Actor Tovah Feldshuh talks about her new book, Lilyville, on April 15, in an event held in partnership with the JCC Jewish Book Festival. (PR photo)
The long-awaited Cherie Smith JCC Jewish Book Festival closing night event – Tovah Feldshuh talking about her new book, Lilyville: Mother, Daughter, and Other Roles I’ve Played – finally takes place on April 15.
The event was postponed to piggyback on the Book Festival of the Marcus JCC of Atlanta and JCC National Literary Consortium In Your Living Room Live series. It will feature Feldshuh in conversation with CNN correspondent Holly Firfer, and promises to be an entertaining evening with many laughs and lots of good advice, if Lilyville is any indication.
Feldshuh’s first book is a unique memoir in that it is framed in terms of her relationship with her mother – the longest and most important of Feldshuh’s roles having been the one she didn’t audition for, being the daughter of Lillian (Lily) Kaplan Feldshuh. The memoir is structured as a theatre piece, starting with the Program Note and ending with Exit Music, with three acts, many scenes and more in between.
Strong women characters, from the fictional Yentl (from the mind of Sholem Aleichem) to the very real U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, dominate Feldshuh’s career. She has performed in theatre, film and television, winning numerous awards and nominations for the excellence of her work. She also has been recognized for her charity work. And, it seems, through it all, family has been a priority.
In Lilyville, Feldshuh writes about her upbringing, how and why she became an actor, some of the people and incidents that have influenced her, her marriage (to a lawyer, like her beloved father was, and which she considered becoming at one point) and being a mother herself. Given her successes, readers may be surprised at the professional challenges she has overcome along the way, including being told outright by a director that she’d never make a good actress, she should become an accountant. But the biggest obstacle for her was coming to understand that her mother, who seemed cold and shy throughout Feldshuh’s (and her older brother’s) upbringing, loved them. While hypercritical and emotionally closed throughout their growing-up years, their mother was always there for them. It was only after their father died that their mother – who had been raised to be what was considered a good woman back then, ie. a woman who dedicated herself to her husband and kids, her own aspirations be damned – blossomed.
In an interview with the Detroit Jewish Book Fair, Feldshuh said about writing Lilyville that she “felt compelled to tell her [mother’s] story and mine and how the two of us had a lifelong journey toward each other. In essence, I dig down into the primal relationship between parent and child, with the specifics between mother and daughter.”
Luckily for the women, they had the time to repair and build their relationship, as Feldshuh’s mother lived to 103. Through that century-plus, Lily Kaplan Feldshuh, who was born before women were given the vote in the United States, witnessed countless social, cultural and technological changes, and Lilyville is partly a history of women’s rights in that country.
General admission to Feldshuh’s book talk is free. Admittance to the pre-event meet-and-greet portion of the event comes when, in addition to registering, you purchase the book; the $36US includes shipping and you will receive a copy with a signed bookplate. Visit jccgv.com/jewish-book-festival.
Anton Lipovetsky is among the professional artists working with Studio 58 to develop Monoceros: A Musical. (photo by Dahlia Katz)
In the face of a pandemic and all its associated restrictions, the show is going on at Langara College’s Studio 58 – albeit in a very different way. Monoceros: A Musical runs through the end of March and features the contributions of two Jewish community members: writer Josh Epstein and composer/lyricist Anton Lipovetsky.
In contrast to other Studio 58 productions, Monoceros is seen as a “development lab,” an opportunity for the creators to tweak the piece, while allowing students to work on a new musical and learn about the process. The production is not a performance in a traditional sense, as the public will not be able to come and watch it. Ordinarily, shows are performed in Langara’s 100-seat theatre, but this is the first time Studio 58 has created a production outdoors – because of the risks of singing inside.
Adapted from a Suzette Mayr novel by Epstein and his business partner, Vancouver writer/director Kyle Rideout, Monoceros tells the story of Faraday, a high school wallflower who dreams of becoming a famous veterinarian. When Ethan, a classmate known for wearing a unicorn outfit, dies unexpectedly, Faraday sets off on a quest to fulfil Ethan’s last wish.
“The book starts with one of the most powerful chapters I’ve ever read,” Epstein told the Independent. “I was engaged from the first sentence, my heart was drawn to every word. I, too, lost my best friend much too early and I felt very connected to this book. We were about to turn the book into a film, for which we had funding, but, at the same time, we felt a musical bursting out of it and attached Ben Elliott and Anton to write the music. We fell so in love with the musical that we halted the film for now to keep working on the piece. Our show tackles difficult subject matter but in a fresh, humorous way, daring the audience to go on a wild adventure and to listen.”
“I read the book and I loved it. It was heartbreaking and brutal and honest – the kind of book that really stays with you after you read it,” said Lipovetsky. “We decided to centre the story more on a singular character, Faraday, and her quest to bring unicorns to Calgary in honour of the student who passed away. Her quest challenges who she is as a person and she discovers herself along the way.”
