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Yiddish Theatre

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Theatre was my cradle : Chloe Veltman Interviews Luba Kadison -Buloff (1906 -2006 )
By Chloe Veltman

Chloe Veltman was born in London in 1974. She received her bachelor’s degree from King’s College, Cambridge and her master’s degree from The Central School of Speech and Drama in London in conjunction with Harvard University and The Moscow Art Theatre School.
She has worked as both a staff reporter for The Daily Telegraph and as a freelance writer, her articles appearing on both sides of the Atlantic in such publications as The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Economist, The Financial Times, The Guardian, The Believer and American Theatre Magazine She is the chief theatre critic of SF Weekly and serves on the Glickman Theatre Award Panel.
Chloe is a recipient of the Allen Wright Award for Arts Journalism and the Sundance Institute Arts Writing Fellowship. Her first book, On Acting, was published by Faber & Faber in the UK and Faber Inc in the US. e-mail : chloe@chloeveltman.com  web: http://www.chloeveltman.com/books/books_home.html  

Born in 1906 in Kovno, Lithuania, Luba Kadison was a founding member of the renowned Yiddish theatre company, the Vilna Troupe. She performed in the original production of Sholom Anski’s The Dybbuk (1920, Warsaw) and played the lead role of Leah throughout her years on the stage. She married the actor Joseph Buloff in 1924 and came to New York with him in 1927 to join Maurice Schwartz’s Yiddish Art Theater. When Buloff began performing on Broadway and in Hollywood, Kadison continued acting with Schwartz in New York. In a career spanning several decades and many countries, she performed in I.J. Singer’s The Brothers Ashkenazi, (1938, New York) played Stella Adler’s love interest in Sholom Asch’s God of Vengeance (1928, New York) and won great acclaim for such roles as Anna Karenina (late 1950s, Buenos Aires) and Linda in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman (1951, Brooklyn). The Buloff-Kadison Archives are at Harvard University which also published their memoirs, On Stage, Off Stage: Memories of a Lifetime in the Yiddish Theatre (Harvard University Press, 1992) and Buloff’s novel based on his childhood in Vilna, From the Old Marketplace (Harvard University Press, 1991).

How did you come to be an actor?

The theatre was my cradle and it has been with me all my life. I grew up with the Vilna Troupe, a Yiddish-speaking Jewish theatre company directed by my father. Theatre was a hobby to my father; professionally, he worked as a painter. I was a kid of seven or eight in 1914 when the war broke out and we were forced to leave our hometown. Our lives changed within the space of twenty-four hours; we did not know where to go, so we found ourselves in the town of Vilna, the Lithuanian capital, and quickly had to find a place to live.

One day in 1916, two young Jewish actors came to my father with a proposal because they had heard that he had directed some wonderful productions with his troupe of amateur actors. Vilna was under German occupation, but the Germans of 1916 were not like the Germans of 1945; there were Jewish officers amongst them, including German writers like Stefan Zweig and Hermann Struck. The actors told my father that they wanted a Yiddish theatre company in Vilna to meet the demands of the large Yiddish-speaking population. The Germans were fighting the Russians and did not want to promote the Russian language, so a Yiddish theatre seemed like a reasonable idea, given the similarity between the Yiddish and German languages.

My father was delighted to accept the offer; the company was established in 1916 and became world-famous. I started to play such parts as little boys and little girls in my father’s productions when I was a girl. Acting on stage was as natural as drinking a glass of water to me; I was brought up to it. Our idealistic, young company would rehearse plays in our apartment. We went through some very hard times because there was hunger in Vilna; frequently, we had nothing to eat, but somehow my mother would find some potatoes and give one to each actor so they could go on rehearsing.

The theatre company was built on Stanislavsky’s model, with plays performed in a realistic style and a repertoire that consisted of Jewish and Russian works and plays from the world repertoire. We did not strictly follow Stanislavsky’s system, but we saw Stanislavsky as a model for good realistic theatre. Melodrama still prevailed as the acting style of the era, but we were interested in realism, purity and acting.

When I was thirteen, a new actor joined the company: his name was Joseph Buloff, and he was very talented. I married him at the age of seventeen. The company started touring around the world and I performed roles in the plays for many years until I moved behind the scenes and helped out on productions. My last stage appearance was in 1968 as the Witch in A Chekhov Sketch Book (1968, Buenos Aires). I stopped performing because I felt that I was getting too old for the parts I played, and the parts for older female actors did not appeal to me. I enjoyed being an assistant director to Joe and he needed my help.

