My Way Alone, by Chayele Grober (Part II)
Originally published in Yiddish as Chayele Grober, Mayn veg aleyn. Tel Aviv: I. L. Peretz Publishing House, 1968
Read part I here.
My Studio YTEG (Yidishe teater grupe)
Time passed, and it became ever clearer that the war would drag on and that there could be no question of undertaking another tour to Europe. I reconciled myself to the thought that my home was here, in Montreal, and that I would have to stay here until the war was over. But one has to do something, and all that I know is stage work…
Montreal was not a theatre city—neither the Christian nor the Jewish population was theatre-conscious. Yet we had had the experience of creating the Habima theatre in a language that was foreign, in a time of wars and revolutions. So now, with much courage and belief, I began to prepare the groundwork for a Yiddish dramatic studio. As always, I brought the idea to Sorele and Hananiah Caiserman. They received it with enthusiasm, and we threw ourselves into the work. After a few weeks of searching for, selecting, and assembling the first group of young women and men, I began to teach theatre arts in the basement of the Jewish Public Library on Esplanade Avenue. Soon, I also began looking for a suitable place for my own studio. That too came about thanks to Hananiah Caiserman. Since he was working then for the Canadian Jewish Congress, and his office was in an old building of Baron de Hirsch, on Bleury Street, he let me have for this purpose the basement of the building.
The first time I entered that basement, I nearly fainted. It seemed a kind of dungeon, strewn with scrap, old furniture, dust and cobwebs. It truly gave me a fright. But a studio was a necessity, I had no money, and this could be had for free. So we rolled up our sleeves, and began to drag out the squalor. At the same time we together initiated an auxiliary committee. Harry Kornblith became the chair of the committee. Once the basement was emptied and tidied up, one needed, of course, a little stage. Kornblith brought a couple of workers from his factory, and they gave an estimate for the work: just to fix up the “hall” would cost 200 dollars, and to build a stage—450 dollars. First of all, we would have to take up a collection. I was of the opinion that it was better to aim right away for the whole 450 dollars, and so we got the stage.
The small studio “YTEG” (Yidishe teater grupe; Yiddish Theatre Group) developed little by little. We invited a dance teacher. We held lectures about literature and art. On special celebratory evenings the speakers included members of Parliament, or guests from faraway cities, and other countries. YTEG became a kind of artistic corner that served as a hub for the cultivated Jewish audience. When we announced appearances of the group with etudes or one-acters, we would draw an audience, even in the middle of the winter, when Montreal lay deep in snow. The entrance to the basement was through a narrow lane, and in winter the path would be frozen to such an extent that it could be perilous to walk through, but people came. After working in the basement for a year, we decided it was time to make our debut in a performance in a big hall, before a wide audience. We prepared one-acters by I. L. Peretz. In the tradition of the Russian studios, I ordered special stage scenery and costumes from the famous painter Alexander Bercovitch (1891–1951). I ordered the music in New York. We worked out the program together with our great poet J. I. Segal (1896–1954). When everything was prepared and rehearsed, we rented a large hall—the Victoria Hall—and announced two performances.
We began with Segal’s poem “Di getlekhe geto” (The Divine Ghetto)—a poem that was not included in any of his books.
The two evenings in Victoria Hall were a big success. YTEG became a recognized institution. New members joined, and an expanded committee was formed. I will never forget how on one cold autumn night, an unknown couple came into the studio and introduced themselves to us. The couple was Leyb Roskies and his wife Masha. They were among the first who had escaped from Romania, and they had come to settle in Montreal. Having learned about our artistic corner, they had come to participate in the theatrical work. My imagination immediately ran wild at the thought that here were the first of many more to come, and that the studio would become a kind of rehabilitation center.
At the performance was a guest from New York, the leader of the Workmen’s Circle, Nachum Chanin (1885–1965). In the address that he gave at the banquet after the performance, Chanin emphasized the significance of artistic activity. That prodded me to appeal officially to the Workmen’s Circle in New York about supporting YTEG. I traveled to New York especially to make the proposal. Chanin promised me that if the Montreal Workmen’s Circle would join with us, he would do everything he could from New York to assist. Upon my return, I conveyed this to the group, and we designated one of the members to appeal officially to the Montreal committee of the Workmen’s Circle about taking on our group. The member met with the principal leader of the Workmen’s Circle, a friend of his, a cutter by trade, and a lover of Yiddish theatre. But his answer was: if an actress is past her prime, they don’t have to support her.
That was yet another jolt that woke me up, and I decided once again to pack my suitcases. It has already been a quarter century since that incident, and in that time I’ve made three tours across the United States and Canada, have three times visited the South American countries, was in Africa and Australia, and on and on, and I record this now with special joy: the telephone still rings, and I’m still running.
