December 3, 2009
IT’S A MAD MAD TEL AVIV WORLD
There I was, the leading lady in a top quality Israeli film, dressed in a pink leotard and Tutu, radiant and glamorous in my lipstick and glitter-daubed face, and to top it off, I was wearing a diamond studded crown.
This would have been the appropriate attire for a Purim party, or even for “Trick Or Treating”. But standing in the middle of an old- age home in Tel Aviv, I was bound to attract attention. Let’s see you explain to a bunch of addled Octogenarians that what you’re wearing are not the garments of choice but rather a wardrobe designed for your character.
“Are you a ballerina?” asks an old man. “Can you put on a show for us?”
“No, she’s a princess,” says a silver-haired woman, rushing to clasp my hands. “Your Highness!”
“My, you’re pretty,” chimes in a sweet, toothless, elderly lady staring at me in awe. I’m flattered, until she adds, “Are those all your real teeth?”
“She’s a Fairy!” exclaims another woman.
“Really?” an old man approaches to take a closer look. “Funny, I would never have guessed you’re a man.”
“Not that kind of fairy, George.”
“She’s the Tooth Fairy!” The toothless woman beams.
“Actually, we’re filming a movie here,” I try to explain. “And I’m dressed in this costume because I’m an actress.”
I knew it was a lost cause. Most of the residents suffered from Dementia or Alzheimer’s, or a combination of both. So the same conversation with the residents replayed a number of times. To make matters worse, I was speaking in Hebrew and the word for “actress” is Sachkaneet, coming from the root “ to play”.
“What do you want to play?” asks one of the women.
“I think her favorite game is obviously dress-up.”
“Let’s play “Duck, Duck, Goose!”—You’re it!”
“Ow. Who keeps hitting me on the head?”
“There are plenty of ducks at the zoo!”
“I can’t go to the zoo, I’m allergic to fur.”
“I still can’t believe she’s a man.”
“I’ll just get my camera and we can go. Senior Citizens get a discount.”
“Citizens of where?”
I love acting. I love getting into character and immersing myself in another world. I appreciate every opportunity to disconnect from reality, and live, even briefly, in a different realm. But the real live “set” we were filming on seemed too surreal to actually exist.
“I don’t understand, who’s granddaughter are you?”
“No one’s, I’m here to—“ I begin.
“No ones? But everyone has a grandmother!”
“You can be my granddaughter,” another woman comes over and hugs me, lovingly. “Would you like a cookie?”
“I have a Grandmother; she’s just not here,” I explain.
“Oh my God, they lost your Grandmother?” another woman shouts. A worried buzz sweeps over the crowd. Suddenly, a woman who clearly must have been the model for Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, asks, “Has anyone seen an old woman?”
“Let me tell you, young man,” George says, shaking my hand, “your surgeon has done an excellent job.”
In the time it took the director and crew to set up our next shot, I had committed to a game of imaginary shuffle-board, promised to perform The Nutcracker (after lunch), and had “arranged” marriages with at least three separate grandsons, plus George’s granddaughter.
Finally, the director announces we’re ready for the next scene. Our “set” is located in the rec-room of the ward, much to the chagrin of the patients.
“Move to that side!” an elderly man commands as I walk past his chair. I hesitate, and walk back in the direction I came from.
“Go to that side!” he repeats, this time pointing to the opposite side.
A woman in her nineties shouts, “Don’t you listen to him!” while racing from one end of the room to the other, according to where he’s pointing. “He doesn’t get whatever he wants. You hear that, Oscar?” she adds, out of breath, and spouting some very creative curses. “You don’t get to order people around! I’m not going to dance to your fiddle!” she announces, still shuffling from one side to the other.
In the meantime, the nurses are desperately trying to herd the patients into the next room. However, since the residents are accustomed to sitting in the rec-room every day at these hours, they’re confused and continue to wander back in.
