Audiences will have the opportunity to be thrilled, uplifted and inspired as “CREATING A CHARACTER: THE MONI YAKIM LEGACY” becomes available as the Official Selection: DOC NYC (World Premiere) 2020 / US / Documentary / Color / 76 minutes, Available in Virtual Cinemas on June 19. Our current lives and the lives depicted in the film are in stark contrast. I have been sheltering in place so long that a look at a large group of students moving vigorously as a group, people near one another and hugging set off alarms in my head of “be careful”. On the other hand it was so rich and rewarding to experience a history that I remember through the eyes of a remarkable and remarkably talented individual: Moni Yakim.
One may puzzle thinking about what Jessica Chastain, Viola Davis, Patti LuPone and Alex Sharp have in common? Audiences will learn they are some of the extraordinary actors who have studied under Moni Yakim at Juilliard, America’s greatest performing arts school. The interviews with Laura Linney, Anthony Mackie and Kevin Kline, develop a portrait of the master teacher—the sole remaining founder of the school’s legendary Drama Division. As the film takes us inside the drama classes where Moni and his wife Mina pour their love and passion into preparing the next generation of actors for the spotlight I was moved by the intense movement in the classes and found the technique of using masks to intensify character development compelling.
I, for one, am grateful for this film being made partly because it is a slice of a life I remember and also because it preserves historical events and people for current and future individuals.
CREATING A CHARACTER: THE MONI YAKIM LEGACY came together as a documentary when a former student of Moni Yakim’s named Marc Olsen expressed to James Houghton, the then director of the Juilliard drama division, that Moni’s teaching techniques must be recorded for posterity. With Moni on board for the project, they interviewed a number of producers and directors and were impressed by the passion shown by the team of Rauzar Alexander and Kali Wilder. In exploring Moni’s life and teaching, it became clear to the filmmakers that they wanted to do more than simply document his techniques; there was a fascinating life journey to explore and portray, and also a story in how it affected the lives of so many students. Alma Har’el, an award-winning documentarian herself, and Boaz Yakin, a filmmaker and Moni’s son, then came on board to produce what became a six-year long process of filming Moni’s classes, interviewing his students and exploring his life story. The amazing experience of Alex Sharp, one of the main students followed by the filmmakers, and his rapid success in the theater utilizing techniques directly relatable to the classes recorded by the filmmakers gave CREATING A CHARACTER: THE MONI YAKIM LEGACY its contrasts and shape, and out of this a unique document of a master teacher and his influence came to life.
Moni’s story is rich and varied but always filled with adventure and passion. Here are a few items from his lengthy biography:
1969: Directs “Counterpoint” Off-Broadway;
Joins faculty at newly established Juilliard Drama Division of the Juilliard School of Music, Lincoln Center.
• Associate Director, American Shakespeare Festival, “Henry V”.
• Directs “Jacques Brel” in London, England, and in several cities in the United States.
1970: Directs “An Evening of Songs by Marc Blitztein” at the New School for Social Research.
• Directs “From Vienna to Broadway” for the Metropolitan Opera Studio.
• Directs “Spring Thaw 70” in Toronto, Canada.
• Appointed the main director for the Metropolitan Opera Studio
1972: Directs “Jacques Brel” in Paris France; Tel-Aviv, Israel, and several cities in the United States.
• Directs “Jacques Brel” in Amsterdam, Holland.
• Directs Puccini’s “La Boheme” for the Metropolitan Opera Studio.
• Directs “Jacques Brel” on Broadway.
• Teaches at the Yale Drama School.
1973: Founds the N.Y. Performance Theater Center
He is recipient of ATME’s (Association of Theatre Movement Educators) Lifetime Achievement Award for his contribution to theatre movement.
He is the author of the widely read book “Creating a Character: A Physical Approach to Acting.”
As a personal physical acting coach, Moni helped many stage, film and television actors prepare for their roles (on a very selective basis), among them Ryan Gosling, Harvey Keitel, Brittany Murphy, Michael Night and Peter Weller.
While the entire film is an amazing documentary, a few stand outs for me were the following:
The archived historical photos, a song by Jacque Brel, himself, the intense physicality incorporated to enhance character development and a special blend of Moni’s involvement with Étienne Decroux, Marcel Marceau and Stella Adler that has resulted in changing the development of character. Ultimately this is a love story, love of performance, love of the theatre, love of teaching and the love of Moni and Mina .
As a documentary, this film stands head and shoulders above most others. The interviews with the Juilliard students throughout the decades were outstanding. They speak volumes and offer a sense of what it is like to learn from Moni. (I kept wishing that I could take one of his classes) It is clear his students respect and love him.
With no excuses about a theater nearby not showing it or that it is a the wrong time or.. just check this out.