We’re three floors underground, in the grungy Tel Aviv parking lot bomb shelter that is the working studio of the Tziporela performance ensemble. Here, under the glare of fluorescent bulbs and theatrical lighting rigs, the 9-member ensemble rehearses, trains, collaborates and crafts their unique brand of comedic sketches and satire, aiming to get audiences laughing at life’s little situations.
“We look at life and pick small moments you could not notice or ignore, and we take it and say ‘let’s enlarge this moment, or stretch, or twist it,’” said Efrat Aviv, 31, a founding member of the ensemble. “So the core of every sketch is something everyone can relate to.”
Tziporela, founded in 2005 by nine actors who met in a class at the Tel Aviv Nisan Nativ acting studio, is the main gig and source of income for its participants though most do participate in other projects. Now this independent group is flushed with the success of its first international show, having performed “Tziporela Worldwide” in Milan as part of the Energy from Tel Aviv Festival.
“It was above and beyond our expectations,” said Lotus Etrog, another founding member. “We can’t wait to go back.”
Like any Tziporela performance, the show in Milan didn’t end in the theater. The group went out into the streets and engaged passers-by, telling jokes and talking up the event. They believe in involving the audience personally, and so they also mingle with an audience in the theater before each show.
Contemporary and compelling pieces are Tziporela’s specialty, and the actors’ high levels of mutual trust and communication are evident. While the subject of each piece isn’t always immediately discernible, it’s impossible not to be drawn into the rich creative world the ensemble constructs with their voices, physicality and group dynamic. It’s like a variety show with the intensity of a powerful drama, keeping the emotional intensity while continuing to explore humor and comedy.
Each piece starts with an idea, sometimes from a single person, but the development is done all together, Etrog explained. In a large rehearsal, one actor might be assigned to manage the sketch, but anyone can make suggestions or corrections.
“It becomes a method. We call it ‘group creativity’ but it started just with us trying to get into our rehearsal room and try to communicate and try to understand how the rehearsal is going to happen,” Aviv said. “So we practice what we teach; we just work together.”
The supportive and productive atmosphere is tangible; there are no big egos or diva attitudes getting in the way. All of the artists strive for the same goal, laughing and enjoying themselves while they create as a group. That said, the creative process is not without some challenges. The group does have differing opinions at times, Aviv acknowledged. Especially when creating a new show, the group has to review all of the material they’ve created and choose what to put in. They discuss it together, and vote on the pieces they want for the final version of the piece.
Anyone within the ensemble can play any character.
“You don’t have a typecast; we encourage that, we think that the actor has to do everything, every character, every physical skill,” Etrog said.
On this particular Monday afternoon, while the indoor space is being used by three ensemble members, four other actors head to the bomb shelter entrance, a dimly lit, narrow hallway, where they continue to rehearse, undaunted by the less-than-stellar conditions.
The four actors, all women, were working on a scene from “Tziporela Worldwide.” The scene is inspired by “a girls’ talk show about nothing,” said Aviv, and explorations of the rhythms of ‘scratch’ music (a DJ technique commonly associated with hip-hop music), with physical movement mirroring the backward and forward skips. The four women tell a story through movement, using abrupt pauses and seemingly disjointed words that form sentences when combined.
“Tziporela Worldwide,” the international show, was crafted with an eye to retaining some Israeli references while keeping an international appeal that refrained from catering to a specific country. Some sketches were translated from existing material in Hebrew, but they group also created a lot of new work specifically for the international show.
“It’s different because it has no Hebrew at all,” Aviv said. “You have to open your senses and overcome that you can’t use your native language but use a new language, or use your body.”
Etrog amended, “We have one sketch in Hebrew, but it’s a parody on translating Hebrew.”
“You also don’t want to remove your identity, speak in perfect English and have them say ‘they must be Americans,’” Aviv said.
The group has three shows that they perform regularly in Israel, two in Hebrew plus “Tziporela Worldwide,” which is performed about once a month for tourist groups visiting Israel. They also run workshops for non-actors to get a taste of group creativity and collaboration. Each workshop can be a single event, lasting one hour or three days, or as a recurring weekly or monthly workshop in a school environment. Among the material explored during the Tziporela workshops are clowning and movement techniques, as well as group compositions.
“It’s hard to make culture in Israel. We struggle, we do a lot of things with minimum resources,” said Etrog. “I think it’s a minus and a plus. It makes us very creative.”
The actors don’t receive any municipal or government funding, and it’s clear that budgets are tight.
Earlier this year, Tziporela was selected as one of 20 start-ups by the 8200 Entrepreneurship and Innovation Support Program (EISP), an Israeli start-up incubator founded by alumni of the renowned 8200 army intelligence unit. They were the first theater-group start-up selected by the project and performed a pitch to a room of over 300 investors after seven months of training in the incubator. As of now, they’re still waiting to hear from investors, but it’s clear — or at least they hope — that they’re on to something.
With these kinds of recent successes, they’ve also got dreams. Etrog and Aviv often discuss plans to one day have their own theater in Israel, as well as ambitions for an off-Broadway run in New York.
In the meantime, their new season in Tel Aviv opens Monday, and it’s back to rehearsal in the bomb shelter.
Upcoming performances of “Tziporela Worldwide” are on December 22 and 28 at 9 pm, Tzavta Theater, 30 Ibn Gvirol Street, Tel Aviv. Tickets available at http://tziporela.e-tickets.co.il/