I’ve been developing “speech choruses” to enable non-professionals to utilize the polyphonic techniques our group has developed over the past two decades. The purpose of the chorus is to give voice to the people, with a practical technique that is our gift to the community around us.

Our version is extremely Israeli. You know, in German theatre, they have a lot of chorus work, but their choruses always speak in unison—one, singular voice. The Israeli chorus is very different.

Having less has become a principle of my work, and that’s another reason I love storytelling theatre. You don’t need huge budgets, you just need the power of the spoken word and the hints of the image.

Flo: I am betting the Israeli voice is always speaking on top of one another and overlapping!

Ruth: Indeed, that is exactly what happens! But we actually compose this polyphony of overlapping voices. The technique is very local, but I also take it to other places in the world—to Tokyo, to China, and now to New York. It works there too, but it was born of Israeli aesthetics and culture.

Flo: You are in the United States for an academic cultural exchange. When we began our talks more than a year ago, we never could have imagined that your residency would have been impacted by a global pandemic and a move to remote teaching. How has the current situation impacted your experience in teaching at Juilliard, and in New York?

Ruth: It is an extremely interesting time to be in New York and to experience the city. My world here has suddenly become very narrow, but that makes each encounter much more meaningful.

When we moved my storytelling course to Zoom, I started working with my students to document this historical moment. I’ve asked each of them to chose a story that stems from these circumstances to develop, and the diversity of perspectives has been really fascinating. It is such a joy to work with them and I feel our work together has a healing power. When we finish a session, I can see we’ve freed something; even though we are dealing with some harsh issues, the process transmits a lot of inner freedom and light.

four actors onstage

At Sea, performed by the Ruth Kanner Theatre Group. Photography by Shiraz Grinbaum.

Flo: What has been one of the most meaningful encounters with your students at Juilliard?

Ruth: I did a project with second-year students based on stories they wrote from the traditions of their families. A wonderful actor was telling a Scottish tale about a hag (kalach in Scottish) who cursed a woman for refusing to give her money. I asked the actor to think about how the trope of a hag is reflected in society today, and she explored people experiencing homelessness in New York City who ask for money. When she brought her work about the act of begging for money and asking for help to class, we explored as a group the act of refusing (since most of us, when we’re asked for money, refuse). And that was what we ultimately presented on stage, this fusion of her traditional story, represented in a contemporary way.

Flo: I love this common theme, that in your work and your form is this meeting of ancient and contemporary, of strong roots but also of innovation and exploring new possibilities.

Ruth: I try to make connections to ancient echoes by speaking them, aloud, in our voices today. The worst thing for me is when the past is nostalgic. Nostalgia is the enemy of live theatre.

Flo: You don’t like video documentation of your work.

Ruth: No, it looks awful. We never manage to produce a video that does justice to the work.

Flo: And your work is such a delight for the senses. The words are of course one piece, the design is another. I want everyone who reads this to have the opportunity to experience it!

Ruth: Yes, me too—but not on video! Definitely not on video. Theatre must be alive and kicking.

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