Despite the discombobulating surroundings, I know I have to refocus and concentrate. So I take a deep breath, and wait for the director to call “Action!”.
The next scene calls for me to run through the hallways, nervously looking around. Too bad the other patients can’t remember what’s going on from one take to the next.
“Why do you keep running?” one patient shouts, interrupting the scene for the fourth time.
“Who are you looking for?” another chimes in anxiously, forgetting our repeated explanations to the same question.
“Are you Greta’s granddaughter?” another asks me for the umpteenth time. “She died, you know. Oh, weeks ago. You’ll never find her now.”
Exasperated, the director pleads with the nursing staff to do a better job of containing their patients. By this time, an elderly man has placed himself in front of the camera, telling his life story to the audience he’s sure has come to learn about his life. Another woman is trying to persuade the cameraman to come to her room and film her antique collection.
Just then, a woman approaches me and whispers nervously, “Where am I? Am I dead?” She looks around, and studies the illuminating glow surrounding my body. “Are you an angel?”
“Kill the spotlight!” I say quickly to the lighting crew, who immediately exterminate my halo. The woman slowly reaches out her hand to touch me.
“No, I’m not an angel,” I say gently, allowing her to stroke my hair.
“Then I’m in Hell?” she screams, suddenly, and begins to whimper. “Who are all of you? Where am I? What’s going on?”
I’m not sure how to calm her, so I rush down the hallways and urge the first nurse I meet to come help.
By the time we arrive back at the set, the woman is in an utter state of panic and yelling in a trembling voice: “Oh Hell! Where am I?”
Seeing this, the nurse stops in her tracks.
“Sonya!” She scolds the lady, “What are you doing?”
And just like that, Sonya looks from me to the rest of the startled crew—and bursts out laughing.
“You called the nurse?!” Sonya chuckles. “Wow, I really got you good! What did you think, that I was senile? Did you really believe I thought I was dead?” she’s laughing so hard her face is turning red.
Me and the rest of the crew just stand there, speechless.
The nurse looks at us sympathetically. “She does this sometimes,” then she turns to Sonya. “Get back to the group before you give someone a heart attack.”
“You should have seen their faces!” Sonya brags proudly. “They thought I was one of those nutty old ladies!”
“Well, if we didn’t then, we sure do now,” the grip man mumbles, shaking his head incredulously.
“I haven’t been dead in weeks,” Sonya tells the nurse. “God, it’s good to be alive again,” she shouts, prancing down the hall.
In the background an old lady is shouting: “Get me out of here! I want to get up!” I realize she’s strapped down to her chair, apparently for her own protection.
That’s when I take in the full picture: Nurses holding syringes, orderlies spoon-feeding the elderly, catatonic figures wandering aimlessly, and bored, old people finding comic relief by playing practical jokes on innocent visitors. I’m suddenly overcome with a wave of emotion. It occurs to me, that in a few hours, the director will yell “That’s a wrap!”, and we’ll all go home. But these people will continue living in Never-Never Land, unaware of the world around them. My heart goes out to them.
As an actress, I use my surroundings to my advantage and channel my whirlwind of feelings to play out in my character. Normally, I need to delve into deep-seeded memories, or surmise the power of imagination to reach the necessary emotional state of my character. But today I just have to look around.
But as a person, I want to be anywhere but here.
After twelve grueling hours in this nightmarish reality we are ready to call it a day. Time to pack-up and stop disrupting the resident’s routine and schedule.
We don’t belong here, I think to myself, surveying my pink puffy outfit.
But glancing at the wrinkled, smiling, senseless faces around me dressed in repulsive hospital gowns, I wonder— Do they?
“So long, suckers!” Sonya yells joyously as we wave goodbye.
“We should play again sometime!” yells the toothless lady.
“Hope your reproductive organs still work!” George yells and whispers to his friend, “Would you believe she’s a man?”
I grin and exit the twilight zone.
What can I say? I’m just a Tel-Aviv actress enjoying – almost – every day.