Putting on a production in 2021 is “completely wild,” said Epstein, an award-winning actor, writer and producer. “Until the day we started, we had no idea if it would actually happen. Now, here we are with a full tent city built by Studio 58, a rock concert sound setup and an incredible creative team that includes one of Canada’s top directors, Meg Roe, and Lily Ling (Hamilton’s musical director) – who was only available to us because Hamilton is on hiatus.”
Epstein emphasized that, “while the show’s path has been altered by COVID-19, the team has used the time to strengthen the script and score, as well as attach some of the best people around [to the project]. Above all, the process is very safe and we’re having fun being able to work together, if only from a masked distance.”
“Acting, singing and connecting with your collaborators while most of your face is covered is not easy. The students are doing a wonderful job,” Lipovetsky said. “And rehearsing outdoors during early March in Vancouver can be challenging – but sometimes it’s magical. There are moments where the students’ voices soar in beautiful harmony and the sun will come out above us and I’ll feel real joy. I have missed making music and theatre so much and I’m grateful to get to do it even under these strange circumstances.”
In addition to the staff and faculty who are involved, Studio 58 has 10 professionals working with the students, 14 student performers, and many other students helping with technical requirements. One of the top theatre schools in Canada, with the only conservatory-style program in Western Canada, the professional theatre training program at Langara is in its 55th season. It typically produces four main-stage productions a season, ranging from dramas, to comedies, to musicals.
Monoceros is commissioned and supported by Toronto’s Musical Stage Company and funded by the Aubrey and Marla Dan Foundation. The show has an elaborate development road planned out that will include workshop productions in British Columbia and Ontario – culminating in Toronto – before continuing to other stages.
Epstein, whose work has taken him around the world, is currently writing an original feature for Paramount with Rideout. Lipovetsky is an acclaimed composer, lyricist, performer and teacher, and he is currently an artist-in-residence in the Musical Stage Company’s Crescendo Series.
Near the beginning of her acting career more than 50 years ago, Beth Kaplan wanted to improve the world through art. “I believe in the theatre as a tool for social change,” she told the director of the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art when she arrived for a one-year program. “I’d like to touch people’s lives as a force for good.” His reaction? “Well,” he said, standing up. “I do hope you have a fruitful year. Best of luck.”
Kaplan writes about her journey from acting to writing, from youth to adulthood, from insecurities to self-acceptance, and more, in her memoir Loose Woman: My Odyssey from Lost to Found. Local JI readers may recall her name, as she was a part of the Vancouver theatre scene in the 1970s. But a 1979 trip that included a visit to France to see her best friend, who had moved there, changed Kaplan’s life.
Through her friend’s husband, Kaplan ended up for a spell living and working in a L’Arche community, which brings people with and without intellectual disabilities together. Initially uncomfortable there, the experience and the slower pace allowed her to learn about herself, and to not treat life as a performance. From her time at L’Arche, she sees how, “in one way or another, we are all handicapped.”
In telling her story, Kaplan seems to rely mainly on thoughts she committed to her diaries over the years. She’s kept one ever since her first, which was a gift when she was 9 years old. Some of the terms she uses, like handicapped, hearken back to that time, and it’s a choice Kaplan makes, “to be true to the time, hoping that readers understand that what is offensive now was not so then.” Indeed, through some of the language and the stories of her objectively wild life during the 1970s, Kaplan highlights the advances that have been made in areas like women’s rights and inclusion.
Loose Woman is an interesting book, even though Kaplan is not a completely likeable heroine, despite it being her own story. Some readers might chafe at her harsh judgments (even when she is the target) and her self-acknowledged mix of confidence (some might say arrogance) and insecurity. But others might revel in her tales of debauchery and her resolute openness.
Katherine Matlashewski and Tanner Zerr in Fast Foward. (photo by Emily Cooper)
Since COVID-19, we have been learning how to relate to one another from a distance, as well as how to use the technologies, like Zoom, that have allowed us to retain a more personal connection than we could have if we had experienced the pandemic even a handful of years ago. While our reality seems stolen from the script of a futuristic sci-fi horror film, playwright Rosamund Small’s visions of love in the future and how technology affects it, TomorrowLove, are “hilarious, snappy, moving and refreshingly fun in these times,” according to Shekhar Paleja and Lauren Taylor, co-directors of Studio 58’s production of Small’s playlet collection.
Jewish community members Samantha Levy and Katherine Matlashewski are among the cast members of the production, which will be released online on Feb. 28 and available to watch individually or collectively until March 7.
Studio 58 is Langara College’s professional theatre training program, and this spring’s lineup – which TomorrowLove launches – is the first under the direction of Courtenay Dobbie. Both Levy and Matlashewski are in their second year of study.
