A Tevye for Our Times:
David Ellenstein steps out of his artistic director shoes and into the work boots of America’s most iconic milkman
By Donnie Matsuda
It is perhaps no surprise that the masterful musical FIDDLER ON THE ROOF has stood the test of time. The beloved and poignant tale of a poor Jewish milkman named Tevye who fights to maintain his family intact and his Jewish religious traditions unscathed as the winds of change swirl about him is perhaps as relevant as ever in our current times. But what is surprising is that actor, director, and artistic director of North Coast REP, David Ellenstein, has never tackled the role of the famed “Dairyman” – a role which he seems born to play. Now, he gets that chance, as he carries on the tradition of Tevye (a role his father has played several times) and as he makes his debut on the Moonlight stage in the company’s second show of its 32nd Summer Season.
|David Ellenstein as Tevye in Moonlight Stage Production's "Fiddler on the Roof." Photo courtesy of Ken Jacques.|
DONNIE: I was surprised to see that you have not done FIDDLER (either as an actor or director) before. Will this be your first time doing this show? And will this be your first time working on the Moonlight stage?
DAVID: My first FIDDLER and my first time at Moonlight. I have known the show since childhood. My Dad appeared in it several times and I have seen a number of productions. I am excited to take on "the Dairyman" and to be debuting at Moonlight.
DONNIE: How does it feel being back on the “performing” side of things? Is it hard to step out of your directing shoes and be back on stage?
DAVID: I have been getting back on stage about once a year (MY NAME IS ASHER LEV and TALLEY'S FOLLY most recently at North Coast Rep.)
It is very good for me as a theatre artist to go through the actor’s process. It makes me a better director, a better theatre person, and a more compassionate theatre employer. When one takes on a large role like this you must trust your director and not try to impose on that side. Acting requires a full commitment of being and there really isn't room for the "visionary" or the “critic” if you are fully inhabiting a role.
|David Ellenstein as Tevye. Photo courtesy of Ken Jacques.|
DONNIE: What aspect of Tevye’s character do you most identify with?
DAVID: His big heart. His inability to be unjust or unkind to fellow human beings. His ability to laugh at himself and question everything. His innate knowledge that nothing is black and white, but that we live in a world that is ever changing and ever surprising. His ability to overcome unpleasantness and forge on.
DONNIE: In what way are you completely unlike the character you play?
DAVID: He is a manual laborer and works extremely hard with his hands. I am an artist and run a theatre - the physical nature of our two selves is very different. I grew up in an upper middle class home, whereas Tevye comes from poverty.
DONNIE: What artistic challenges do you face stepping into such an iconic role?
DAVID: Being true to the character and the situation. Fulfilling what an audience expects and desires from the role, but still being unique and personal in how it is delivered. Being satisfying and surprising at the same time for both the audience and myself. Knowing that the enduring impact of the character is in its truth and trusting that.
DONNIE: In your opinion, what is relevant about FIDDLER today?
DAVID: Our world is ever in flux and change. What is true today in absolute terms may not be tomorrow. Our ability to adapt, accept, and move on with shifting perspective and acceptance - and still have room to dream and find joy in those we love and the world we live in. FIDDLER is filled with this universal truth which is why it is a timeless show. Not to mention how well written and structured it is. Great songs help, too.
DONNIE: How would you describe Kathy Brombacher’s artistic vision for the show?
DAVID: Kathy wants to be true to the script, true to the historical context, and true to the needs of her audience. She understands her space so well, and what needs to be done to communicate this show properly in its confines. Her approach comes from a place of knowledge of the material and a breadth of experience, but is allowing of input and ideas from her artists. I am delighted to be working with Kathy at the helm.
DONNIE: What are you most looking forward to about Moonlight's production of FIDDLER?
DAVID: The joy of doing it. Inhabiting and sharing Tevye with the audience. Bringing a bit of my Dad onstage with me each night and knowing that my sons are taking it all in. Tradition!
Things to know before you go: Fiddler on the Roof opens at Moonlight Stage Production’s Amphitheatre on July 25 and runs through August 11, 2012. Performances are Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays at 8pm. Gates open for picnicking and dining at 6:30pm. Tickets are $15-$50. For more information or to purchase tickets, call (760) 724-2110 or visit www.moonlightstage.com.