Michael Almaz Topics List

Topics List taken from his Interview with Susan Croft at his home in London, 2010, recorded by Jessica Higgs
Video and audio extracts edited by Jessica Higgs

Background and upbringing
Born in Tel Aviv. Middle class parents
Father a businessman selling goods to army during WW2
Mother emigrated to Palestine in 1912
Eldest daughter, father died and she looked after children for mother
Father born Turkey, middle class background
Father took a boat to Constantinople, worked for a German bank
When war was declared he went to Egypt, Britain declares Egypt a colony
Met Michael Almaz’s mother there and they got married, both ardent Zionists
Move to Tel Aviv a new, modern city
Michael Almaz educated at college in central of Tel Aviv which produced some very fine scientists and writers
Volunteered for British army in May, 1942, didn’t actually have to fight
Politics of arming Israelis due to British concerns of what might happen after the war
At end of war he made arrangements to go to the US to study theatre directing

Theatre beginnings
 Beautiful theatre at college, but they didn’t know what plays to produce there
Many poets and writers around but no playwrights
Plays on traditional themes and stories usually shown on Jewish holidays
Began creating new material to be performed
Starts with improvised pieces and then an adaptation of a Mark Twain farce,
adapted into Hebrew and then modernised
Typed it up and copied it, handed it around to his fellow students,
they rehearsed and gave 3 hugely successful, sell-out performances
In New York he had to find part-time work to support him, and his then wife
He had a student visa so could work, but she couldn’t
Though a non-religious person, attended a Catholic University as it offered the best theatre courses
Waiting in Tel Aviv to travel to US began writing radio plays, did 20 in all for the only radio station in Israel at the time, ‘Voice of Israel’
Found at university that often he knew more professional work than the tutors
Left training early and began writing radio plays in New York.
Saw everything showing in New York at the time such as A Streetcar Named Desire[Tennessee Williams], Death of a Salesman [Arthur Miller]
Would pay for the gods or sometimes get free student tickets
Learnt by watching great actors and great directors

Early work in Tel Aviv
Became interested in small-scale productions.
Translated and produced Waiting for Godot  in Hebrew. First performance was in a Kibbutz in Tel Aviv
On Friday nights after dinner they cleared away the tables and created a theatre space
The Kibbutz gave them free rehearsal space and they would give the first performance free to them
Second performance in a small venue in Tel Aviv.
Formed own company ‘Zeera’ which means arena. First performances were in the round but this in time proved too restrictive so changed to more
traditional proscenium formats
Interested in small, experimental pieces: if he couldn’t find enough would write his own

Judith Malina in New York
Judith Malina and her partner [Julian Beck] were doing very large scale works in New York when he was there: The Living Theatre
Productions were famous
Malina wanted to encourage and involve everyone: you arrived one day asking to put up some posters you’d find yourself in a production the next night
Plays were spectacles with a political, socialist lesson
Almaz not interested in socialism more an anarchist, interested in words

More Early Work in Israel
With his company Zeera did a play about Palestinian refugees called Beyond the Border
Performed in the round. Production choices dictated by the performance space itself
No funding anywhere at that time. Approached one local authority for funding but told he was wasting his time
Produced The Playboy of the Western World [Synge] in Hebrew 2 months after to great acclaim
Survived from Box Office.  Actors had to work part-time to live
Michael Almaz did practically everything except the costumes
Came across early Ionesco plays in English and set about doing a double-bill of The Bald Prima Donna and The Lesson
Description of pieces and their contrast and how they were staged. Well-received
How they achieved change from Winter in act one to Spring in act two in the Waiting for Godot by using the branches in real local trees
Difficulty of getting funding in those days so produced some  musicals to make money
Going to the Lottery to try and get money
Translating and producing a French play called Gingerhead

Working for the BBC
How he came to be employed by Radio Israel then notorious for its intrigues and factionalism
Had produced a play about the first man on the moon; Radio Israel commissioned an adaptation of Jules Verne’s book on same theme
Offered a salaried position to increase the fee he was paid for adaptation
With his manager’s encouragement produced a new play recommended to him. Did some rewrites though thinking it rubbish
Bit like Good Soldier Svejk. Very successful, big money-maker, had to move into a larger Tel Aviv theatre
More big productions. Effect of success

Moving to and working in London c1958
Invited to London to work at the BBC World Service for Israel
Began with an adaptation of play by a Hebrew writer, then a Molière comedy
Various revolutions culminate in the 6 Days War

