Theater Chat: Yael Rasooly

Philadelphia Jewish Voice

Wed Sep 21, 2011 at 09:27:25 AM EDT

By Hannah Lee

I met Yael Rasooly through her creative work, when she performed “Paper Cut” at the Philly Fringe Festival.  In my interview with her, I learned that she’d been given the “Award for Excellence for a Solo Show,” by the New York Fringe Festival, so she was invited for five additional encore performances, before heading to France.  It was reviewed in the New York Times: “one of those artfully quirky solo performances that make the New York International Fringe Festival worth checking out.”  The Philly Fringe Festival advertised it: “A lonely secretary escapes into a world of daydreams where she is a glamorous 1940’s movie star.  Black-and-white cinema is transformed to the universe of paper cut-outs and object theater, creating a tension that is absurb, painful, and humorous.

Courtesy of Yael Rasooly

Staged in a spare, un-air-conditioned space at the multi-purpose Media Bureau Networks in the Northern Liberties neighborhood, “Paper Cut” was delightfully different from mainstream theater, from its creator and solo performer sharpening pencils while waiting for audience members to its mixture of theatrical techniques of puppetry, pop-up books, and film noire mood lighting.   In case you catch the show elsewhere, it is suitable for a general family audience, albeit with a fatal scene with a tea bag.

The show started as a 25-minute piece for the Jerusalem International Puppetry Festival.  She’d met her co-writer, Lior Lerman, while both were students at the School of Visual Arts in Jerusalem.  Rasooly’s strengths were in directing and puppetry while Lerman’s talent was as video artist and graphic designer, and also, “amazing writer.”  After graduation in 2007, Rasooly was working in Europe where she longed to create a big production that would pay homage to film noire and the acclaimed director of suspense and psychological thrillers, Alfred Hitchcock.  She admired the esthetic, the dramatic story lines but she also wanted to focus on the shift from the “sweet and fun” to the dark.  However, there was no funding for big productions and she had no rehearsal studio or workshop.

While researching her dream, she started collecting images and books about the 1930’s movie stars.  Rasooly was trained in classical singing — liturgical music and opera — and later discovered jazz of the early period.  She is “very connected to this time period.”  She then proceeded to make a model of the stage as part of her portfolio.  Around this time, she attended a workshop where the participants were required to stage a show with only one-hour’s preparation.  She had never worked with paper before, but it was a way to work with “dialogue in the language of cinema in a low-tech way.”  She asked herself, “How to do a long shot (a film-making term about placement of a figure or object within its surroundings)?  What are the many abuses for paper?”  The premiere of the full-length version was in Fall of 2010 at the International Adult Puppetry Festival of Pecs, Hungary, but Rasooly is constantly changing it.  “The more I play with it, the more I understand the show” and unexpected things still come out.  The song cycle in which Rasooly showed her vocal gifts was added after several tours when she felt the show “needed a moment of emotional heft, a kick” that would offer a “glimpse into this woman’s [psyche] about the loss she’s coming to terms with.”  Rasooly asked herself, “What happens when fantasy meets with reality?”

“Paper Cut” was created in English and is performed that way, even in Israel.  Rasooly sought out her English-speaking actor friends to record the voices of the other characters not seen on stage.  Her next tour will be in France for the premiere of her show in French (not a native tongue) and she credits her skill in mimicry to her classical music training.

She feared music limiting her, as she is basically a storyteller and she wanted to create her own story.  An early inspiration was Julie Taymor, the American director of theater, opera, and film.  Taymor had gone to Paris to study with L’École Internationale de Théâtre Jacques Lecoq and there became exposed to mime.   Her muse managed to balance “an individual voice but tap into the mainstream.”   Now, when Rasooly is approached by neophytes, as she was at the New York Fringe Festival, she advises them to save their money and go study in Europe, where there is a tradition of puppetry, a multitude of festivals, and funding more plentiful than elsewhere.  Rasooly herself discovered the breadth of puppetry when, at age 19, she spent 10 days at the Festival Mondial des Théâtres de Marionnettes in Charleville-Mézières, France and met the grand masters there.

Outside of Europe, people have a limited view of puppetry.  However, during her stay in Philadelphia, she got to lecture at the University of the Arts and Muhlenberg College in Allentown, PA, courtesy of the energetic promotion of Deborah Baer Mozes, the cultural attaché of the Israeli Consulate, which co-sponsored Rasooly’s local performances along with Theatre Ariel and Media Bureau Networks.  Her audience was “so attentive and so smart.”  When Rasooly asked the students what did they know about puppetry, they were able to cite Avenue Q, Lion King, and War Horse – all Broadway audience pleasers — but one person was also able to name the incredible puppetry scene (in the classic marionette style) from the 1999 film, Being John Malkovich.  Learning about puppetry for the first time is like “discovering modern dance” after knowing only ballet.

