Eyes dancing with delight or deep in thought, Nola Chilton, now in the 10th decade of her life, is surging with energy in Uri Barbash’s documentary: The Prayer of Man: The Story of Nola Chilton.
Born in New York in 1922 as Celia Truger, Chilton has made an indelible mark on Israeli and international theatre, receiving the Israel Prize in 2013. Director Barbash tells the story from a perspective that is admiring, yet committed to an honest and accurate portrait of Chilton’s life and work as a theatre director and educator. The film relies on archival footage of rehearsals and performances, interviews with Chilton and Israeli actors and dramatists who have worked with her over the years, as well as a look at some of her most recent work with a group of young actors on Daniela Carmi’s play Goats in 2013. A fascinating look at a complex and powerful woman, innovator, educator and social activist, The Prayer of Man also relates a significant chapter in Israeli theatre history.
A student of Lee Strassberg in New York, the young Celia Truger worked as a model to make ends meet, and took on the pseudonym Nola Chilton, by which she is known to this day. In New York she taught actors such as Michael Caine, Sidney Lumet and Dustin Hoffman, directing the latter in the 1960 Off-Off-Broadway production of Dead End. Like many others, she came to Israel on a visit, and decided to stay, for reasons at once whimsical and profound that she recounts in the film. In Israel, she continued to develop her vision of alternative, documentary theatre. For Chilton, theatre is not about putting on a show, it is a way “to give a voice to those who aren’t heard.”
Oded Kotler, Leora Rivlin, Moni Moshonov, Sandra Sade and Joshua Sobol all worked with Chilton for many years, and offer their perspective on the woman, her art, the era and her impact on them as actors and individuals. Rivlin says of her: “She draws your attention to what’s happening at the edge of the sidewalk…It’s like going to an eye doctor who gives you drops to dilate your pupils, that’s what Nola did. She’d drop things in and dilate your inner self.”
Viewing theatre as a medium for social change, Chilton worked with alternative, documentary theatre. Her plays focused on refugees, the elderly, mental disorders, workers and Palestinians, looking at people and situations that were not usually represented in the theatre, and looking at them from a close inner perspective, rather than from the privileged distance of a creative artist who assumes to know the internal experience of others. These plays were based on interviews and research with the people whose stories they sought to tell. As a director, Moni Moshonov recalls, she instructed actors to “use yourself to understand others. The character you portray is the subject, not you.”
A striking example of this method of research and performance is described by actor Salwa Nakkara, who played the role of Dita in One on One, based on Rubik Rosenthal’s The Beaufort Family (1989), about the experience of families whose sons were killed in the Lebanon War. “That was the first time in my career that I didn’t play an Arab,” Nakkara recalls. Her description of her conversation with a woman whose son had been killed, is refreshing in its honesty, and the filmed excerpts from her performance are very moving.
Chilton’s projects and accomplishments are many. In the late 70s she led a theatre project in Kiryat Shemona, in 1980, together with Oded Kotler and Danny Tratch, she founded the Neve Tzedek Theatre Group, and at the time the film was made, she worked with young actors in the “Culture Movement” whose aim is to “get away from the audience and connect to the community.” Yet much of Chilton’s work has taken place on the margins of Israeli mainstream theatre, which, as Joshua Sobol comments, sought for many years to emulate Broadway and the West End. In the contemporary Israeli theatre scene, alternative theatre may still struggle financially, yet has its own, respected, place in the sun. In her work with documentary theatre, her commitment to education and social change, Noa Chilton was perhaps ahead of her time and cultural clime. Uri Barbash’s film offers an opportunity to become better acquainted with this fascinating individual and her vital, provocative perspective on theatre.
The Prayer of Man: The Story of Nola Chilton will be shown on Channel 1 on April 30, 2014 at 21:45 and on HD Channel 511.
The Prayer of Man: The Story of Nola Chilton (Israel, 74 min, 2013, Hebrew with English subtitles), directed by Uri Barbash.