On March 14, 30 Wesleyan alumni, parents, and students attended a performance of the acclaimed Off-Broadway playMy Name Is Asher Lev, starring Ari Brand ’06, at the Westside Theater in New York City. The show is based on a novel by Chaim Potok and adapted by Aaron Posner. After the performance, Charles ’59 and Myra Wrubel P’85, P’88, hosted a reception with remarks by Brand.
This production, directed by Gordon Edelstein, was first presented in spring 2012 at the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven and transferred to New York last fall. The New York Times praised Brand’s “haunting performance as a child who grows into a man” in New Haven. When the show opened in New York, The New York Times reviewed the play again, saying, “Mr. Brand is at his strongest playing the young Asher, a sensitive, willful creature whose drawing channels the vibrating world around him.”
David Low: How would you describe the play?
Ari Brand: My Name Is Asher Lev is a story about a young Hasidic Jew growing up in Crown Heights in the 1950s. He has a gift for drawing and painting as a very young child, but this does not sit well with his family or with his community, both of which don’t value art or artistic talent. So it’s also a story about what he needs to do to survive in this world and in his family—to continue to have the relationships that he has while also sustaining himself as an artist.
DL: How long have you been acting?
AB: I started acting when I was about seven. I did a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in second grade. It was a very professional production, abridged of course. I identified more as a musician through middle and high school, but about halfway through my time at Wesleyan, I decided I wanted to try being an actor. I became a theater major and went abroad to do a theater program in London at the British American Drama Academy.
DL: You first auditioned for your part at the Long Wharf in New Haven. What was that like?
AB: I auditioned in March last year. It was kind of a fortuitous opportunity because Asher Lev was a last-minute replacement for a play that got cancelled. I went in and did the first monologue of the play and when I was done, Gordon Edelstein, the director said, “That’s not it. I don’t know what it is, but it’s not that.” I thought, I guess I blew this, you know, there’s no way I’m going to get this part. And then he said, “Just talk to me, just do it again, just talk to me, just tell me the story.” I tried it and I simplified everything, and at the end, he was nodding and he said, “That’s it.”
I left the room not expecting a call back. I ended up getting one, and I was very surprised. I did the monologue again, I did a couple of scenes, and at the end when I was finished, the director said, “You’re perfect for this. I want to give you the part.” That was the most astounding thing that’s ever happened to me in an audition room. Normally you hear from your agent or the casting director if you get the part. The director almost never tells you in the room.
DL: What do you think the difference was between the two versions you were presenting?
AB: You never really know, but that little piece of direction simplified everything for me. It just distilled the process down to storytelling: just tell the story. If you just can convey the story, it’s a lot better than trying to heap on all sorts of emotion or pauses or anything that you think colors it.
DL: How did you prepare for your role in My Name Is Asher Lev?
AB: As a cast, we prepared for our roles in several ways. For one thing, we took a tour of the Lubavitch community [a Hasidic movement in Orthodox Judaism] in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. We saw the Rebbe’s headquarters, the synagogue, the mikveh, the matza factory and the Torah scribe and walked around the neighborhood with a Hasidic Jewish tour guide. Though Chaim Potok never actually uses the term “Lubavitch,” the community in his book is very directly based upon that specific sect of Hasidism. On that tour we had an amazing experience learning about the culture firsthand. We danced with the little Chabadnicks—the religious students—and asked a lot of questions.
We also had a few consultations with other Hasidic Jews. We got their perspective on certain questions like “Would a mother wear her wig inside the house?” or “How much intimacy is allowed in front of children, or in public?” We wanted to make sure the story was very accurate to the rules and restrictions that the community places on its members.
We also worked closely with Chaim Potok’s novel in the rehearsal room. We would read passages of the book out loud before working on the corresponding scene in the play. Sometimes we could sneak details from the book into the script that we thought were too juicy to leave out.
DL: You’re on the stage for the whole play and you also play a character at various ages. Has this been a particularly challenging role and how do you maintain your intensity throughout the entire play?
AB: The show runs about 95 minutes. I narrate the story to the audience, then immediately switch to a scene with my mother, my father, my art teacher, the rabbi, etc., and then I go right back to narration. So it is a bit of a marathon and can be incredibly exhausting. But when it works, and I can feel that the audience is engaged, I lose track of time and I don’t even think about how intense it is. When it’s working, I’m able to just be present and tell the story, and I don’t really think about how tired I am. When it’s not working, however, it feels like I’ve been on stage for three hours, I just want a drink of water and to lie down for a second. I realized after a few months that I really have to stay in shape physically, mentally, emotionally.
DL: The play is based on a novel set in the 1950s. How do you think the themes of that novel relate to a contemporary audience today?
