Thomas Donnaruma sat down to talk with American-born, Catholic-raised Yisrael Campbell, who now resides in Israel and is a three-time convert to Judaism. His play, a one man show entitled Circumcise Me, ran at The Bleecker Street Theatre through 16 May 2010.
As the show’s website extols, “Campbell is your average Irish, Italian Catholic kid from Philly, Comic Actor, Sober Alcoholic, Recovering Drug Addict, Husband, Father, Reform, Conservative, Unorthodox, Orthodox Jew.” I found Mr. Campbell anything but average. He has a unique perspective when it comes to religion and theatre, having dealt with both in a very personal way.
At a very American establishment—Starbucks—far from the West Wall and much closer to the West Side, we discussed the challenges of combining religion and theatre. Campbell’s given name, Christopher, means ‘bearing Christ;’ he changed it to Yisrael, meaning ‘contending with God.’ This is an apt change in designation, as throughout our conversation, he contends not only with God, but with his function in the theatre and religion.
Thomas Donnarumma: Theatre and religion are very communal experiences. In your show, Circumcise Me, do you see communal similarities with your theatre experiences and your religious ones?
Yisrael Campbell: Yeah, I think I do. I haven’t thought explicitly about it. I remember when I was in New York in the mid to late ‘80s and I would sneak into the second act of Burn This when the people would return to their seats during the intermission. This was a period in my life when I was between: I wasn’t Catholic anymore, I was certainly on a spiritual search, I hadn’t found Judaism yet. I remember thinking that there was something of a religious nature to this experience, to theatre when it’s done fully and completely. I see my play, where I am directly talking to the audience, where I am sharing my life experiences and my search for a relationship with God, that it is in a sense very much a religious experience. Certainly storytelling is a strongly held idea throughout Judaism. Any canonic text is a story. I have been telling my story as a monologue for five or six years, but always in a Jewish context. It’s still a Jewish story, but it is also a universal story as well. Part of what I wanted to do by putting this play in the Bleecker Street Theatre was to take it outside of a Jewish building. I don’t want to generalize the story, as it becomes a specific story and it becomes universal.
TD: The cliché “laughter is the best medicine” comes to mind when I saw your show. Do you believe that Circumcise Me serves as a tonic between peoples and prejudices and the rift between Jewish and Palestinian relationships?
YC: I think it can be seen as a tonic in a sense because it’s a clearly told story, told with depth and meaning, not sensationalistic. If someone can see it as that and get an understanding of someone else’s perspective, religious or ethnic or national, perhaps it can be that. It is not a public service message and as long as it stays not a public service message, it can conceivably become a public service message.
TD: Your show covers many facets of several religions. How does your show go over with the Jewish, Catholic, and Islamic communities?
YC: Individuals have approached me after the show—both Catholic and Muslim—and say that they have enjoyed the show. I had Father Dave Dwyer, who has a show on Sirius/XM called The Busted Halo, who had me as a guest on his show, and I turned around and asked him to speak after my show. He did a talk back with the audience. That is the closest that I have got in terms of institutional support. We’ve had synagogues come out. I have not had church groups come out. I don’t think that the Vatican has sent a representative. We have had members of the clergy. We have had a mix of rabbinic figures and clergy, but mostly rabbinic figures attend the show. The reaction with these individuals has been positive and they state that they get the story.
TD: After your play, do people ever approach you and say that they want to learn more about the topic discussed?
YC: People have certainly followed up with emails asking, “What would you read”? That is always fun for me. That is why I went into theatre in the first place. I actually worked as a childcare counselor. But that was way too frontline for me. I wanted to kind of like let people know that they were still alive, that their heart was still beating and send them on their way. I felt that that is the role that I can best serve. In my own life, in some of my darkest moments, whether it was a play, a book, or a movie, it got through the fog that let me know that my heart was still beating. We all don’t have to be everything to everyone.
TD: The message in theatre sometimes hits deepest when you least expect it. You will have an experience in your life and then realize: Yisrael was saying that or John Steinbeck was saying that.
YC: Yes, if I went into the theatre and said that I wanted to talk about terrorism in the modern Jewish state, people would say, “You call that terrorism?” I don’t want to talk about terrorism. I want to talk about that day that my two friends died. And then at the end of the day, we can decide what it is. I’m not calling it anything, except this is what happened that day for me. We had a rabbi come to the show and one of the things he liked so much about the piece was that it wasn’t in a Jewish center. It wasn’t in a synagogue. He thought that was very brave. Often times Jews feel like, “what will the people think of this or that.” There have been so many attacks over the centuries on the Jewish people that there is an insularity. The rabbi loved that it was in The Bleecker Street Theatre. Partially I am the way I feel because I am an American, partially because I grew up in the majority culture.
TD: And in the theatre.
