Photo: Kevin Berne.

An Interview with Ari’el Stachel

Playwright and Actor in "Out of Character". Berkeley Repertory Theater

Written by:
Toba Singer
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By age 29, Berkeley-born actor Ari’el Stachel had won a Drama Desk Award, a Lucille Lortel Award, and a Tony,for his role as Haled in “The Band Visit.” “Out of Character,”is Stachel’s one-man show, developed under the fastidious hand of director Tony Taccone. In it, Stachel recounts a lifelong struggle with anxiety, memorialized in abundant quantities of sweat. To find not only his footing as an actor, but his depth as an artist and human being, he zeroes in on the sweet spot between humor and pathos in the troubling persona that is his Middle Eastern heritage. His mother, Laura Stachel, is an Ashkenazy Jew, and his father, Aaron Yeshayahu, a Yemeni Jew, raised in Israel. Via mime, dance, physical acting, and the re-creation of key characters in his life, Stachel impeaches the code words and short-hand visuals associated with identity to plumb its complexities. If the showboat homage to diversity and pronoun reassignment has drawn lines of blood, Stachel wonders aloud about what social imperatives might move us back to appreciating shared struggles, where our sweatiest moments would not result from anxiety over racial micro-expectations but conferring purpose in the forging of solidarity. Stachel’s propensity to sweat has brought him closer to answers that reach far beyond a societal grasp disfigured by biases bound up in race, nationality, and social class. It was my pleasure to sit down with him in the Berkeley Rep Courtyard on a recent sunny afternoon, to explore the pathways studded with nuggets of self-realization and reliance that brought him “Out of Character.”

Toba Singer: If you’re not who other people need you to be, so they can be who they are, who are you? Don’t you think self-identity is socially formed?

Ari’el Stachel: I do. And I raise how contextual it is. The piece I wrote at first about identity reflected trying on identities to to fit in. I was simultaneously suppressing anxiety about who I am. People would come up to me after the show and ask me “So, are you American?” The effort I made to bring myself into the space is what made me ask, “Can I bring my anxiety and sweat, into parts I love, or don’t love, while aware of the parts where I can’t?” It was a challenge for me to write a piece just about identity, trying out all these I.D.s that were suppressing who I was, in the interplay between identity and anxiety to answer the question “Are you American?” Now, I’ve given up trying to answer that question because identity is more complex than the boxes. It is too complex an effort to bring one’s full self, because so much more about a person is cultural. The anxiety, the sweat, comes from parts of myself I love and some that I don’t love. The only place I feel comfortable with that is on stage, which raises another question: Why do I feel so free there? The comfort comes in embracing the reality that messiness is part of it, and that realization brings with it yet another identity, and accepting that I can’t control other people’s impressions, so there’s no point in hiding.

TS: What makes the stage your happy place?

AS: There’s the magic of theater, to go onstage and do this special thing, and it can be dazzling. It’s a social contract, sitting down and agreeing to focus in ways we normally don’t, a focus and contract that give the performer places to go where you normally don’t and has the audience sitting and focusing, and so the creation, the conceit of theatre is that it is that platform on which you connect with people (when it’s done right), a made up thing, there to entertain. You’re in the dark; I’m in the light, and we’re agreeing to do that. My joy is connecting with people in that way. At any time, people could break that contract, but they don’t! There is something very freeing that onstage that’s OK. If I’m meeting you at a cocktail party and start crying and sweating—well, there are rules—you couldn’t do it, but the stage gives you that social contract.

TS: The show includes commentary on race and nationality, but except for Aunt Denice, there is little representation of every day working people. You mention that your mother is a doctor, and though you say a lot about your father, you don’t say what he does for a living. Why is that? What does he do for a living?

AS: My father came to this country without anything and ended up at Top Dog (a local hot dog eatery) as a cleaner; then he drove taxis, and then started refinishing floors, until he found real estate. His was a typical Israeli trajectory. In the show, I interact with a variety people from different classes and races. There’s the girl from Uganda who didn’t have much in the way of money. There were a lot of the classmates I had at Orinda High v. Berkeley High, all drawn very different, within the constraints of an 80-minute play, but a play that travels across a wide range. The gift gift of Berkeley Rep is that the workshopping approach gives you a first shot. What do I want to change? It’s usually why you start with a regional production.

TS: Given that social class is the economic foundation of a nation under capitalism, why is it such a complex subject to take up? Has it been so obfuscated by emphasis on race and gender that it is left to sit there as the elephant in the room?

AS: It’s implied that when I went to Jewish Day School, then to Oakland School of the Arts, from the first time I met those kids, who are working class kids, how much I identified even more with them than my other classmates. I noticed how strange it felt that I identified with them. It is so important—the color of skin, the predominant social force that dictates so much . . . The one kid who accepted me at Orinda High School was the black kid, Robert, who was a district transfer student, the one kid who became my friend there. He was the one of the few who wasn’t from Orinda but he accepted me. Maybe I can mine more of that in future productions. I’m now 31, almost 32 and in a relationship with an African American woman. We’re from very different social classes. Though I created a certain kind of social persona, I continually realize that so many things informed me socially by virtue of my mom being a doctor, by those economic and intellectual privileges, an ongoing journey that I don’t have conclusive thoughts about, except feeling more comfortable in Berkeley, after having felt ashamed in Orinda. 

