Sunday, May 6, 2012

First-Person: Itai Erdal on How to Disappear Completely

Mother and Me
Exploring life through theatre
by Itai Erdal (production photos by Emily Cooper)
Twelve years ago, I was going to be a documentary filmmaker. I became a theatre lighting designer instead. I never planned to be a designer, it kind of happened by accident. I was a good lighting technician in Israel but I was happy to leave theatre behind to pursue my dreams in film, and when I moved to Vancouver in 1999 it was its booming film industry that attracted me. I worked as a lamp operator in big union movies (Halloween 8, Air Bud 4, etc.), and at the same time I tried to be an independent and documentary filmmaker. I bought a video camera and I tried to start a business of shooting EPK’s (electronic press kits, or the behind the scenes). It was around that time that I received a phone call from Israel telling me that my mother had lung cancer and nine months to live. 
I was very close to my mother so naturally I wanted to fly back home and be with her as much as I could. She was a nurse for many years and knew hospitals very well and was determined not to die in one. Both my sister and my mother’s husband had regular jobs they had to maintain and I was a freelance worker with no real agenda and I was on the other side of the world, so when my mother asked me if I would take care of her at home, I was happy to oblige. I flew back to Jerusalem and became my mother’s caregiver for most of the last nine months of her life. I brought my video camera with me, trying to capture a bit of my mom before she left this world. It was her idea to make a documentary. She even named it: Towards my Mother’s Death (which sounds much better in Hebrew) – she said that was her contribution to my future profession. The rest of the family wasn’t as keen about having a video camera filming them all the time but they had to respect my mother’s wishes. 
The first month or two were a lot of fun. We would sit on the patio and play backgammon for hours, we saw many movies and went for long walks in the old streets of Jerusalem. My mother taught me how to cook many of my favorite dishes and we spent many hours with friends who would come to say their goodbyes. This wasn’t always easy.  There was much emotion from all sides but my mother was very stoic about her death and remained very strong. In fact, throughout the whole process she would mostly console all the people around her. When I asked her about dying she said, ‘Death itself doesn’t occupy me, it’s part of life. It’s true, it could’ve happened in ten or twenty years from now, but it’s not as if I haven’t lived my life – I’ve lived very intensely.’ She said ‘This is not a tragedy. It would’ve been a tragedy if it were the other way around, if I had to bury you. What will happen here might be a little premature – but it’s the natural progression of things.’ She said ‘I would like to throw a big party to say goodbye to all of my friends and family and then commit suicide, like Socrates did.’
But she didn’t. She died at home at the age of 57, exactly nine months after she was diagnosed. I was alone in the room with her, I was sitting on the bed and I held her in my arms. I could feel her pulse getting further and further away until it was nothing but a memory. I am not a religious person, I am not even spiritual, but I swear I felt her soul leave her body. Maybe it was just the physical effect of the stiffening of the body and the swelling of the face that goes away…who knows. 
After the funeral I flew back to Vancouver and immediately tried to make the documentary, but it wasn’t easy. A lot of the stuff I shot was too painful to watch -hours and hours of footage of my mom getting sicker and sicker. It was too much and I decided to put it away for a while and try again in a few years. I also had more pressing issues: there was a writer’s strike in L.A. that affected me directly. Film work was scarce and I was having a hard time paying the rent. On top of that I had just broken up with my girlfriend of 8 years who went back to Israel, so I was unemployed, alone on the other side of the world without the two most dominant women in my life and about a thousand dollars to my name.  I decided to go back to theatre and started looking for work as a lighting technician. I got some interviews pretty quickly and felt like I made a good impression but all the theatres had long lists of technicians and I was at the bottom of the list – it would take months before they would get to me. I was about to give up and one day I went to work on a construction site in North Van – I moved big piles of gravel from one side of the street to the other using a shovel and a wheel barrel. I was happy to have that job but I made 8 bucks an hour and I thought my hands would fall off. I went and cashed my $52 cheque and when I got home there was a message from Studio 58 – the acting school in Vancouver. Someone had cancelled on them two weeks before the hang and they were desperately looking for a lighting designer. One of the people who I had interviewed with passed my name along and I had myself a job.
There is no lighting design instructor at Studio 58 so part of my job description was to teach my lighting crew about lighting design. I knew theatre and I knew lighting but being a new immigrant I did not know the names or the terminology of things in English so I borrowed some books from the library and I would read them the night before I had to teach and memorize them. I worked hard on that first show (The Hotel Play by Wallace Shawn - who has since become one of my favorite writers) but I thought I was being very conservative; I was too scared to make any bold choices. My director didn’t see it that way and he kept telling me how great my lighting was. His name was James Fagan Tait and he was an actor whose directing career was just starting to take off. We became friends and in the next few years Jimmy hired me for every show he did. 
