When Mothers Break Down Walls, an Interview With Niv Petel

Interviews, Lead Article

By Pat McAndrew, Editor-in-Chief, All About Solo
 
Niv Petel has worked in theatre, TV and voiceovers, He won the award for Best Actor in Theatre for Youth and Children in 2014 for his role in the one‑man show “Snowball.” His theatre credits in Israel include “Much Ado About Nothing,” “The Comedy Of Errors,” “Company” (Beer Sheva Theatre), “Mother Of Him” (Beit Lessin Theatre). Niv is the Israeli voice of Hiccup in “How To Train Your Dragon,” among many others, and just recently recorded the Israeli voice of Michael Banks in Disney’s “Mary Poppins Returns.” Niv graduated from Mountview Academy of Theatre Arts, London, in 2015; his credits in the UK include “NotMoses” (Arts Theatre), “Red Riding Hood” (Hoxton Hall), and “La Strada” (UK tour and West End season). Niv recently worked as an Assistant Director for a new one‑man show at the Cameri Theatre in Tel Aviv. All About Solo caught up with Niv to learn about his solo piece, “KNOCK KNOCK,” which which will be performed at the 2018 United Solo Theatre Festival on November 12.
 
Pat McAndrew: How did you end up discovering theater and, more specifically, solo performance?
Niv Petel: Ever since I remember myself, I have loved putting costumes on, and making the costumes myself (I come from a family of Jewish tailors originating in Iraq), portraying characters and delving into my imagination. My first time on a professional stage was when I was about 14. Iv joined the youth theatre group in Rishon Le Zion, Israel where I grew up and played a manipulative Rabbi in a parodic adaptation of Moliere’s “Tartuffe.” I discovered the world of solo performance during my second year of acting training in Tel‑Aviv (at the Performing Arts Studio of Yoram Loewenstein), where we participated in monologues competitions. I fell in love with the idea of creating a whole imaginary universe on stage, and establishing an intimate connection with the audience. Later on, as a graduate, I said “Yes” to an offer to play in a full length one person show, in which I had to portray 15 different characters, and for which I won the Best Actor Award in Theatre For The Youth, in Israel in 2014. There’s a cathartic and somewhat addictive feeling to being a solo‑performer. Firstly, you are alone on stage: Terrifying!!! If you make a mistake, there’s no one else on stage to come to for help, and once you stepped on stage, there’s no turning back until the end of the show. On the other hand, you are alone on stage. You’ve got the whole stage to yourself to play on. You surprise yourself. You act on and react to yourself (or an imaginary partner, the audience, or all three, depending on the theatrical approach that was chosen for the show). It’s like going on a crazy ride at the funfair – you leave the earth for the ride, and before you know it, it’s over and you’re back.
 
What inspired you to create “KNOCK KNOCK”?
When I was doing my MA in Performance in London (Mountview Academy), we were asked to choose a research topic for our dissertations. I chose research: How To Create Your Own Solo Performance. I’ve always wanted to write a full length piece, I loved performing solo, and I needed to generate future job opportunities for myself, for when I graduated (in a foreign country, where no one knew me). It just seemed to tick all the boxes. I was looking for material to write about, when a friend of mine told me about the guy she has dated. It didn’t work out, and I mocked her on the phone by pretending to be this guy’s mother! This character was so effective that I continued improvising and accumulating little monologues of this mother, about her completely invented life story. One day, while improvising over the phone to my friend, I realized I was saying a eulogy to my son who died in battle. It left me very emotional, and that was the moment I knew this story had earned the right to become a play.
 
It’s incredible how we create our stories! How would you say “KNOCK KNOCK” is important for today’s audience?
When I left Israel for the MA program in London, in September 2014, it was shortly after another deadly round between HAMAS and Israel in and around the Gaza Strip. Red alerts, missiles, explosions above our houses, soldiers, tanks, casualties and many crying mothers at funerals on both sides. There was one story on the news that had left ripples in my gut: the heartbreaking funeral of a young soldier whose mother had been a high ranked Officer of Casualty Notifications in the IDF. She recorded her last phone conversation with her son just before he entered the Gaza Strip, never to return, and she put it on for everyone to listen to at his funeral. People often seem to build a wall in their minds between the war‑zone and everyday‑life zone. Perhaps as protection, to keep sane, while living in a place where the army is inextricably intertwined with life. This mother, in my opinion, broke down that wall for a few moments, to remind us that every soldier is also the son or the daughter of a loving and worried parent. And the loss is as painful and endless, no matter which force this soldier is fighting for, and where on our planet this occurs.
 
What would you say is your favorite part about this show?
I am surprised and amazed, every single time I perform it, to discover how with only a few props, on an almost empty stage, the audience gets to see a mother, her son, and many more characters. They visit my home, come with me to a sunny beach, join me to visit darker places, taste the food I’m cooking, smell what I smell, hear what I hear, laugh and maybe cry. With no costumes or effects‑ only them and myself.
 
What were some challenges that you faced in developing your solo piece?
As part of my MA research, when creating the show, I limited myself to using my body and voice solely, with a very minimalist set. It raised many obstacles in telling the story, but, at the same time, summoned creativity and innovation that forged and enriched the theatrical language of the piece. Like multiple usages of the same prop in different connotations, bringing other characters to life, or changing locations and moving between dimensions. The imagination is a powerful tool, and I challenged myself to find the right triggers and stimulations for the audience to complete the missing bits of the picture in their minds, and join me on this journey. I also put a lot of effort into avoiding politics in the play, and focusing on the humane aspects of the story, in order to make it as universal as possible. Coming from Israel and dealing with the Israeli‑Palestinian conflict, even indirectly, could have cast a shadow over the clarity of the story I wanted to tell and the effect I wanted to have. After all, it is a story about parenthood more than anything else, and there’s nothing more universal than the eternal bond between mothers and children. I think it was done successfully, given the reactions I get from the diverse audiences I meet. People from Scotland, Spain, Japan, Hong Kong, Australia, and Iran, who came to watch the show all found their connection with it.
 
How does “KNOCK KNOCK” speak to other work you have done?
In every role I play, I always look for the physicality of the character first. It’s one of my main and most effective tools as an actor. In “KNOCK KNOCK,” the physicality is very dominant, to the extent of that in some scenes there’s nothing but movement.
 
What do you hope the audience walks away with after seeing this piece?
I hope that, thanks to my piece, “KNOCK KNOCK,” people can see beyond the politics and the bloody headlines on the news, and simply meet us.
 
KNOCK KNOCK
Written and Performed by Niv Petel
Artistic Advisor & Co-Director: Maia Levy
Original Lighting Designer: Oliver Bush
Photo credit: David Yiu
United Solo 2018
Theatre Row
410 West 42nd Street
New York City
 
Author: Pat McAndrew, Editor-in-Chief, All About Solo

Pat McAndrew is a NYC-based actor, writer, and consultant. As an actor, he has performed Off-Broadway, Off-Off Broadway, and in various locations throughout New York City, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. His one-man show, REEL, was performed in the 2017 United Solo Theatre Festival and featured in the new documentary, Electronic Crack. Using his background as an actor as his foundation, Pat consults with individuals and organizations on how to communicate effectively and build deep, meaningful relationships in the digital age. He is the Founder of The Low Tech Trek, an organization devoted to discovering a better balance between human interaction and how we use technology. He is a member of Village Playback Theatre, Endless River Arts, and Svaha Theatre Collective. Pat holds an MA in Theatre from Villanova University. Check out patmcandrew.com for more information.

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