I went to New York and again entered into a contract with the Tsionistisher arbeter farband (Labor Zionist Alliance). My partner in the tour was S. B. 1 I joyfully accepted the proposal to travel with him. He is a good singer. I like his timbre and his trained manner of singing. Throughout the tour, I didn’t pass up a single opportunity to stand behind the stage and listen to him perform. It is even now not clear to me why such a singer, with such success, persecuted me and caused me heartache during the entire tour. Yet until the present day that hasn’t prevented me from going to hear him whenever I have the chance.
I Become a Farmer (Habima’s 25th anniversary)
During the time that I had been traveling around on tour, Grossman had decided to become a farmer. In his youth he had attended an agricultural college, and had spent a few months on a noble farming estate. I had tried to talk him out of this adventure—by telegram, by telephone—but it didn’t help…
A storm was raging over the entire globe, the world was ending—no matter, I became a farmer too. I resided on “my” property, and Grossman stayed in the city (in Montreal), writing. Of course if a man spends his day writing, his wife has to prepare the food. I dug up potatoes and carrots, made sour milk, and hoped that the autumn rains and cold would set in early, and I would be able to return to the city.
October 8, 1943, was the twenty-fifth anniversary of my theatre—of Habima. The press dedicated articles to the occasion. Habima Theatre in the Land of Israel celebrated the important date. Here in my solitude, I feverishly rifled through those best, young twenty-five years. In those twenty-four hours, that long stretch of twenty-five years passed before me in all its details. The greatest portion of those years I had lived my life with my people, had shared with my people the best that I possess. I received in return a lot more. In the dark years of Hitler’s flash annihilation, the spiritual bond between me and my European Jews became even stronger. The thousands and thousands that I had merely seen and heard from across the footlights now became so near to me, so dear.
First Tour After the Khurbn (destruction [Holocaust])
My first postwar tour began in Scandinavia. Of the Scandinavian countries, Sweden has the greatest number of Jews. Before the war, Jewish spoken word artists would visit the three most important centers in Sweden: Stockholm, Malmö, and Göteborg. Now the Jewish Community arranged the tour, giving me a slate of twelve localities where Jewish refugees had been settled.
The two countries Denmark and Sweden had led a secret rescue campaign during the Hitler years. From the shores of its ports, Denmark transported Jews under cover of night, and the Swedes awaited the small boats on their shores, and took the fortunate refugees onto land. The Jewish Labor Committee had received the rescued Jews. The stories about the extraordinarily humane attitudes of the Swedish population toward the refugees were deeply moving. As soon as the war was over, a committee traveled to the border by train to receive the groups from the camps. My friends told me that at every station where the train stopped there would be masses of Swedes who came out to meet the refugees with joyful exclamations and song. At the train station in Stockholm, hundreds of Swedes broke out in lament as the sick and starved, skeletal-looking people were carried off the railway cars. The Swedish government had places ready for them in hospitals and sanatoriums. The healthier people were provided with homes and employment in cities and towns.
I regard it as a special privilege that it was destined for me to meet and to be in the proximity of those people during that tour of mine. I remember my arrival in Malmö. It was late morning. The people of the committee, spirited young men, gave me a tour of the facilities. The first thing that they showed me, with pride, was a small room filled with Yiddish books. “Those,” they told me, “are the first writings in Yiddish letters that people sent us from YKUF [Yidisher kultur farband/Yiddish cultural association] in New York.” They rejoiced in those books the way the most pious Jew rejoices in the Torah scroll. After that they led me into the kitchen, where young women were cooking. The men served the food, in the small, clean dining room.
In the evening, before my concert was to begin, a young man came by and said:
“Chayele, here outside the door to the hall are four carriages, and in them are lying four of our new-born little children.”
I felt a trembling in all my limbs.
In Malmö, the hall was filled with over two hundred people, but there were also towns where there were only about sixty spectators. In one of those towns I went out on the stage and saw young, very young faces, and mostly young women. They were sitting snuggled up to each other, head to head—a crushing loneliness emanated from them! At the first intermission, two young women and one young man entered my dressing room. They had come to ask me to sing “Hasidic.”
—“Where are you from?”
—“We are from Łódź.”
Astonished, I said to them: “You could not have heard me there. When I was in Łódź, you were still young children.”
One of the young women responded, a little embarrassed:
—“Coming from your concerts, our parents used to talk a long, long time about your Hasidic melodies. We want to hear what our parents heard…”
I don’t know if I have ever sung Hasidic the way I did that evening. 2
K. S. Stanislavski
Real talent is unmediated. Great talents are endowed with intuition that guides them unconsciously. The main point of Stanislavski’s theory is conscious analysis. The actor must not rely solely upon his intuition. He needs not only to feel but also to understand why he acts in this way or that. According to Stanislavski’s theory there are two forms of theatre art—the old form, called the “theatre of representation,” and the second (his form) called the “theatre of experience.”
