By Max Mehran
The Segal Centre for Performing Arts presents The Chop Theatre’s award-winning production of How to Disappear Completely from April 30th to May 21st at the Segal Studio. QDF had the pleasure to meet with the co-writer and performer in the show, internationally-known lighting designer Itai Erdal. In this emotionally charged interview, Itai answers our questions with sincerity and humour. While the play deals with the passing of Itai’s mother through the beauty and metaphoric use of lighting designs, it is an affirming ode to a mother’s life.
I want to know why he decided to tell this story in the first place. “I thought my mother was really great, and I miss her,” he says sincerely. Even as a teenager, he knew his mother was the ‘cool mom’, and the show helps keep her alive. Someone mentioned to him that he should have called the show How Not to Disappear Completely because “as long as I do the show, my mother doesn’t disappear,” he says. “It helps me keep in touch with my mother and I am proud of her, her personality really shines through the show. She said some profound things and I want everybody to know how great she was.” He also tells me that every time after he finishes a presentation, a line up of people are waiting to talk to him with tears in their eyes. He heard stories of people’s loved ones who passed away, about finding love, about working in palliative care and how the show touched them. “I hear wonderful stories, and every time I meet someone who was touched by the show, I tell them ‘I did the show for you.’” He discusses how the topic of dying and cancer is very taboo and difficult subject that is often not addressed on stage, but he reminds me that How to Disappear Completely, while dealing with these themes, is not a depressing show, but quite funny. “My mother was a hedonist, she enjoyed life and it would be a sin to make a depressing show about her,” he emphasizes. “A lot of people say it’s a life affirming show,” he continues, “so it’s a way into a topic that is very difficult to make way in any other way, and I really believe that it is really good to feel things.”
It all started in the year 2000 when Itai received a phone call from Israel telling him the difficult news that his mother was diagnosed with cancer and only had 9 months left to live. Itai was in film school at the time, and decided to fly back to Israel to spend every minute she had left by her side. Being a filmmaker compelled him to bring his video camera on the plane, and his first idea was to use his filmmaking skills freshly learned in school to interview his mother and capture her talking about childhood stories and recipes amongst other things. She suggested that he should do a documentary film that he could call “Towards My Mother’s Death”, which he agreed to work on. Itai became the main caregiver for the last months of her life, filming as his mother was passing in the comfort of her own home. Some people did ask him how he could have filmed some of the very difficult passages, but, as he says, “it was my way of dealing with the situation, of coping by trying to make something creative and beautiful out of a difficult situation.”
After she passed, he flew back to Vancouver and made a trailer of the documentary hoping to attract the interest of producers, but for various personal reasons, he ended up not making the film. A few years later, Itai found himself working in theatre and this is when he decided to use the footage of the passing of his mother and create a theatre piece. Not being an actor but already a successful lighting designer, he and his creative team came up with the idea of doing a lighting demonstration. Teaching about the technicalities of lighting designs and talking about this art form is one of Itai’s passions. Therefore, creating this piece around lights was an easy task for the performer. His team and himself workshopped the piece and presented it in various places. The audience responded well to the work, and he explains that “lighting suddenly became a metaphor for many things about my mother’s life that I would have never imagined possible.” He tells us that the show “became something between a lecture about lighting and telling stories about my mother while covering many aspects of my life.” A real catharsis, the show was premiered in Vancouver in 2010 and was a critically acclaimed success.
Itai and his team started pitching the show and selling it internationally. How to Disappear Completely went through 23 remounts and was presented over 250 times in many cities in the United Kingdom, the United States, and Canada. Itai remembers when his mother was telling him how filming the footage “was her contribution to my future.” He adds, “if only she could have known how much she contributed because this show changed my life, made me start my own theatre company, made me create more shows since, made me realize that I can perform and opened me up to another direction in the creative arts.” While Itai still is a professional lighting designer, he has the freedom to develop his creative skills and create more work for himself and his company.
When asked if along the years performing the show if he could recall major changes it underwent, he stops for a second and tells me, “the show hasn’t changed much, but what changed is that I am much more relaxed as a performer.” Itai, while not being a trained actor, became more and more comfortable being himself on stage, being real. “I realized something about acting,” he points out, “the more that I do, the less the audience feels and the less I do, the more they feel.”
Itai was trained in film which piqued my curiosity about the bridge from film to theatre and what motivated this passage. He reveals that he worked in theatre before even starting working on film. He started as a teenager working on the technical side for a puppet show in Jerusalem, doing just lights. As he accepted more and more work on the lighting design side, he quickly picked up on the responsibilities and creative aspect of this work by looking at good designers’ work. “I’ve never went to school for lighting design, I am completely self-taught,” he confesses. However, he always knew he was a storyteller and felt comfortable about speaking in public, so transitioning to the stage wasn’t difficult. He became more and more excited about working in the theatre industry and he found his passion in the lights and through his work, became a well established lighting designer. He was particularly fascinated by how lighting can affect the mood of a scene in a very subliminal way and evoke a certain emotion to an audience member. “I think once I started realizing that,” he says, “I loved the subtle ways I could influence a piece and sometimes without the audience noticing it.” Itai is obviously very passionate about lighting designs, and he conveys that passion through his work and discourse. The transition between film and theatre was, therefore, not difficult, and he even adds that How to Disappear Completely being a verbatim theatre piece resembles documentary filmmaking. “It’s not that different,” he explains.
I asked Itai, why does he continue touring the show and sharing his story with audience members, and he tells me without an ounce of hesitation that “it’s because it is the most exciting and rewarding thing I have done in my life and because I don’t think there is anything else I would rather do.” The show has universal themes and every audience member can connect with the story because we all have or had a mother. “I think you can expect to see nothing you’ve ever seen before” he confidently states.
Itai will be very busy once his show closes as he will be traveling to Stratford, Ontario and Florida to work on productions as a lighting designer before flying back to Vancouver to work on original works produced by his own theatre company, The Elbow. You can follow more of his future works on www.theelbow.ca. QDF thanks Itai for his sincere answers and for sharing his stories with us. You can find out more about the show and ticket information by following the link.