Hilarious Tel Aviv comedy troupe debuts in New York
Tziporela brings their fast-paced sketch show to the Big Apple for the first time.
On a darkened stage, a man and a woman are on a first date. Instead of talking about niceties like what they do for a living or chit-chat about how good the wine is, they say what they're thinking out loud.
The woman, for instance, peruses the menu while saying "I'm so lonely, I take the subway just to be around people." Meanwhile, the guy has some issues of his own. "I'm not built for relationships, much less marriage," he says in place of a toast. "I hardly get along with myself." Despite these brutal truths, they leave the restaurant together. Too bad the woman "lives with my dad and grandmother."
As hilarious as anything from Second City, Upright Citizens Brigade (UCB) or the Groundlings, this scene was created by comedy troupe Tziporela. Based in Tel Aviv, the troupe is entering its 10th year of bringing comedy, musical and dance-based sketches to audiences worldwide. The troupe is performing in New York for the first time; on Oct. 14, they began a six-week run of their first English-language show, "Odd Birdz," at The Players Theatre on MacDougal Street.
New Yorkers can make for tough crowds, especially given how much comedy they can go see live, from the UCB to stand-up to tapings of "The Daily Show." But Lotus Etrog, one of the troupe's co-founders, says Tziporela is ready for the Big Apple. "I don't know if they're tough or cynical; but our show is so funny, and I know people from Israel from all kinds of places and backgrounds and ages, they love it," she told From The Grapevine. "The theater has a really nice cozy feel to it. I think people are going to feel like (they're) home from the first moment and laugh, and I think it's going to be great."
Tziporela's brand of comedy is fast-paced, moving quickly from one sketch to another. Sketches tend to be anywhere from two to 10 minutes in length, and can be wordy or just rely on the actors' physical comedy skills as well as their dancing and singing ability. In one sketch, for instance, four young women, including one who's pregnant, catch up and take selfies in quick one-word utterances synched to a dance beat. In another comedy sketch, two interpreters are on stage to translate a romantic scene from a popular Israeli television show, but their own drama gets in the way of the drama they're trying to translate.
The nine members of Tziporela got together 12 years ago while studying at the Nissan Nativ Acting Studio in Tel Aviv. They met in a once-per-month class called "Alternative" where, according to Etrog, "you could go on stage and do whatever you want. Not like improv, but you can do your own material, like sing a song or do a monologue or do a sketch or scene or a dance, whatever you want. We really took it very seriously; every opportunity we did a sketch and wrote a lot of material. At the end of the three years, we had almost 40 sketches, and we decided to make a show."
They felt the theater scene in Israel was just too serious and didn't appeal to people their age, even though they had enthusiasm for the form. "We really see ourselves as a young, creative original group. We don't have a director or choreographer; we do everything by ourselves: the production, costumes, everything," she said. In her words, that "personal" and creative approach brings theater down to earth, "so everyone can enjoy it. You don't have to understand something, or know something in advance, or have any background; you can just come and step right in and be a part of it." The troupe has mounted and toured with four shows, including "Odd Birdz," since they started performing professionally in 2005.
Because of the group's unique structure, they use a method they call "collaborative creation" to create sketches. "It started off when we discovered in our first year that we won't last if we just met every weekend and performed. We'd just get tired of it, it would become a routine," said Etrog. So the group started meeting twice per week, doing exercises, writing and improvising, bringing their various influences and expertise to the collaboration.
Collaborative creation allows the group to generate and refine particular sketch ideas in a variety of ways. "Some of the sketches, an actor comes with an idea to the group, and everyone comes together and pitches in," Etrog said. "Some come from text or a song or a dance. During the rehearsal for this production, each one of the actors gave an exercise to the others. For example, I gave each one an animal, and they had to write a monologue inspired by that animal." This generated more than 60 sketch segments for the current show, which were expanded, edited or discarded in order to get the ones that appear in "Odd Birdz."
Part of Tziporela's business model – in fact, the lifeblood of any comedy troupe that wants to make it as a business – is the master classes they give in their collaborative creation method, classes they not only give in Israel, but wherever they've gone on tour, including New York. "Almost anyone who can and wants to can learn from this method," said Etrog. It's all about being free with yourself, and letting your creativity and everything that inspires you be free. You just need to listen to your inner voice. We have all kinds of techniques and exercises, and people really get connected with their creativity." When they spoke about the method at TEDxHiriya in January, the funny presentation got a raucous reception.
Etrog is amazed at the longevity of Tziporela; all nine members who met in acting school in 2003 are still with the group, through marriages, kids, and all sorts of life events. Etrog herself is married with two kids, a long way from being the 19-year-old who started performing in that class at Nissan Nativ. She's not sure that Tziporela will become a training ground for future "Saturday Night Live" cast members like Second City and the UCB have become, but she has high hopes.
"When we started, I know specifically about myself that I didn't think it was going to come to this. I thought it was going to be, you know, a nice thing you do after you graduate, and then you start real life. Surprisingly, people reacted amazingly and we started to perform a lot, and we created another show, and another show. I'm really optimistic about where it's going to be headed. I see it as becoming an institution, making a lot of shows and being around the world."
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