K. S. Stanislavski was born on January 18, 1863, and died in 1938. The year that Stanislavski was born, the great Russian actor Mikhail Semyonovich Shchepkin (1788–1863) died. Stanislavski eventually made Shchepkin’s principles of the actor’s art the foundation of his own theory.
Stanislavski was a native Muscovite. His father was a wealthy manufacturer, and the young Konstantin was surrounded by governesses, servants, and coachmen. That is important to know because his lineage was against him and his theatre after the revolution.
Stanislavski did not come to theatre; he began theatre—artistic theatre. He found the hidden ways that lead to our emotions and through which we can express our emotions…
When Stanislavski came to the stage, the “theatre of representation” existed in Russia and in all of Europe. The actor shows—represents. In the dramatic schools, one taught the actors to speak beautifully, to move beautifully, to make beautiful movements—to be graceful! When the actor learned a role, when he played the role in front of an audience, his complete attention was devoted to ensuring that his voice sounded good, that he was facing the audience. He thought about one thing: to enchant the audience…
It was through the great Italian actor Tommaso Salvini (1829–1915) that Stanislavski discovered the great secret: before a very dramatic, powerful monologue, where all actors would typically use their full-bodied voice and large, powerful movements, Salvini would take a great pause, completely free himself, take a deep breath, and after the breath would begin to speak in a subdued voice. In that state, tears flowed freely and calmly from his eyes, and in that moment he shocked his audience. There it became clear to Stanislavski that concentration, liberation, and pauses are the most important elements in the actor’s art, and from that point on he began to build his “system.”
With his students, he began to lead exercises to free the body, each part separately; exercises for concentration; exercises for breathing. Stanislavski grasped that the actor is also a living person and not a marionette. He began to lead the actor closer to the nature of living people. Theatre art is not some invention that has been forced upon people. Theatre art is a natural drive to express oneself, just as music is for someone with an innate musical talent…
From all his observations, Stanislavski came to the “etude.” In his theatre and in all his studios, he introduced this type of “etude.” Let me explain to you how to build such an etude. Let’s say, for example: A doctor has just arrived at his office. There is a knock on the door and a woman enters.
—“Hello, sit down. What do you want to tell me?”
—“Doctor, I’m suffering from insomnia…”
For Stanislavski here begin the questions: Who is the doctor? How old is he? How long has he been practicing? What is his specialty? Where has he just come from? (since we said that he has just arrived at his office). What does he look like? (tall or short, elegant or shabby). These and many other questions are pertinent to the relationship of the woman to him…In order to build up the two characters, one carries out numerous different “etudes.” …
Step by step, one builds the character, without using the text of the play; in other words: improvising. After that, one begins to read the role and to look for the logical content, the meaning of the phrase, of the word…Let’s say, a phrase like “Good morning.”
1. Good morning (What did you want?)
2. Good morning (What happened?)
3. Good morning (Here again?)…
A step further: One begins to divide the text, and to mark where one needs to take a pause. Actors think that playing a role is about speaking. That is actually not correct. According to Stanislavski, it is quite the opposite: playing a role is about being silent. One can, in fact, say more with one “oy” than with an entire phrase.
1. Oy (not good, not good)
2. Oy (how nice, how nice)
3. Oy (it pricks, a prick)
4. Oy (I can’t bear it)
Numerous jokes are built on these principles. Two Jews sit across from each other on a train. They don’t know each other. Suddenly, one of them remarks, “Oy.” And the second one says, “You’re telling me.”
Now, what about pauses in general, without a sound—silent pauses. A person thinks. A person glances. A person is frightened. A person is in a pine forest. (Demonstrate all of this.)
All of the pauses are marked in the text, and must be permanently established at the same time and in the same place.
Then comes the work on contact with one’s partner, on action and reaction, and on and on. In this way, point by point, Stanislavski constructed the famous theory by means of which the theatre of experience was created.
Stanislavski did not begin with directorial production, light effects, stage scenery, or music, but with living actors, and only the actors. All the rest comes later, to assist the actors…
The Habima actors underwent training in the “system” with the brilliant student of Stanislavski, Y. B. Vakhtangov, whom the master recommended. But the founder of Habima, Nahum Zemach, still looked for ways for it to be possible to work with Stanislavski, if only for a short time. The actors of the Moscow Art Theatre did not allow their great master to work outside of the walls of their theatre. They watched over him and were jealous. One time, Vakhtangov came up with a plan. Considering that three of the best studios were in Moscow—the Armenian studio in the Armenian language, the Vakhtangov studio in Russian, and the Habima in Hebrew—and that all three studios wanted to work with Stanislavski, his advice was that we should join together and invite Stanislavski.
