– from Laura Kepley, director of “My Name is Asher Lev”
I have loved the story of My Name is Asher Lev since I was seventeen when I read Chaim Potok’s novel for the first time. This remarkable story gives us insider access to two distinct worlds – the Hasidic Jewish community in Crown Heights Brooklyn in the 1950s and the mid-century American art world, more specifically the mind of a genius artist working at that time.
Our production strives to accurately and authentically represent these two worlds. So, how do we begin to understand? Sounds old-fashioned, but my first stop was the library. I read many fascinating books, many by Chaim Potok himself, such as Wanderings: Chaim Potok’s History of the Jews. Last summer, my set designer, Antje Ellermann, and I took a guided Hasidic walking tour of Crown Heights. We listened to many stories and tried to absorb as much of the culture as possible. We watched the documentaries “A Life Apart”, “Trembling Before G-d”, and PBS’ “The Jewish Americans.” Youtube is an invaluable storehouse of hours of Hasidic recordings of weddings, prayer sessions, and many archival speeches by The Rebbe himself. Here in Cleveland, the Maltz Museum has been a great resource. And most invaluably, this production is very fortunate to have Rabbi Michael Unterberg, a graduate of Yeshiva University and a teacher at Fuchs Mizrachi School, serving as a consultant illuminating and contextualizing the Hasidic worldview for us. Each day of rehearsals brings more questions, such as “What does the bringing the moshiach into the world mean for these characters?”, “What would the image of a crucifixion mean to a Russian Jew?”, “What exactly is the afternoon prayer?”, and “How do my tzitzit show if I tuck in my shirt?” From the mystical to the mundane, Michael patiently answers our daily “Ask the Rabbi” emails, and comes into rehearsals to watch our work.
As for the art world, some fun research has included reading the biographies and autobiographies of Marc Chagall, Peggy Guggenheim, and Jacques Lipchitz, Potok’s models for the characters of Asher Lev, Anna Schaeffer, and Jacob Kahn. Myriad trips to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, and locally to the extraordinary Cleveland Museum of Art. Ron Wilson (Chair CWRU Theatre Department and Head of the CPH-CWRU MFA Program), a true Renaissance man himself, came into rehearsals to teach Noel Allain, playing Asher, and Tom Alan Robbins, playing Jacob, basic drawing concepts. He helped us to understand the artist-model relationship and worked with Elizabeth Raetz, who plays the model Rachel, and I to find the perfect classical pose for her to strike. A highlight included taking a figure drawing class at an open studio at the Cleveland Institute of Art. Noel, as it turns out, has taken several art classes, and his beautiful drawing of the nude he drew that night hangs in our rehearsal hall. Several CPH artists such as E.D. Taylor, a RISD MFA and Assistant to the General Manager, and scenic artist Jill Davis have offered wonderful guidance (and many paint brushes!).
Though no amount of research would ever truly be enough, as artists, this knowledge allows us to make an informed creative leap into the worlds of the play.