YC: Right. For sure. When I first saw Torch Song Trilogy with Harvey Fierstein, I was blown away. It wasn’t my experience, but it was an emotionally true story. So later on, when I did theatre scenes in acting class, and I wanted to do scenes that were emotionally true to me, I chose Torch Song Trilogy. You are trained as an actor to expose yourself, feelings and your life have to be expressed in a true way or it is not going to go anywhere.
TD: In your play, you mention several books that have influenced you over the years such as Go Ask Aliceand Exodus. Have any theatre publications been influential in your journey as a performer or in terms of religion and spirituality?
YC: Yeah, when I started out as a theatre student, I read Uta Hagen’s Respect for Acting and I was thinking about her at the beginning of this run. I haven’t done theatre in a long time and our first review said, “This guy has an unorthodox sense of humor”. Basically saying, this guy needs to get a sense of humor. He’s not very funny. He’s pushing his agenda. And I felt like, that’s not how I feel about the piece at all. Uta states in her book: If you don’t believe the bad reviews, you can’t exactly believe the good reviews. It helps to go into it with a grain of salt. I can take the knowledge that I got from that book and am able to see that these reviews are not indictments. Of course I read An Actor Prepares. I remember particularly Peter Brook’s The Empty Space and that is where I saw theatre as a spiritual and religious space. Seeing it as a whole. It was a being. I remember at my final project at The Circle in the Square school, we were doing a scene where I always forgot to take a pause. My director said: “Take a pause here.” At the night of the performance, I literally had the thought: there is that pause. I was looking at my scene partner, he was looking at me, everyone is quiet and I realized that I owned that space. That if I respected the boundaries of the space, I owned it. For the moment, it was my space and it was very powerful. And very communal. In my piece, I get a different sense from the audience, night by night, show by show. They still come out and say that they enjoy the performance but they have entirely different reactions.
Another thing that has been interesting to me is having been trained as an actor working in the theatre, then spending many years working as a stand up comedian, where I was re-tuned by having everything be judged by laughter. Laughter is success. To go back and do a play and wanting to go faster if the audience is not laughing. My director, Sam Gold, added back moments where the process is happening on stage and a lot of that process has nothing to do with laughter. It is still a very funny piece and people laugh a lot. At first, I was concerned about the parts where there was no laughter. I feel that I am again re-tuned, having the sense of the audience, sensing where they are—without the laughter. Getting a sense and feeling again where an audience is in silence. You know when they are connected.
TD: Was this transition from theatre performer to stand up comedian and then back again a challenge to you?
YC: It was definitely a challenge to reacquaint myself to what silence felt like. That I didn’t have to do something, pick up the pace, make a face, punch up a joke. Getting reacquainted with the idea that the audience is still with me, they’re still there, they just not laughing.
TD: What led to your conversion? What did you seek and did you find it?
YC: Essentially, I had this period from about 18 to 30. At 16 I stopped using alcohol and drugs and started with the mandate to find a power greater than myself. I was still in high school, a Catholic school and I went to Mass and it just didn’t speak to me. I tried other things, my friends had a meditation group. I was open to try any number of things. Nothing really spoke to me. Simultaneously, I was introduced to Judaism and Israel though books like Exodus, through other books and this was incredibly fascinating to me. I read a lot of Holocaust literature, Jewish literature, Israeli literature and yet thought if you don’t like Catholicism, you’re not going to like Judaism. Judaism gave forth Catholicism. I thought, maybe there was a meditation group that I would like, something Eastern that I would like and yet none of those things that I investigated spoke to me. When I came to New York, I saw pursuing my acting career as sort of a spiritual practice and what God wanted me to do. You can imagine that doesn’t fly, when you go to your agent and say that I’m doing God’s will. They say, just do my will. Get the job first and then we can talk about God’s will. That’s the business side of the entertainment field. When that wasn’t working out so well, I thought, I want to investigate this Jewish stuff on a religious level, it will clear away the infatuation. And the exact opposite happened. What I found in Judaism is this community of people that are struggling with their relationship with God. That kind of community and that is what essentially I was looking for in the theatrical world.
For example, the Steppenwolf Theatre seemed like a community of people to me. I did not find a group that I imagined The Steppenwolf Theatre to be. When I was in theatre school at Circle in the Square, we were a group working together, but it was not enough. I did not find a group out there what I thought Steppenwolf was. Even the Atlantic Theatre people had Mamet and they went to New Hampshire every summer. The Circle in the Square group provided just enough, but it was never complete. And even more so, when I went out to Los Angeles where no one wants to do a play because they might get a part in a movie. That’s where I took a course in basic Judaism expecting not to like it, but fell in love with it. And then it kind of circled back, I was then for a couple of years auditioning also for commercials. I got a couple of jobs that I had to turn down because one was on Shabbat, one was on Passover, and that’s when I thought, I’m going to go to Israel and when I get back, I’ll figure out how to make this Jewish stuff work with the theatrical work or entertainment work. And then I kind of fell into doing the monologue. I was first asked to speak about my conversion to Judaism before a class of students that were studying conversion. They said take 15 to 20 minutes and when I finished and people said that I should think about doing this as a monologue or write a book. They said to me that there was a story here. I started putting it together, it started off like a Spalding Gray piece, sitting at a table and then it became more like stand up, but it always had the same basic arc. Then when we stayed here in New York some years ago, I thought that maybe I can do this in a theatre.