“I was finishing up my first year when the pandemic began in earnest here,” Levy told the Independent. “COVID-19 has forced me to be more isolated from my school community through Zoom classes, but it has not taken away the care and dedication of my professors, or the support of my peers. We are still a family, even though we are distanced or online.”
It has become a hybrid program since the pandemic, with some classes online and others held in person with social distancing, said Matlashewski. “Since Studio 58 is a hands-on conservatory program, the transition to online studies was challenging at first,” she admitted. “The faculty and staff, however, have been extremely supportive during these uncertain times. They have all worked tirelessly to adapt our training while also prioritizing our safety.
“That being said,” she added, “as a result of COVID, students are now required to commute to and from the college quite a bit … [and] the hours of online Zoom classes are exhausting. Despite these challenges, I appreciate the continuation of our small in-person classes.”
Prior to her post-secondary training at Studio 58, Matlashewski appeared as Mopsy in King Arthur’s Court (Metro Theatre), where she received the Community Theatre Coalition Award for best supporting actress. Other select credits include Alana in Dear Evan Hansen (Laughing Matters), Luisa in The Fantasticks (Stage 43) and Little Red Riding Hood in Into the Woods: In Concert (Royal City Musical Theatre). Most recently, she was awarded the 2021 Cheryl Hutcherson Award by Applause! Musicals Society.
“I have been a part of the Vancouver theatre and dance community from a very young age,” said Matlashewski. “I feel incredibly blessed to live, create and play on the unceded territories of the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh Nations.”
In TomorrowLove, Matlashewski said, “I have the pleasure of acting in the playlet called Fast Forward, alongside Tanner Zerr. This playlet explores themes of love, abandonment, age difference, time travel and the consequences that come with it.”
Levy plays the role of Jessie in the short play Take This Soul. “In Take This Soul, Jessie’s ex-partner, Rylan, shows up at her doorstep after having disappeared for four days,” explained Levy. “He tells an outlandish tale of an experiment in a distant country that has allowed him to return and present her with his literal soul.”
In addition to this Studio 58 production, Levy’s acting credits include Love, Loss and What I Wore (Centaur Theatre), Fancy Nancy: The Musical (Côte Saint-Luc Dramatic Society, Segal Centre) and It Shoulda Been You (Dora Wasserman Yiddish Theatre, Segal Centre). Her TV and film credits include Annedroids and 18 To Life.
“I’ve been performing since the age of 5, when my parents signed me up for an extracurricular theatre troupe in my hometown, Montreal,” said Levy. “Little did they know that I would fall in love with performing! Since then, I’ve acted on stage and on screen, trained at the Stratford Festival’s Theatre Arts Camp, and dabbled in directing both plays and musicals. Now, I am so thrilled my love of acting has led me to Studio 58!”
But the experience is not what it normally would be, of course.
“During the pandemic, the lovely production team has been working extra hard to keep us all safe,” said Levy, “and that includes managing our schedules closely to avoid contact between folks. So, I have come to value the time I have with others in person even more. When we are in person, we are also wearing masks and social distancing at all times. This often means coming up with innovative new ways to express ourselves without proximity or touch on stage, which has been a wonderful challenge. It is incredibly uplifting for me to have the privilege to be able to continue to create with others, be vulnerable and connect.”
Acknowledging that the “pandemic has been an emotional rollercoaster for everyone,” Matlashewski said, “One of the challenges that I have faced is navigating acting while wearing a mask. Prior to COVID, I did not realize how much I relied on the non-verbal cues and facial expressions of my scene partners. However, now that two-thirds of the human face is covered by a mask, I find that I have to listen more closely to fully understand my scene partner. With that in mind, we all have had to adjust and be patient with ourselves and others.
“My biggest take away from acting during COVID is the importance of human connection,” she continued. “We have had to find new ways to connect and communicate while maintaining physical distancing. During the rehearsal process of Fast Forward, I discovered how social distancing impacted my acting choices. Since I had to maintain a two-metre distance from my scene partner, each movement that I made on stage had to be carefully considered. Our fantastic director, Lauren Taylor, guided us through this process and helped specify our blocking.
“Although we are required to maintain physical distance and wear masks while we are acting, I am thankful that I get to act in person for my first mainstage show at Studio 58.”
Reflecting on her connections to Jewish community and culture, Matlashewski said, “Within Judaism, community is a value that is held with the highest importance. Although we cannot gather in person, I invite you all to find the light where you can and share it with those around you.”
For her part, Levy said, “As my parents are across the country in Montreal and my brother (he’s a doctor!) is in St. John’s, Jewish culture and art are an anchor to the family who love me. Seeing Jewish representation in art is healing and beautiful.”