I quickly realized that I loved theatre a lot more than film and I never went back when the strike was over. I was making half the money I made in film but I was having a great time and making many new friends. Film is all about money so people often treat each other poorly, in theatre there is no money so people do it because they love it, which makes for a much more pleasant working environment. If you add to that the fact that there are about 50-70 people on a film set but only three or four of them have any creative input while almost every one of the 20-30 people in the theatre do something creative and the fact that there is so much bad TV and film around while in theatre it’s closer to 50/50 – it was a no brainer. I would much rather be poor and happy than rich and stressed out so I moved to theatre and never looked back.
It took me a while to realize that I was good at lighting design. In the first couple of years I felt like a teenager who had taken over the theatre and I would wait for someone to come in and expose me as an imposter. Once I got into the groove I started taking more risks artistically. I didn’t know how things were supposed to happen so I just played and played until I found my own style. Not going to school hurt me in some instances as I have some holes in my education but it was also very refreshing for everyone I worked with and sometimes worked to my advantage. Theatre has been good to me because it has allowed me to grow as an artist. I made more and more bold choices with colour and patterns and timing, and it paid off – I got a reputation as someone who does abstract well and as a result I got hired more in dance and in theatre shows that allowed me to express myself. 
Sometimes I would show my friends the films I used to make or some of the footage I had from Israel, but I never had any regrets about moving from film to theatre. When my friend James Long,  Co-Artistic Director of Theatre Replacement asked me if he could use some of my footage for a workshop, I was happy to co-operate. It was a workshop called Spark which had 12 different artists from different disciplines working for two weeks on short performance pieces about one theme. James asked me to come and talk to the 12 artists and tell them about how my mother died and show them some of the footage. Because it was all in Hebrew I had to translate it simultaneously but I was also commenting about it so the result looked like I was interacting with my dead mother. I was surprised by the reaction people had to that evening, and that’s when the idea to create a theatre show using the footage first came up. 
It took about five years before that idea became How to Disappear Completely – it’s not easy to create a theatre piece from scratch and it took a lot of time, money and effort to make it happen. The Chop Theatre produced the show and the process of sitting in a room with James Long, Anita Rochon and Emelia Symington-Fedy and creating this show was the most exciting and intense thing I have ever done. It was a classic case of the sum being greater than the parts – we are all talented individuals and when we focus our efforts together we can create something magical and that is the beauty of theatre in my mind. Performing this show has been an amazing experience for me. You would think that reliving the toughest event of your life on stage every night would be a daunting task – the fact is that it is a joyous experience. My mother was a passionate woman who loved life and her personality shines through in this production. When my mother was alive I always knew I had the cool mom, and if I brought friends home I knew they would love my mother. Twelve years after she died I continue to bring new friends over, and they still love my mother. 
Having the footage and using it this way has been like a gift for me, every time I do the show I feel like I get to spend a little more time with my mother. I am not an actor but I am a good storyteller fit with a unique tale to tell.  There’s a bit in the footage where my mom turns the camera on me and asks me about how I see my life in the future – this is a rare opportunity for self-reflection – one that I truly cherish. 
Naturally, lighting is a major motif in the show. I run the lights in the first half of the show from the stage and I talk about lighting design a lot. I am very passionate about lighting and being a lighting designer who is now acting it made sense that this would be our way into the story. We found out that Lighting is a great metaphor for many things. I wrote “an ode to a par can” which was going to be a technical speech about how certain lighst become warmer as they dim and it turned out to be a lesson in how to disappear completely. 
The reactions to the show have been overwhelming. Every night there was a line up of people after show waiting to talk to me about loved ones who died or about their experiences with cancer. I received emails from audience members who say that the show has helped them deal with their own grief.  I realized that the show is bigger than me or my mom or The Chop Theatre – it’s an entity of its own. In Israel – every time the national team wins a sports event people sing about King David, that he is alive and well. And in a way he is – because people sing about him 3000 years after he died. My mother has been gone for 12 years but she is still alive because every person who came to see How to Disappear Completely carried a bit of her with them when they went home at the end of the night. As long as she is remembered, she will never disappear. This is the gift that my mother gave me, that theatre has given me, and for that I am very grateful.


  1. What a wonderful thing to do; It makes me want to spend time with his mother as well. If only everyone died as gracefully as she did. I certainly want to see the show or film or whatever one calls such an experience.


  2. Very inspirational story. Thank you for sharing it, and taking it to the stage. I hope I can see it someday... (missed it in Vancouver)


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