Rasooly had also studied theater design in London and she fretted that so many talented artists are never given “the chance to input their own language.”  She despaired that “it would take a miracle to get her own voice.” Puppetry involves working under difficult conditions but the puppeteer is free and independent and Rasooly can travel with her own creations.  Touring the world, she gets to meet many artists and attend many performances.  She herself is most interested in the modern approach in which the puppeteer interacts with the audience and is not confined to the background, dressed in black.

Rasooly claimed she was very fortunate to perform in Philadelphia — “the most beautiful experience” — and she loved the venue, Benjamin Barnett’s multi-storied and multi-functional studio space.  For “Paper Cut,” they transformed the cavernous first floor into an intimate space, more suitable for Rasooly’s solo show.  (Although, she’s also slated to perform before an audience of 200-300 in India next February.)  Writing for herself means “never having to sit by a phone and wait to be casted.”  Performing solo is just fine with Rasooly, who delights in not having to “round up 15 actors for King Lear,”  and she can carry all of her props in one suitcase.

Courtesy of Yael Rasooly

How has being Israeli helped form her artistic self?  Her family had temporarily relocated to Toronto for 3-1/2 years where it was a great shock because she knew no English and the snow was higher than her own self.  But, she was privileged to attend for one year, the Claude Watson School for the Arts, where half the day was spent on academic subjects and the remaining time was free for the creative arts.  When Rasooly’s family returned to Israel, it was another traumatic experience, for she was ten and fluent in English, but unable to read in Hebrew.  For many years, she was the polite Canadian, who did not fit in. This dual reality has remained with her, denying her of a sense of home.  Rasooly has finally come to terms with living in Israel and to even appreciate it, especially once she discovered the School of Visual Theater where she spent four wonderful years.  Israel is where her family and friends are and there is a very vibrant fringe scene there and some amazing creativity.  However, she also realized early on that she cannot survive in Israel financially —  with two standing shows a month, she still only breaks even — so she goes willingly on tours.

Of the four siblings, Rasooly’s sister is also a professional artist; Maya Rasooly lives in Germany where she has a successful career as a violist.  Her elder brother is in business in China and her younger brother is now serving his Army stint.  Both of her parents are physicians who have a talent for art.  Her father, whose rabbinical ancestors lived in Iraq, plays the violin and her mother, also raised secular but of Orthodox descent, is a pianist and a painter.  They encouraged Rasooly to study medicine.  They were afraid of a life in the arts and when Rasooly finished school, she also didn’t know what the future would hold for her.  But, they’d believed in her by investing in her education.  Is her new success reassuring to her family?  A year ago, she started presenting herself with more confidence and that has helped.  After “being worried for a very long time,” she is now booked for a very long time.  She says it’s important not to be swayed by the desire to be successful, that it’s better “to have the pleasure of creation.”


Guilt Multiplied or “Shine on Harvest Moon”

I have a busier social calendar than that of all of my Readers–  except for my new friend, Lindsay, whom I met at the Hazon Food Conference– and it’s not that I have more friends.  It’s because I attempt to juggle three different calendars and yesterday, I overlooked some cultural and familial milestones.

Everyone in the U.S. was observing (or at least was aware of) the 10th anniversary of the willful destruction of the World Trade Towers on Sunday.  Then, what happens the day afterwards?  I forgot that September 12th is my brother’s birthday and the date that my father observes as his American birthday— easier to remember than the 12th day of the 9th month of the Chinese calendar— and it’s also the Harvest Moon Festival.  When I spoke with my parents on Sunday, they never mentioned any of the three, but why should they?  Would they think their grown-up, middle-aged daughter would forget?

The problem stems from the fact that the Chinese and the Jewish calendars, although both are based on the lunar cycle, are not coincidental.  In a common year, the Harvest Moon Festival comes at the same time as Sukkot— on a full moon which appears on the 15th of the month.  However, this year Jews observed a second month of Adar in the spring.  The Chinese calendar also has leap months, but it is “added according to a complicated rule, which ensures that month 11 is always the month that contains the northern winter solistice.”  [Wikipedia].  Not having examined the calendar that my parents had given me, I did not know when was this year’s Harvest Moon Festival.  I did get a clue earlier, in retrospect, when I visited my parents in late August (to see Anything Goes!, a fabulous show on Broadway) and they offered me some moon cakes.  Why so early, said I, and my father answered, it’s not early.  Still mentally and emotionally stuck on the coincidence of Harvest Moon with Sukkot, I didn’t even consult the calendars until it was almost too late.  And how did I find out?  Not from my siblings (although my sister did alert me to our brother’s birthday with her good-wishes message).  I found out when I got an e-mail message from Asian Suppers, a website that features recipes from the diverse Asian cultures, saying:

Today marks the 15th day of the 8th month of the lunar calendar, also more popularly known as the Mid-Autumn Festival (aka, Zhong Qiu Jie, Chuseok, Otsukimi, Moon Festival, and many other names) — an important holiday across several cultures in Asia, and marked by moon-viewing, family gatherings, thanks and celebration, commemoration of those who have passed on and … eating special foods.

In China … moon cakes are the name of the game, but in certain regions, so is eating river snails (Guangzhou), duck (Fujian) and taro.

In Taiwan ... moon cakes are popular, but so is BBQ!

In Koreasongpyeon, a type of rice cake, is widespread. Fillings range from chestnuts to different kinds of beans.

In Japantsukimi dango – rice dumplings – and other tsukimi-ryori (moon viewing cuisine) are enjoyed while gazing at the moon.

Are you celebrating? Share how you’re doing it or what you’re eating with the rest of the gang over here

Traditional Chinese


Simplified Chinese


Hanyu Pinyin


Moon cakes are not made in the home. It’s a complicated pastry left to the professionals, although my friend Lindsay owns a set of antique moon cake molds, acquired when her family lived in China. They are round or rectangular in shape with a rich, thin crust and filled usually with a paste of red beans or lotus seeds. Another popular filling is a mixture of “five kernels” (五仁, wǔ rén), consisting of five types of nuts and seeds (such as walnuts, pumpkin seeds, watermelon seeds, peanuts, sesame seeds, or almonds). The fancier ones include a salted egg yolk— or even twins— to represent the full moon. They are offered as gifts to family and associates and they’re served, sliced into small wedges, with tea.

In conclusion, I could use a software program that reminds me of notable dates on the Chinese calendar. Here’s a heads-up to my Readers and my siblings: the Chinese New Year will come on January 23, 2012, and it’ll be the Year of the Dragon or 4710.

How Green is Your Campus?

I returned home from a sojourn in California, engaged with sustainability issues, to receive the new issue of Sierra, the bimonthly publication of the Sierra Club.  The article that caught my eye was “Dig In,” its annual ranking of the environmental standing of  U.S. universities.  This year, they reached beyond the classrooms to assess “what lessons are learned when the classroom walls fall away.”



The top of the class this year is

  1. The University of Washington, Seattle, Washington. Its score on the Sierra survey was 81.2,

Where every building completed since 2006 has earned a Gold accreditation from the  Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) green building certification system.  All of its appliances are Energy-Star rated and the hydro-powered campus runs three farms, an extensive recycling program, and the “conservation-research hotbed Pack Forest.

The other top schools are, in order:

  1. Green Mountain College in Poultney, Vermont (score, 81.1);
  2. University of California, San Diego (score, 80.6);
  3. Warren Wilson College in Asheville, North Carolina (score, 76.8);
  4. Stanford University in Palo Alto, California (score, 76.6);
  5. University of California, Irvine (score, 74.8);
  6. University of California, Santa Cruz (score, 74.3);
  7. University of California, Davis (score, 73.2);
  8. Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington (score, 72);
  9. Middlebury College in Middlebury, Vermont (score, 71.8).

My alma mater, Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, came in at number 33 (score, 64.1).
Accompanying articles focused on:

Also described are the non-conformist programs that are “miles from the mainstream” at:

  • Maharishi University of Management (built by the “giggling guru” in Fairfield, Iowa in which the curriculum balances “modern clean technology and 5.000-year-old Vedic philosophy based on Sanskrit texts”);
  • Deep Springs College, close by Yosemite, California (where students have mandatory farm labor requirements and the hydroelectric generator provides 80% of the school’s energy);
  • Gaia University with no real campus (“students earn degrees by documenting a project that involves any envy-inducing combination of world travel and social activism”); and
  • Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado (a curriculum grounded in Buddhism and which promotes compassion, including with the environmental movement).