Plays in London 
First production was Every Number Wins based on Peer Gynt, produced at the Little Theatre Club [Garrick Yard, St Martin’s Lane]
Problems rehearsing in space with interference from Jean Pritchard who ran the venue and produced it
Knew space from a previous visit to London
Lots of small-scale work happening at that time
Difference in his output and others in that he sought to do long runs for financial success
Most fringe works played around 2 weeks. Intimacy began playing for a month but ended up running for twenty years
Set up a company called Café Theatre as it began in a café  where they served cakes and tea with performances
Everything he did was based on ideas
He thought about how to produce plays in a successful way and decided they should run for a long time so that they become well-known
First play was Masoch based on a memoir by Sacher-Masoch’s wife [Wanda]
This was followed by Hunger by Knut Hamsun, political idiot and arch anti-semite, good friend of Goebbels. Play a masterpiece
Then ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore. Production had two naked characters on stage
Pre-Censorship abolition. Theatre had club membership where members joined an hour before the performance
Began in a café, moved to a basement space where there were dancers above, finally to the Bear and Staff pub in Covent Garden

The Rasputin Show, Anarchist and others
The Rasputin Show and the Arts Theatre. Met Noel Greig [from Brighton Combination] and they had discussed doing things together
Worked round the clock in those days. Got up 3.30/4 to prepare for live broadcast to Israeli Radio, followed by getting kids up, and more writing
Had 2 girls from 2nd marriage and a boy with Pam [his wife now]. One girl and boy lived with them. They lived in Covent Garden
The Rasputin Show
a success but not money-wise
It was quite a surreal piece. People despised Rasputin but they were jealous
Play made him a nice man. John Grillo played Rasputin, he and play transferred [from Brighton] to the Arts Theatre
They had live jazz band on stage
Anarchist was on at the Royal Court. Michael Almaz saw himself as an anarchist
Interested in life of Bakunin. By time he had finished the script he had 3 plays
Emma Goldman was an angel, very soft woman. She adored a man called Most – a revolutionary
When she discovered he lied to his followers she attended a meeting one day and whipped him in front of the crowd
He (Almaz) liked to write about real people. When on stage they cease to be real and you can view them in a truthful way
Published scripts: Every Number Wins and some shorts. no big plays

Naftali Yavin
Knew Naftali Yavin  [Israeli director based in UK, worked with Inter-Action]
Was invited by him to a rehearsal of his play in a flat. Pretty chaotic.
Yavin began working with ED Berman who helped make him more
professional in his working methods. Naftali Yavin was doing quite conventional fringe plays
Description of  a series of encounters with Naftali Yavin from when his play was transferring to West End then
up to Edinburgh and about his drug use and eventual death

Artaud Theatre Company, work at Pentameters,Intimacy
Work with fellow Israeli, Mochtal, and his Scottish wife
Work with material on Artaud, calling themselves The Artaud Theatre Company
Artaud a very complicated person so provided good material for a play
They tried to emulate Artaud’s style in the production which was easy to achieve as it is very much there in his writing

A series of operations that left Michael Almaz weak and damaged by over-prescribed painkillers, after his so-called retirement
Approached by an actress who was producing plays at Pentameters [Hampstead pub venue]
who asked to produce some of his plays but when he went to see the work he was deeply shocked by how bad it was
Her complete misreading of how Intimacy should be performed. It’s light, comic, but she turned it into a tragedy
Main production of Intimacy in Covent Garden had nearly 4,000 performances
Stories of the different people who were cast in it over time
Capacity of space was 35. Sometimes no-one in audience but on the whole it did very well
Actors were paid £5 per week

Film version of Every Number Wins. Able to do half an hour of filming in and around Hampstead at a time
The film uses all of the material shot. It was shown at the LSE
Made a number of shorts too. Neil Hornick played Freud, John Grillo, Hitler
Both improvised their performances to camera
Inclusion of a conventional scene in it to show he could do that if required

Chekhov and Almaz’s situation now
Series of operations have left him depleted
Would have liked more energy to continue the Café Theatre
So many short stories that he would have liked to have turned into plays
Chekhov wrote fantastic plays but his short stories  are better
Michael Almaz adapted quite a few
Chekhov has one theme, unhappiness, but there is great variation in how he captures that in his work

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