Yehuda Hyman’s Mad 7
October 9, 2011 § 1 Comment
The Mad 7 – A Mystical Comedy with Ecstatic Dance is a modern-day riff on a 19th century Hasidic tale. Playwright, actor and choreographer Yehuda Hyman tells the epic tale of Elliott Green, San Francisco office drone turned reluctant hero who embarks on a strange and mystical quest. In a virtuosic performance, Hyman uses music and dance as he becomes the many characters of this playful, off-beat and moving story of spirituality and self-discovery. Inspired by Rabbi Nachman of Breslov’s “The Seven Beggars,” The Mad 7 is a wild tour of the mysteries of the universe and the ecstasy of the soul. The show ran at last year’s New York International Fringe Festival playing to sold-out houses and rave reviews. Here, he discusses how he found his way to, and inside, his material.
Tell us a little about your background. Where were your first forays into theatre, music and dance? Where’d you first encounter the Hasidic storytelling tradition, or, for that matter, Judaic mysticism?
I was born in Los Angeles. My father was a Polish Jew who came to America just before the Holocaust. He lost his whole family. My mother was born in the Caucasus Mountains of Russia and her family had to leave because of the Russian Revolution. She grew up in Istanbul, then came to the U.S. and met my father here. Growing up, my mother danced my brother and sister and me around the house and my father once taught me a Hasidic dance – so dancing and music was there from the start – also language, as my parents spoke to each other in Yiddish. My first time on stage was when I played King Ahashuerus in the Purim play at my synagogue at age 12. I was hooked. From then on, it was always theatre. I’ve had several chapters in my theatrical career – starting as a classically trained dancer who went on to work on Broadway and in film – an actor, then, a choreographer, alternating between concert work and commercial work, then focusing on playwriting. Now I feel like I’m putting everything together.
I first heard of Hasidism when I learned that beautiful little dance from my father (he was not a Hasid but he had clear memories of them in his town of Ratno, Poland). I can’t pinpoint when I first heard a Hasidic tale – but I know that even as a child I loved them – these fantastical tales that fired me up. Things really came into focus when I took my first trip to Israel in 1992. I wound up in the town of Tsfat in the North – home to the Kabbalists who escaped from Spain in the 15th Century. It was there that I met Rabbi Noach Chefetz – a Breslover Hasid. He told me that I needed to dance and then he gave me an orange – and that’s how I entered the world of Rabbi Nachman’s “7 Beggars.”
For readers who may not be familiar, who was Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, and what are his thirteen fables about? What drew you to adapt “The Seven Beggars” in particular?
Rabbi Nachman was the great-grandson of The Baal Shem Tov – the Rabbi who founded Hasidism. He was born in the 18th Century and died in 1810 at the age of 38 from tuberculosis. One of the unique things about him–and there are many–is that his followers never had another living Rebbe but the Breslover sect continues to bloom and grow. Each year, over 20,000 of his followers make a pilgrimage to his gravesite in Uman, Ukraine to “pray with him” for Rosh Hashanah. I went in 2000. It was a difficult experience in some ways but tremendously inspiring. I definitely could feel his spirit -which is a very poetic and beautiful spirit. During the last years of his life, he felt that the Jews were in a spiritual depression – he likened this to being asleep. He felt that by telling them stories, he could wake them up.
His stories are all disguised parables and Kabbalastic teachings. But he felt that it was very important to present them as little stories – which is why they appeal to people of all ages, children are very taken by them. He told 13 stories – he never wrote them down – they were written down later by his scribe, Nosson. “The 7 Beggars” which forms the basis of my play, “The Mad 7” was the last story he told. It is an intricate tale that begins with a dying king who wants to pass his kingdom on to his son – but the son is too depressed to receive it. So the king tells his son a story. Then we meet an orphan boy and girl who encounter 7 beggars in the woods – each with a disability (blind, deaf, stuttering. etc.). Each beggar later returns and tells an amazing tale to the orphan boy and girl. Rabbi Nachman told this story over the last 3 weeks of his life. He did not complete it. A few days before his death, he said that the end of the story could not be revealed until the Messiah came. Well, that in itself would have been enough to intrigue me! When I first encountered The 7 Beggars, I was moved, fascinated, mystified and energized to try and find a way to dramatize them. It has been an 18-year “collaboration” – going deeper and deeper into The 7 Beggars and a very slow process. I’m still working on it!
What were some of the challenges you faced in translating–literally and metaphorically–these stories for a modern and often secular audience? Has there been any reaction to your work by scholars of the source material? What about modern Jewish scholars?
The biggest challenge was trying to tell all of the 7 Beggars tales within the context of one evening – each tale could be an evening in itself. The other challenge has been finding the balance between Nachman’s tale and my tale of Elliott Green, the main character of the play, a contemporary man who encounters the “Beggars.” With the help of my wonderful director and collaborator, Mara Isaacs, we have searched for every way to make this story accessible to a modern audience, always going for the simplest, clearest way to tell the story. From the reaction of the audiences on this last tour (I just came from a tour of the West Coast and the Midwest), I feel that they are truly with it and that makes me so happy. The cultural and religious make-up of the audience has been very mixed – from religious Jews to secular Jews to non-Jews. I did one performance for students at a Catholic High School in New Jersey and they really got it. I haven’t heard from any “scholars of the source material.” I would love to. There have certainly been many Rabbis and Jewish educators who have come to see the show and as far as I know their reactions have been positive (but than again, if they hated it they probably wouldn’t come backstage and tell me!). I’ve just been asked by a Professor in Austin, Texas for permission to include THE MAD 7 in her syllabus on Jewish contemporary performance. That’s cool!
How will your performance differ, if at all, done on our tiny basement stage, versus say the more capacious theatre you’ve been home at in Princeton? What’s it like performing in close quarters with your audience?
This week (before the show) – I am making adjustments to the show to fit into the tiny space (of which 1/4 is taken up by a grand piano!). Rather than fighting it, I’m making friends with it – you know, an obstacle is always a great inspirer to making something new out of what you have. So I’ll be finding every little wedge of real estate on that postage stamp stage and using it. I love performing in close quarters and I am really excited about being right there together with the audience at Cornelia. I’m really a closet cabaret entertainer at heart.
“The Mad 7” will be performed Monday, October 10th at 6pm. Reservations at 212/989-9319, or http://www.corneliastreetcafe.com