When The Chop Theatre took Itai Erdal’s one-man performance to the Edinburgh Festival last year, the answer to its title How to Disappear Completely might have been: get eclipsed by another show with almost exactly the same title. Because also doing the rounds at the festival was Fin Kennedy’s How to Disappear Completely and Never Be Found, a play with more recognition factor given that it had recently won a major British award. But it was Erdal’s show that shone the brighter that year (aptly, given his usual job as a much sought-after lighting designer), pulling bigger audiences and adding to the international acclaim that’s been heaped on him for the seemingly effortless charm he brings to what might otherwise have been an unbearably upsetting subject.
How To Disappear tells of how in 2000, Erdal (who had immigrated to Vancouver from Israel the year before) received a telephone call telling him that his mother, Mery, had contracted lung cancer and had nine months to live. An aspiring filmaker at the time, he flew over to be with her and to chronicle the last phase of her life. Much of the resulting film and still photography finds its way into his performance piece. But most of the show’s technical heavy lifting is done by the lighting which Erdal has designed, which he sometimes operates during the show, and which, as well as his mother’s life and death, is the subject of his impasssioned monologue.
“I think a lot of people are surprised at how well the two subjects work together,” says Erdal in a telephone interview. “During the creation of the piece [with co-creators James Long, Anita Rochon and Emelia Symington Fedy], all these metaphors started coming up organically without us planning them. I wrote something about my favorite light, which is a parkan. I just wanted to show how it gets warmer and warmer as it fades, and when I started demonstrating this in front of people, they started crying because they saw the light dying and thought about my mother’s life dying, and about how she got warmer and warmer as she got close to death. But that’s not something that I ever planned. That’s one of the beautiful things about what happens in the collaborataive process for theatre. You stumble upon things and discover things.”
That Erdal managed to ease the audience into such painful territory and leave them laughing, moved and provoked (there’s a devastating development towards the end of the show) is quite an achievment. That this show represents his first time out from behind the lighting controls and onto the stage makes that achievement particularly remarkable.
“I say in the show that I’m not an actor, but I am a performer. I’m good at being me. I’ve learned something important about being on stage, which is the more I work, the less the audience feels. So I’ve tried to do less and less and just be. Similarly, in lighting design less is more.”
Despite the Israeli setting, Erdal has largely avoided politics in How to Disappear: “We really didn’t want it to be that kind of show. Though I do at one point say something about me not being a Zionist, because I didn’t feel comfortable doing the show and not addressing the conflict at all. I feel very strongly about what Israel is doing in Palestine, but I don’t bring that into it here. I’m actually doing a seperate play [working title An Arab and a Jew] which I think is going to piss off both sides.”
This latter piece will again see Erdal on the stage, and there are more performances planned in the future, mostly with his own company, The Elbow. So does he see himself as a performer or a lighting designer these days?
“Lighting design pays a lot better, so I can’t stop completely because then I would be broke. Luckily I’m very passionate about lighting. Sometimes I do lectures where I talk for four or even six hours straight about lighting design. If it wasn’t for this show, I wouldn’t have become a performer, but I would have been happy to have just designed lights for the rest of my life”
How to Disappear Completely is at Usine C, March 18-20
Jim Burke is a playwright and arts journalist originally from England, now resident in Montreal. Among his plays are Cornered and an adaptation of Moby Dick. He has written plays for BBC radio. In England, he was Theatre Editor for the arts and lifestyle magazine City Life. Jim currently teaches creative writing at Dawson College’s Centre For Training and Development.