We were brought to America by the impresario Maurice Schwartz who was, at that time, the director of the Yiddish Art Theatre in New York. Coming to the States was a very lucky break; it saved us from the Holocaust and the concentration camps. However, we only spent a couple of years with Maurice Schwartz. My husband, who was then directing the troupe, began to develop a modern, expressionistic style, but New York was becoming too commercial and the new style did not go down well with the mass audience. That is not to say New York was not a good theatre city; there were many fine actors there and the standards were high but we were young and very idealistic. So we left New York and went to Chicago where we did Yiddish-language adaptations of classical works from around the world, such as Tolstoy and Molière. The work was great, but financially we were in bad shape.

How did you learn your acting skills?

I learnt to act by being in Vilna productions. One of the plays we performed was The Dybbuk, by Sholom Ansky. I think The Dybbuk is the greatest Jewish play and perhaps one of the greatest plays ever written. With its cabalistic atmosphere, my father thought the play needed special insight from a director, so he engaged the services of David Herman, a director with a cabalistic and Hasidic background, to stage the world premiere. I was fourteen at the time and played a little part in the production, which premiered in Warsaw in 1920. Herman took me aside one day and told me I had potential but that I needed training. There was no Jewish drama school for me to attend in Vilna, but because I spoke good Polish, Herman advised me to apply to a very good drama school in Warsaw. So, one day when we were in Warsaw touring The Dybbuk in 1920, I summoned up all my chutzpah and turned up at the Polish acting school and told the administrator at the school that there was no Jewish acting school in Lithuania and that I wanted to be a Jewish actress. She looked at me with my curly hair and Jewish eyes and asked me what I could do. I read her the two poems I had prepared and somehow impressed her so I was offered a place. I learnt a great deal in that school and stayed for two years (1920 – 22). I had two wonderful teachers, one for speech and scene work and the other for movement. The teachers said I possessed a magic quality and a lovely voice when I played the role of Medea.

During those years, I went to school during the day and performed in the theatre at night. Poland was very anti-semitic at the time, but nevertheless, I would still receive the occasional compliment from Polish audience members. One evening, however, I was very upset when a woman came up to me after a performance and told me to get back to Palestine. I realised at that moment that Poland was no place for me. That night, I put on my galoshes and walked through the wintry streets of Warsaw alone, reciting Polish poems and feeling very sad. Eventually I decided it was time to return home to the Vilna troupe, and soon felt fine again.

Do you think acting can be taught or is it purely instinctual?

I believe very much in using your instincts as an actor and that a person is born ‘to be or not to be’ an actor. You can develop acting skills, but the real spark has to be in you from the start. Being with other actors, working on your art, is a school in itself and you develop your skills as an actor through ensemble work, dialogue, connection and communication. The body is also very important, which is why television and movies are a completely different art to the theatre. In theatre, you can talk with your body as much as with words, whereas in the movies, physicality is less important. Discipline and work are also essential to developing your skills as an actor, and many people waste their talent.

How would you approach a text?

In the Vilna Troupe, the text would mostly remain in the hands of the director; scripts were not handed out to actors. The director would tell us what play we would be performing and would explain it to us; then we would explore the play with action. As little kids, we were taught by our father to sit down and write out the parts by hand which we would give to the actors. Each actor would have his own lines and cues because we did not have the facilities to print a whole script for each actor. One production we did was an adaptation of Anna Karenina that toured to Argentina, with me in the title role. It was quite a task adapting a text like that to suit our audience, especially since we had to compete with a popular film version of the novel starring Greta Garbo that was playing in cinemas at that time. After seeing the movie, I was scared stiff about playing the part. At night, I read and re-read the novel and thought very hard about it and in rehearsals I developed a feeling for the part and began to love the character. One day in rehearsal, I overheard one actor tell another actor, ‘Luba will never make it.’ I went home that night and cried, and decided to push myself harder. It was hard work but I got there in the end and the show was a great success.

What is the relationship between the actor and the troupe?

I believe in ensemble theatre. Acting is not a part-time business; it should be a part of everyday life. A company should be like an orchestra; all the greatest companies have a sense of ensemble.

How do different international audiences affect you?

Generally, audiences would be drawn to the theatres around the world specifically to see us. In places like Buenos Aires, we had a lot of people who did not understand Yiddish, but they found something new in us despite the language barrier. We attracted a young audience but we did not reach out to masses; in general, the audiences who came to see us knew about us already. It felt like the performers and audiences were all part of one family and the level of communication was great. Israel became our second home and we used to travel there for about six months a year. Jewish actors are scattered all over the world. When you bring them together with a good director, the audience really feels the connection. However, we did not always get a fantastic reception everywhere we went. In New York, for instance, our theatre jarred with most peoples’ commercial tastes.

What sorts of parts have you been most drawn to?

I have a leaning towards parts that require deep feeling and emotions. I love playing Leah in The Dybbuk, Anna Karenina and anything by Eugene O’Neill, who I believe is one of the greatest playwrights. I also enjoy comic roles, such as in plays by Molière and the folk Jewish writer Peretz Hirschbein who portrayed his Jewish characters as country people in such works as Green Fields and A Secluded Nook. The best parts for actors are found in the ensemble repertory. An ensemble actor is like a musician: he can play Mozart, Beethoven or Chopin equally well, and can give you comedy one night and tragedy the next with equal skill.

