Twenty years ago, Benny Ravid, a stuttering software engineer who works for a large defense-related industry, climbed up on a stage and gave the speech of his life. There were 400 people in the audience. His remarks — “I loved it, I loved it, I loved it,” a total of three words in Hebrew — took 20 minutes to deliver.
“I came off that stage and I was not the same Benny Ravid,” he said recently.
His realization, that he had been avoiding public speech because of his stutter and his stutter was being aggravated by the avoidance, led to the founding of the Israel Stuttering Association — a support and advocacy group that he chairs.
Now it has produced a theater troupe.
In mid-June, as part of Jerusalem’s Tzamid festival of the arts for the disabled, Ravid and four other stutterers, along with a speech therapist who filled in as the female role, put on their first play — an event marred by religious tension and marked by immense personal bravery.
Stuttering starts early in life and is quite common. Some 20 percent of toddlers stammer. Only 5 percent of them continue to do so for longer than six months and only one percent of them continue to stutter into adulthood. Of those, men outnumber women 4 to 1. Research remains inconclusive as to why. Most stutterers, some 60 percent, have a family member who stutters. But what they all share, during their formative years and often deep into adulthood, is an intense desire to closet their impediment. According to Ravid, the average stutterer will go to extraordinary lengths to avoid revealing publicly that he stutters, forgoing job opportunities and frequently marrying late in life if at all.
“I lived in fear of opening my mouth in school,” said Shuky Fridman, an electrical technician from Ramat Gan and an actor in the play. “I would not want to talk on the phone. I refused to go into a store to ask for something. I lived in fear of having to say my telephone number” — because, like the lines of a play, it is scripted and there is no way around it.
Fridman started to stutter at age 12. He remembers exactly when it began, during a rough period at home, and the more his peers laughed at him, the worse the stutter became. Eventually, when he knew he would be called on to speak, he would find himself spiraling toward a panic attack, unable to coax the words off his tongue.
Like Ravid, who is 64, he has forced himself through several trials by fire, each dampening his fear.
Last year, several members of the Israel Stutterers Association put on a stage performance in which they spoke of their own ordeals as stutterers. It was more therapy than theater. Fridman, 49, watched from the side, riveted by their courage, but afraid to take the plunge. Instead, he handled the lighting and sound for the performance.
As a child, though, he had been active in a drama club before the onset of his stutter and he felt that getting on stage was the only way to come full circle. “It took me 35 years to be able to say that it doesn’t bother me. That I don’t care,” Fridman said.
In January, the group of amateur actors – including an officer in the IDF’s Ordinance Corps, a retired phone company employee and a high-tech worker – asked actor and director Adi Aisenman if he would help them put on a play.
Aisenman, who has directed plays for Habimah and the Cameri, thought the project was fascinating and immediately agreed.
“One thing we were all clear on from the beginning was that we weren’t doing research or therapy. We were going to put on a show,” Aisenman said.
They experimented with a variety of material and eventually settled on a medley: one skit from the classic Israeli comedy trio HaGashash HaChiver, one skit from Eretz Nehederet, one skit of their own devising, and one ballad and three scenes from the plays of the great Israeli playwright Hanoch Levin.
“As soon as we started reading Levin I knew it was right,” Aisenman said. “The suffering characters, the difficulties they face, it fit like a hand in glove.”
As curtain time drew near, and the anxiety mounted, several of the actors dropped out. The troupe was left with no female actors and they came to a decision not to cast a man in a female role. Eventually, Michal Stein, a third-year speech therapy student from Tel Aviv University and an amateur actor, took on all of the female roles.
This would prove pivotal to the performance.
On a hot night in mid-June the actors waited in the wings of a community theater in the religious Kiryat Moshe neighborhood of Jerusalem. Fridman described the pre-performance fear as “awful” and said that he felt as though he were stepping into the great unknown, unsure of whether he would be able to speak at all under the warm white lights.
He came onto the stage for the first time in the second scene as a 70-year-old beggar in tattered clothing looking to buy sex on the cheap from a prostitute in Levin’s “The Whore from Ohio.” It was the first Hanoch Levin play he had ever seen and he wanted it to be the first one he acted in.
Although Fridman’s stutter was severe, his head jerking with effort as he tried to push the words forward, his travails enhanced the character. His hardship was no theatric patina but deep and profound and the interplay between Fridman’s character and the prostitute was fascinating.
Many in the audience objected to the subject matter on religious grounds, though, and walked out. The director of the community center stopped the show in mid-performance. Over a microphone, he asked that the actors move on to the next scene.
They looked deflated but consented. Several lines into the next scene, an absurdist dialogue dealing with rectal discomfort, the director of the community center, seeing members of the audience leave, flipped on the lights and once again apologized. The play had to stop.
The actors were stunned. For many long minutes the lights stayed on and people traded opinions across the aisles. Finally, Aisenman — who said later that “no one dreamed that a group of stutterers would put on such a provocative performance” because most people associate physical handicaps with a sort of timidity — announced a solution: the crowd was welcome to return to its seats for a panel with the actors, after which anyone fearing that the content would make them uncomfortable was kindly asked to leave and the actors would then put on the rest of the scenes.
The actors, trying not to focus on the controversy, apologized profusely and spoke of how the theater had changed them for the better. Second Lieutenant Eli Dejurayev, a recent graduate of the IDF’s officer school, said that after his first performance on stage, the previous year, his stuttering had decreased significantly, and he has since assumed a non-combat command position.
“It allowed me to stop fighting it, stop trying to hide it, and to just say to hell with it, and since then my stutter has decreased significantly,” he said.
Then the lights were dimmed and the show went back on stage before a dwindled audience. The performance had been robbed of its rhythm. The end provided less of a crescendo. Aisenman, speaking philosophically about the incident several days later, said that theater is a mirror “and the reflection we saw that night was of a divided society.”
Ravid was remorseful. At no point during the preparation had he considered that the content might prove offensive. He had been entirely engrossed in the challenge, fixated on the fear of performance.
“For some, the fear of the stage can be worse than the fear of death,” Ravid remarked after the fact. An enduring example of such behavior, he suggested, could be found in the Moses story. He witnessed the burning bush that was not consumed. He encountered the voice of God. He saw his staff turned into a snake and back into wood. Yet the future great leader, who said of himself that he was “slow of speech and of a slow tongue” refused, on account of stage fright, a direct order from the Almighty. After some haggling, the Lord, whose anger “was kindled against Moses,” agreed to allow him to take Aaron his brother to speak in his stead.
“That,” said Ravid, several days after the performance, “is very typical behavior for a stutterer.”