TD: You live in Jerusalem. How is the theatre in Israel? How can you compare it to the theatre in the United States?
YC: There is the real theatre, the professional theatre that has a very European influence. It’s all in Hebrew. There is a collective, a group-driven theatre and that was reinforced in the late ‘80s, when the Russians came and they brought essentially that same ethos, but even stronger. There is a strong theatre culture. The English spoken theatre is more like at a community theatre level. I just saw a group do The Chosen, Aaron Posner’s adaptation. Most of the English language theatre feels more like community theatre than professional theatre.
TD: Is it state sponsored theatre?
YC: Some of it is. Certainly the film industry is. There is a lot of state money involved.
TD: Can you make a living as a theatre performer in Israel?
YC: How I have made a living in Israel is doing the type of theatre that I am doing here, this form of what I am doing now. I’ve fallen into a niche market. I’ve performed before a lot of groups in Israel. Especially during Shabbat, when they have to do something after dinner. They are kind of stuck in a hotel and groups have brought me in for a post dinner presentation. I live close to the hotels, so I can walk there. I can do it without a microphone, so there’s no Shabbat issues for me. I’ll talk for an hour and take questions. I started doing that for many groups there and then people return home and they tell people, you gotta have this guy. And they contact me, so I was doing a lot of back and forth.
TD: Do you think that the Jewish perspective has been missing in theatre?
YC: I think the Jewish religious perspective has been missing in the theatre. Jews are well represented in theatre. You have Neil Simon who has made a good living from it. That’s part of the battle that I face, getting the religious folks out to see the play because they think that we should be studying the Torah, we should be living it and that theatre is a dalliance.
TD: Do you think that theatre is apprehensive about tackling religious issues?
TC: When religion is portrayed it’s portrayed as this kind of kooky thing or an “out there” thing. They keep saying that America is a very religious country. Certainly in the liberal communities religion is not taboo, but it’s not cool. I don’t want to make it “cool”, but at least make it something that we can talk about without seeming kooky or crazy. I might seem kooky or crazy by the average person.
TD: Is there any country that you would like to bring Circumcise Me to? Any place that you would not want to go with the production?
YC: I am part of The Israeli Palestinian Tour. We talked about doing a show in Bethlehem, which is really under Palestinian control and we got an email from the owner of the theatre and basically the guy said with Israelis on the bill, I can’t guarantee the security. And I thought, Y’know what? I am not a Russian journalist that is ready to die to show that Putin is this or that. There is nothing that would preclude me unless there was a clear, present danger.
There are places like France, I would go to France. Someone would say to me, don’t go to France with your payis out and your hat on. That’s a decision that I would have to make when I got to France, but if someone wanted to bring me to Paris to do the show, I would say sure. I’m not going to put myself in physical danger to do the show. We did take The Israeli Palestinian Tour to Dublin, I took a day and went to Belfast, last year I was invited to go to Johannesburg and took a day and went to Soweto. I love to perform and engage people in these places.
TD: Your story hits home with the struggles of people, such as the Protestants and Catholics, and apartheid.
YC: What I was struck with when I went to Johannesburg was how integrated they were. There are certainly problems and crime, but it’s mostly economic. Blacks and whites are walking through the mall shopping together, working together. It seems that they have hit on something, that they have found their way past their issues. Belfast was a little more separated. Those are the communities that I like to perform. I feel that we must learn to live in a society, that we must all live together. So where Circumcise Me was not written as a piece to bring peoples together, I think it can speak for those populations or at least can get me into the conversation. Those are places where I love performing the show. If someone wants me to perform it, I will go. The places that are of particular interest to me are the ones where the Catholics and the Protestants live together, where the blacks and the whites of South Africa live together.
TD: Do you find your theatre experience limited? What I mean is that because of your faith, costume changes, hair styles, not performing on Saturday seems challenging in the theatre world. How do you deal with these challenges?
YC: At first it limited me, I turned down work with a commercial agent. And then I went to Jerusalem, was learning a lot in religious environments and once I got married and realized that I was staying there, the desire to do something came back. And that is when I started doing the monologue for classes. What was first initially limiting, then kind of pushed me into this.
When I realized that I couldn’t work on Friday night, that I couldn’t work on Saturday night that both affected what kind of comedian I was going to be and what type of actor I was going to be. I really felt cheated when I lost the commercial jobs. Now I feel like, let’s wait and see what happens. I can’t work on Shabbat. I don’t want to rush out of Shabbat to do a show. It brought me to a place that I would have never known. I would have just shown up for another commercial. It certainly limits me in a certain way, but in opens me up in a completely different direction that I would have never looked at. It is something that works for me.
TD: And you are happy.
YC: Yeah. And satisfied as an artist.