The idea of working on a play in three languages greatly excited Stanislavski, and so began, in the little auditorium of Habima, the enchanted Sundays.
Every Sunday at the same time, the Russian coachman, “Vanka,” brought the great master to the little villa at Nizhnyaya Kislovka no. 6. With pounding hearts, a group of forty-eight young students rose to meet and welcome the great master. And in walked a tall, handsome, gray-haired man. As if a little embarrassed, he modestly took a seat on a chair and began—not boldly—with a few tentative utterances, and with pauses. The master sought the way to establish contact with the new group, and only after he had become part of the “circle” (that is his own expression) did he begin to speak, to explain, and to demonstrate. 3 After we had already worked with Vakhtangov for three years, we now began working with Stanislavski on etudes—not a word of texts.
The first play selected was Shylock. One sunny, frosty Sunday in the middle of January, the master gave us an etude something like this: “We are in Venice on a summer evening. The moon is full and bright, and we are gliding in gondolas on the waters of the canals.”
Before too long, we had formed groups. Song and laughter resounded in the air. Suddenly we heard the master say: “Romance, romance.” We changed our poses. Voices became soft and subdued. Stanislavski himself removed the green tablecloth from the long table, wrapped it around himself like a toga, and began to stroll across the entire length of the auditorium while whistling an Italian song.
And suddenly Moscow disappeared for us. The frozen sun metamorphosed into a bright, warm moon, and we literally felt like we were gliding on the still waters of the Venetian canals. Stanislavski, the tall, gray man, was then the youngest among the young – the true caballero.
The dream of producing the play was never realized, notwithstanding the fact that Stanislavski once said, “Hey, you know, the three languages together—Armenian, Russian, and Hebrew—will undoubtedly sound Italian”… But our winter work with the great master laid the foundation upon which one feels secure for a lifetime!
A Little Experience in English
I came to English television in Canada not through a manager, or an agency, and also not by making the rounds of the studios with solicitations (as it’s usually done). A student of mine, Ruth Sommer, had convinced me to go with her to one of the directors of CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation). She introduced me, and thanks to her, he hired me to play the role of the mother in Sholem Aleichem’s “Gimnazye” (The High School). I had staged this sketch with my theatre group. I had prepared the role with a student—the text and the movements—and, indeed, had performed it with great success. However, back then I had worked on the role for months, not the mere six days that the television station allows for preparation of a production.
I had my second experience in Toronto. They hired me to play the grandmother in An-sky’s Dybbuk. That work I also knew very well, from our production in Habima, although I had never played that role. Besides that, I had also directed the play with a group of students at the Hillel Foundation.
The television director was talented and daring. Although he was a Jew, he had little knowledge of Jewish customs. The Tzadik was played by a Jewish actor who was popular on the English stage, and the son of a famous Yiddish actor. 4 But when he—the Tzadik—came on stage and saw Leah lying there dead, he dropped to his knees. Of all the actors, I was the only one who saved the scene. That could not have happened in an art theatre, because there one would have discussed the play and the role over a long period of time.
I had one other experience with television here in Canada. I was invited to play a small role that lasted a mere four or five minutes. And it was, of all things, in that instance that I experienced a failure. The director worked only on the lead roles; to him the rest was not important (just like in the old-style of theatre): no instruction or explanation at all. That confirmed my conviction that I can’t participate in a production in which there is only a technical preparation.
That failure, by the way, was only in my own eyes. The people I worked with didn’t consider it a failure. In fact, it was only later, when we viewed the film, that I noticed my mistakes.
Nevertheless, I am glad to have had these experiences, because I discovered that the English language did not bother me at all.
1Translator’s note: Possibly the singer Sidor Belarsky (1898–1975).
2Translator’s note: Chayele Grober subsequently toured in Israel, South Africa, and Australia. In 1957, upon her return to Montreal, she attempted to establish another Yiddish dramatic studio, but failed to find the necessary support. At this point in the memoir she reflects on the training she experienced as an actress at the beginning of her career, during her time with Habima, and the insights that she often shared with students over the years.
3Translator’s note: In her earlier memoir, Tsu der groyser velt (Buenos Aires: “Byalistoker vegn” baym Byalistoker Farband, 1952), Grober explains that being in the “circle” was Stanislavski’s own expression for complete concentration (“zayn eygener oysdruk far kompleter kontsentratsye”), 158.
4Translator’s note: This was evidently the 1960 production of The Dybbuk directed by Harvey Hart, as part of the Canadian anthology television series Festival, with Luther Adler in the role of the Tzadik.