Are there any types of parts you would refuse to do?

I had a couple of seasons in which I was forced to play in musical shows. They were done in a melodramatic style and I did them because I needed the money.

What was your most challenging performance?

We once did a benefit performance for a famous actor who was sick. I played the part of Leah in The Dybbuk; I was feeling a bit depressed and I really did not want to go on but I told myself I had to rise above it. I was in a bad state that night, but I will never forget the performance I gave. There are a number of occasions in an actor’s career when something happens and he or she gives an exceptional performance; that was one of those nights.

How do you prepare to go on stage?

I get butterflies like everyone else on the day of a performance. In the wings, I get a little nervous but when I am up on stage, I just get on with it. I believe in craft; English actors are so good because they have more craft than any other actors in the world. The essence of craft is timing, because when you are in a bad mood or things are not going right in your life, craft helps you get through a performance and stand on your own two feet. If you do not have the discipline of craft, you can sometimes give a very bad performance.

Is craft something that can be learnt?

It is hard to say because in many ways it is instinctual. Craft makes you surer of yourself; it is a back-up tool. It gives you stability, like a master carpenter making a table.

Did you only ever perform in Yiddish?

Yes, only in Yiddish, though my husband sometimes performed in English on Broadway in such shows as: My Sister Eileen, The Whole World Over and Oklahoma; and in Hollywood; in Somebody Up There Likes Me with Paul Newman, Silk Stockings with Peter Lourie and They Met in Argentina with Maureen O’Hara.

How did you find performing in Yiddish in America?

Persecuted Jewish immigrants came to America from all over the world. They worked hard all day in sweat-shops and lived in bad conditions. It was a hard life for them, and the theatre was their main outlet for entertainment. There were many actors in the Hebrew Actors Union and melodramas and musicals dominated the stages in New York. We were not interested in doing melodramas and musicals, so it was hard for us to find an audience for our work. We had our own aesthetic goals, so we decided to pursue them in other parts of the world.

What was it like playing a part like Linda Loman in Death of a Salesman, in Yiddish?

The production was conceived in Buenos Aires with another actress in the role of Linda because I had decided to stay in New York at that time to look after my daughter during High School. When the New York producers heard about the show’s success in Buenos Aires, they wanted to put it on in Brooklyn with me in the role of Linda. At first I thought I was a little too sophisticated for the part, but the producers insisted, so I took it on. I was not sure how to approach it, but it grew to become one of my favourite roles. You cannot get too deep with a character like Linda; she has a wonderful kindness and common sense. Arthur Miller came to see a performance in Brooklyn in 1951 and liked it very much. An article soon appeared in a New York paper joking that our company had returned the play to its Yiddish original!

Which directors have you found most inspiring in your life?

My late husband, Joseph Buloff, was tremendously inspiring because we had the same attitude, taste, understanding and background. He would let actors do the best they could and never force anything upon an actor; he would give all his actors freedom, whilst creating a sense of unity. He was like a conductor in front of an orchestra and the American director Harold Clurman said my husband was one of the greatest theatre-makers in the world. We lived together for sixty years and he died in 1985. I never had trouble with any directors. I acted under Maurice Schwartz, who was not bad; he used to leave me alone to get on with my part.

What are your hopes for the future of acting?

Acting has turned towards the movies and television and in general, theatre is struggling. Young actors all over the world have to fight very hard for work and act for free because they love it so much. Since the Holocaust, Yiddish theatre has died out because people have grown away from the language. Israel has a very strong Jewish theatre tradition, but most of it is performed in Hebrew these days. There is very little good Jewish theatre left in the world today and not much good theatre around in general. Despite the recent renaissance of interest in Yiddish theatre, people play around with it, and it is not really alive as an art form. As far as Yiddish culture is concerned, the true renaissance is happening in the realm of Yiddish literature, with the global popularity of such writers as Isaac Bashevis Singer and Sholom Aleichem.

Who are the most useful critics of your work?

I am! Whenever the curtain falls, I always think I could do better next time.

(2221)








Source: On Acting: Interviews with Actors
by Mary Luckhurst (Editor), Chloe Veltman (Editor)
Publisher: Faber & Faber ( 2002)

Website: http://www.faber.co.uk/book_detail.html?bid=9615&clid=5

Related Links:

  • On Acting: Interviews with Actors
  • Read additional review by Chloe Veltman
  • Last Survivor of Yiddish Theater Company

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  • Chloe Veltman

    Luba Kadison and Joseph Buloff 1932 Buenos Aires

    Luba , Joseph and daughter Barbara 1946 New York

    Joseph Buloff 1982 New York

    On Acting: Interviews with Actors

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