[Class is a] big conversation today because the actors have decided to strike and join the writers on their picket lines. Yes! There are people who ask me why my mom isn’t a bigger force in the show. I joke that it’s because I can’t really play her as a character! I joke that “Out of Character,” the novel, will give my mother a larger presence. I grew up hearing stories about how my great grandfather on her side was a leader of the communist movement in the United States. I suspect that’s part of what what made me more comfortable on this side of the Caldecott Tunnel. 

TS: What events and experiences armed and otherwise prepared and led you to finding your depth? What moments stand out in that process?

AS: I never mention this in the play, but I have to give him credit. One of the people who piqued my intellectual curiosity was my stepfather, an Ashkenazi Jew, Hal Aronson, who is an Environmental Sociologist at UC Berkeley. When I was a kid, we’d sit around the dining room table after I had come back from dance classes with Mr. Savage, and dive into intellectual conversations about philosophers. I was really attracted to Nietzsche and Henry David Thoreau and found that that level of inquiry and conversation fascinating because of its intellectual perspective. Frankly, when you’re the child of two very different cultures, expected to understand them both, and then a different social reality at school, you’re swimming in these very different environments, and it forces you to think deeply in a way that some of my peers had no reason to, and so it was clear to me that I was forced to engage with the idea that I was different, and so there was no way to avoid conversations on this subject. 

There was tunnel vision when I graduated high school.
I wanted to be on Broadway, and accomplished that, and then went on to work on this piece with Tony. I had just finished writing a draft and he engaged with me and kept pushing, the whole time that I was dealing with debilitating anxiety, in complete denial, thinking it would go away, and then two and a half years into developing the play, it was completely about identity. There was no mention of anxiety. Tony looked at me and asked, “What does your character want?” I said, “He wants to be less anxious. “Then go to the anxiety!” Tony said, “Go and write about that.” I went home and wrote 20 pages about anxiety and things cracked right open. I saw that having felt socially anxious the whole time I was on Broadway had made me scared and made me introspective, so much so that I started journaling and writing. I don’t want to admit this at all: that anxiety is the core of what I’ve been wanting talk about.

I immediately thought, “I’m going to get Botox (a touted remedy for sweating.) I’m good to go; I just have to find a way to integrate this condition that in some ways is uncomfortable, but in other ways is a good sidekick. After all, it’s the thing that made me write a play and recreate myself, which many of my peers don’t do.” It’s a double-edged sword. The experience of performing and being open about this is exciting. It’s how I feel that I’m healing and can connect with people. That’s the real treat, though hard and exhausting. 

TS: At the risk of asking a standardized cliché question, what would say in a letter to your 13-year-old self?

AS: I wouldn’t take anything back, I like the person I am, but to have an easier life, would have said: embrace your dad, embrace your roots, and walk into that discomfort. Had I done that and sought a more authentic relationship to my identity, maybe I wouldn’t be sweating as much . . . but then, how would I raise my own kid? Wouldn’t I want my own kid to go through a similar process, not to change any element of my life, but making sure to know that there are massive things you can’t control, making it complicated to be so open. I’m lucky I live in a time when it’s acceptable and even trendy to talk about mental health. In other times, I could have brought a lot of shame to my family, but now they say that I’m courageous and a uniting force. My father didn’t embrace the show until he saw it for a fourth or fifth time. He was less affected by me trying to hide him than what he saw as the impact of him on me as an adult. He said, “I was just trying to protect you as my son.” This process has paved a more honest relationship between us, very freeing. Finally, there are no more fractures, nothing to hide, communicating honestly.

TS: I rank the comedic value of the show on a level with the British show “Would I Lie to You?” and the Canadian series, “Slings and Arrows.” Are you going to write on other subjects, and if so, which ones, with what treatments?

AS: Spending four years on this, an ongoing project, one of the most challenging periods, but the answer is yes and also, I don’t know. I am interested in identity and race, my roots, and I because I am curious about it, I want to dive into my Yemenite heritage. There was criticism that the play was “too literary,” so I had to reduce 30 pages to three sentences that onstage you can communicate with a look. In a book version, you can communicate in ways I want to explore more fully, and create things that are honest, that I would like to watch, been helpful to me as a kid, just enjoyable.

TS: What lessons are there for us from the September 11 events, and their mirror image—the US prison in Guantánamo?

AS: I am heartened by us living in a contradictory moment. On the one hand, a polarizing, kind of toxic time, where people are not that nuanced. We’re quick to police people who have any disagreements. On that level we’ve not improved, or maybe it’s that way because it’s easier to transmit information, and on the other hand, thinking about the George Floyd movement, when certain groups arose, there was the COVID pandemic, with our president, Donald Trump, calling it “the China virus,” but overall, a groundswell of people saying, “No, all these people are us,” encouraged that there’s a much wider lens of what America is. I didn’t consider myself American; I thought of myself as a Yemenite, and in that respect, more cognizant of not scapegoating and blaming people, even if half our society does. I feel there’s a more fervent group trying to unify us. Maybe I’m more optimistic than others, but that’s how I feel. There are more accurate representations of different nationalities and races on TV and in the media now than when I was a kid. So, I think that if I was growing up now, maybe that push for representation can seem hollow, but it has had a positive impact. We’re seeing wider and more unified representation. In some ways, there a those who are tyrannical about it when it comes to police brutality and gender. This argument about gender identity and pronouns: Your generation and mine might think, “What the hell is going on?” But at the heart of it is to embrace the widest range of human being possible. I’m hoping that the pendulum swings back somewhat: we have to embrace difference, but not to the extent of eradicating nuance and conversation.

Toba Singer

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