AB: The story is about a very specific Jewish, ultra-Orthodox community. But at the same time it’s incredibly universal. It’s really a story about a boy who feels that the world that he lives in doesn’t understand him and accept him for who he is. It’s a story about a mysterious aspect of yourself that you can’t explain. You know it’s a part of you but everyone around you is telling you it’s wrong. Plenty of non-Jewish people have come to the show and have related very strongly to Asher’s struggle. A black man growing up gay in the south, 20 years ago. A Mormon woman who felt extremely restricted by her religion and said she was in tears during the entire show.
A Hasidic woman came who was a dancer and an actress, and she could not tell her husband that she was performing at night. She kept it from her family and she couldn’t tell the community. But she loved it so much; it was her outlet, her way of expressing herself. So it’s a story that a lot of people can relate to—it’s certainly not aimed at Hasidic Jews. In fact, most Hasidic Jews can’t even come to the theater (unless, as it turns out, they keep it a secret).
DL: It’s a three-person play, and you work very closely with the two other actors with years of theater experience. What have you learned from working with them?
AB: I’ve learned so much from both Mark Nelson and Jenny Bacon, who play my father and mother. I’ve learned a tremendous amount about what it means to do a long run of a show in New York, show after show, eight shows a week. How to sustain yourself, how to respond to the way that the audience responds to you. How to brush off any negative feelings that you’re having toward yourself, toward the show, and how to respect your own down time and take care of yourself while you’re not doing the show.
I’ve become incredibly close with Mark, especially because we share a dressing room. He’s become one of my closest friends. He’s a brilliant, very kind person, and he’s incredibly generous with his experiences and the stories he’s amassed from being in the theater for so many years. Mark makes me proud to be an actor because he’s an example of what a great person an actor can be.
DL: Was there any resistance from your family when you were pursuing becoming an actor?
AB: Actually no, I have no connection to Asher Lev in that way. My parents completely supported my desire to go into the arts, to be an actor. It’s a privilege that I know most people in the performing arts don’t have—so many parents very often encourage their kids to go in other directions. I come from a family of musicians. My mother was an actress and a musician. My father was a concert pianist. My mother always supported me along the way, even when I was saying, “Mom, this is really hard, I’m not getting any parts. I’m going on audition after audition.” She said, “You have to stick with it.” I don’t know anyone else whose parents are like that. I’m truly grateful.
DL: Working in the theater can be precarious. How do you deal with that uncertainty?
AB: I think that the way to deal with the uncertainty of an actor’s life is to figure out how to be happy when you’re not working. Figure out how to have a flexible job that pays the bills and is fulfilling and sustains you. I teach piano lessons and guitar lessons to kids when I’m not working—it’s an amazing day job and I couldn’t ask for something better.
DL: I read that you play in a band.
AB: I’m in a band called The New Facility. I’ve termed our music “experimental indie surf rock.” I play keyboards and bass and I’m the lead singer. A camp counselor of mine asked me to jam with him one day and it turned into this band. We had a show the other night on the Lower East Side after I did two performances of Asher Lev. I managed to not completely lose my voice. At Wesleyan I played in a couple of bands, the most popular of which was probably The Band Cover Band Band (TBCBB). My years at Wesleyan taught me a lot about musical collaboration.
DL: Would you talk about your Wesleyan experience?
AB: I worked very closely with Yuri Kordonsky, (associate professor of theater) among others. Yuri was an incredible role model and mentor for me as an actor. In my freshman year he asked me to audition for a play—Molière, or The Cabal of Hypocrites by Mikhail Bulgakov. He gave me a pretty big part, which spurred on my confidence. I took a few classes with him, and he then cast me again in Thornton Wilder’s The Long Christmas Dinner, which was a beautiful production. I came to Wesleyan not thinking about acting, and I came out wanting to become an actor. Although I did plenty of other things there as well—I played a lot of music, I was a psychology double major, and I took classes that changed me as a person.
I attribute who I am today, so much of it, to Wesleyan. I came to the campus thinking that I knew a lot about the world. Wesleyan just completely broke me down and started restructuring what I now understand to be a much larger, more complicated place that needs work. It exposed me to social activism and a better understanding of social inequality, and identity politics, which made me a more informed and active member of society. Wesleyan was very important to me and I would be a different person if I hadn’t gone there.
DL: I read that you played Georg in the musical She Loves Me when you were younger. Would you like to do a musical?
AB: I would be ecstatic to get some great part in a musical. Music is a huge part of my life. I’ve auditioned for a number of musicals, things that weren’t quite right. I don’t have a Broadway-style voice but I do sing. I would love to be a part of a show where I could play piano or guitar on stage. I saw Once [the Tony Award-winning musical] and the cast looks like they’re having so much fun. Also, because my father was a concert pianist, I would be following in his footsteps a little bit more, and that would make me happy.
My Name Is Asher Lev is scheduled to run at the Westside Theater until September 1, 2013. Purchase tickets by calling Telecharge (212/239-6200 or 800/447-7400) or going online to telecharge.com.—David Low