Parents with younger children may be interested in the article on The Green School in Bali, Indonesia, a K-12 school that incorporates green philosophy from its open-air classrooms (like an inverted sukkah, with roofs but no walls) to its electives that include Global Perspectives, Environmental Management, and 21st Century Science.  I first heard of The Green School when my friend told me her daughter’s family was taking off to Bali for several months this past spring and I avidly followed their adventures on their blog (now taken down, since they’ve returned home).  This is a school where the children (and parents!) enthusiastically welcome the assignments, from a themed unit on water for the fifth-graders (as it relates to math, literature, and science), an aquaculture farm to raise tilapia; and sixth-graders calculate the school’s annual carbon footprint, “then plant enough bamboo to offset it.”  The Green School has yet to graduate its first class (due in 2013), but if one can afford the $10,000 tuition, it’s an adventure worth blogging about.

Finally, the issue included profiles of the staffers deemed most committed to sustainability as a social movement:

  • Howard Davis of the University of the District of Columbia;
  • Megan Zanella-Litke of the University of Richmond (Virginia);
  • Sid England of the University of California, Davis; and
  • Jeremy Friedman of New York University.  As Manager of Sustainability Initiatives for a student body of 40,000 (more than four times the number of people who live in my hometown),

Friedman views his mandate thus:
“The values that underlie my work are the same values that underlie my whole life.  It’s a holistic worldview, and for me the challenge of transforming our world is a very personal and political project.  I see my job as creating the capacity for real change and then allowing countless individuals who care to lend their sweat and knowledge to the enormous task of transforming the world around us.  We need to imbed sustainability across all levels of society more quickly than any social movement in history has ever done before.  It’s a time when some of the most important efforts aren’t the most glamorous ones.”

Among the reasons I went to California was to attend the Hazon Food Conference, held for the first time at the University of California, Davis campus.  What a thrill it was for me to celebrate Shabbat with 300 other people who were passionate about a sustainable future.  The marvel was how many young folks were in attendance and how many had stories of their own works-in-progress.  I feel so positive that my daughters’ generation would — no, will — undertake the task of managing our resources to ensure a renewable future.


The Disconnect for Patrons at Farmers’ Markets

Flickr: ghbrett

I usually avoid a fight in which you’re bound to lose (because it is really hard to change a person’s opinion with your own opinion).  However, I do get riled up when people make uneducated claims about farmers’ markets and CSAs.  I’ve heard plenty in my three years as a CSA host. Then a few weeks ago, I was a guest at a luncheon in which people disparaged the prices at our local farmers’ market, including the statement, “The prices at my daughter’s farmers’ market are cheaper.”

On my way to the Headhouse Square Farmers’ Market in Philadelphia on Sunday morning, I was still fuming about the conversation, so I decided to seek some knowledgeable answers.

Nicole Sugarman of Weaver’s Way Farm said that the label, “farmers’ market,” does not mean that everything sold is from a local farmer nor are the growing practices necessarily organic and sustainable.  A farmer from Lancaster County said that his neighbors have been known to truck in produce from larger farms down south, presumably with egregious farming and labor practices.  Finally, Katy Wich, the Manager of the Farmers’ Market program of The Food Trust, said that there are other complex issues involved.

First, what are a farmer’s labor costs?  The Asian research scientist of Queen’s Farm sells his wife’s lovingly tended vegetables and his young daughter helps him on market days.  Another farm employs college interns, who’re only paid a small stipend.  The Amish farmers often rely on family to plant and harvest.  I‘ve visited Tom Culton on his farm and, while he is touted as a “superstar” farmer, I saw how hard he works and under what conditions.

Second, what is the time frame for a crop?  When a farmer is desperate to get his produce to market such as before spoilage or a storm, he/she might resort to a farmer’s auction such as the one in Leola in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.  There, the farmer is paid a pittance — such as $6 for a crate of eggplant — for his season of hard work.  There, middlemen buy the produce and re-sell it at a profit.  The customers at a discount store such as Produce Junction will save money, but at the expense of the farmers.  I also recall reading about the beleaguered dairy farmers in Japan after the tsunami this spring when they were told that they couldn’t sell their milk, because of radiation contamination.  The farmers spilt all of the milk because they had no market.

Finally, what should a vegetable cost?  How could we complain when we’ve never sweated for our food?  Recently on NPR, an anthropologist spoke about how our bodies have evolved for the hunter/gatherer lifestyle, not for the sedentary life of a technologically-focused world.  We should be on our feet for several hours a day, looking for food.  The only looking we have to do is in the fridge.

I shop at a farmers’ market for the freshest produce, to keep within the season’s offerings, and to support our local farmers.  It is not to save money.  Remember the adage that we get what we pay for?  Where would we be, if we only had to rely on industrial farms?  A captive audience for the next E. coli outbreak, that’s where.

Hannah Lee writes from her home in suburban Philadelphia about issues that engage her.

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