She then added a “non-performance-related anecdote.”
“I walked into a Jewish bakery during Chanukah to get a few latkes,” said Levy, “and I left with tears in my eyes and a bag full of items I had not planned to buy.”
To see one or all 13 of the TomorrowLove playlets, visit studio58.ca.
As I watched the National Film Board of Canada short film Old Dog, which preceded a documentary screening at this year’s Vancouver International Film Festival, I did a double take. Or, rather, a double listen. I knew that voice. And the credits confirmed it – former longtime Independent Menschenings columnist Alex Kliner was the voice of the elderly gentleman caring for his elderly dog.
Old Dog was created by writer and director Ann Marie Fleming.
“This film started off as a way of talking about aging, inspired by my namesake, Ann-Marie Fleming, who I often get mixed up with in internet searches,” said Fleming in an interview on nfb.ca. “The other Ann-Marie has a company that makes technologies for aging dogs and also for their humans. I was struck by the compassion she has for these vulnerable animals, helping them navigate the latter stages of their lives, and by how much dogs have to teach human beings.”
“Full disclosure,” Fleming told the Independent, “I made a film about twins and doubles many years ago (It’s Me, Again) and there is another Ann Marie Fleming out there I have been confused with, so it’s not unusual that I would do some sleuthing. When I read Ann-Marie’s interview and mission statement on her website for her company, Dog Quality, which makes technologies for senior dogs, I was really moved by her saying that she felt she was her best self when she was caring for her aging canines.”
So, Fleming contacted her namesake last year, and then approached the NFB, who agreed to produce it, and even suggested she use her “team” to make it: animator Kevin Langdale and composer/sound designer Gordon Durity.
“I went to 100 Mile House to meet Ann-Marie and her old dogs (literally), listen to her stories, see her technologies and get some reference footage for the animation,” said Fleming. “Then I wrote the very simple script and drew a storyboard. Kevin took my designs and made them his own – he definitely improves on them. Then it was recording the voice, cutting together an animatic, doing the animation.
“Gordon and I discussed the vibe I wanted – Dave Brubeck ‘Take 5’ meets ‘Freddy the Freeloader.’ Cool jazz from when our human character would have been in his youth. A few months later and shazam! The film is finished right as we go into a lockdown across the country.”
Fleming listened to many great voices for this film, she said. In her mind, she would think, “Does he sound mature enough? Does he sound like he really has a connection with his dog? Alex didn’t sound like anybody else. (You recognized him immediately, right?) The warmth and vulnerability and humour and care he had was just there.”
Alex was the consummate professional, she added. “I felt he was very generous to me with his performance in this little film. He can say a line a dozen nuanced ways. I love working with actors.”
Alex has been in the industry a long time, and his desire to act goes back even further – to Jewish school, when he just 7 years old, and was asked by the teacher to read the Yiddish poem “Why a Grandmother is the Way She is.”
“And I did the poem, and I got a huge applause – not so much perhaps because of the talent but because I spoke Yiddish so beautifully,” Alex told me. “And I did speak it beautifully, just the way any person who has a first language speaks it beautifully. I liked the applause and I liked doing the poem. I liked the ambience of the whole thing and, at that point, I decided I was going to be an actor. And, 20 years later, at age 27, I became a professional actor, got all my union cards because I was working in the theatre, in a union company.”
Over the years, he has been in theatre, radio, film and television, and he’s worked as both an actor and as a director. A very partial list of people with whom he has shared the screen include Melanie Griffiths, Vince Vaughn, Ellen Burstyn, Ryan Reynolds, Eddie Murphy, William H. Macy, Christopher Plummer, Sylvester Stalone, Jerry Lewis, Laura Linney, Isabella Rosselini, Jack Lemmon, Mariel Hemingway, Valerie Harper, Mandy Patinkin and Robin Williams.
“I worked with them either as an actor or as a background performer who interacted with the actor,” said Alex.
He was Mickey Rooney’s stand-in in Night at the Museum, which is also where he worked with Dick Van Dyke and Ben Stiller, among others.
The audition for Old Dog was an ordinary call, said Alex. While he hasn’t done much by way of voice work, he has done some dubbing of acting parts that didn’t come out properly sound-wise in the filming. The process for Old Dog was similar, he said.
“I just did one line and then the director said, OK, time to do the next line. Sometimes, she would ask me to do it two or three times but never more than three times,” he said. “The whole thing took a little more than an hour.”
In this type of work, while the actor doesn’t see the animation, he said, “You know what she wants, like your attitude toward the dog … and then you bring that attitude or that feeling or emotion to the line. But you do it without seeing the movie and then they sync what I’ve done vocally to the film.”
Alex’s wife, Elaine, works with him in the film industry. “We’re both still working,” said Alex. “It keeps us happy and young.”