Nava Semel died on December 2, 2017 at the age of 63. Semel was an Israeli author, playwright, and screenwriter whose work amplified the human experience to every corner of the world, including Alaska. Her work has been translated into multiple languages, including Arabic, Czech, Dutch, English, French, German, Italian, Polish, Rumanian, and Spanish. Anchorage theatre goers know at least one of Semel’s plays, The Child Behind the Eyes, which played at Out North as an RKP Production in the summer of 2016. The play was also performed in Seward, Victoria, BC that same year. According to Vivian Melde, “Our actress, Nava Sarracino found the play (initially because they shared the same name) and contacted me to see whether I was interested in directing it. Once I read the play, I was drawn to the story of this mother and her child. Although it was written in the mid-1980s, by an Israeli playwright, the fears and experiences shared in this one-woman show I believe are universal.” Melde had invited Nava Semel to come to Alaska, with a promise of wild Alaska salmon. “She was really interested in visiting Alaska and she was intrigued to learn that Anchorage had a Jewish Museum with a permanent exhibit about Alaskan pilots and flight attendants who, in 1947, flew from Alaska and helped transport Jewish refugees to assist with early establishment of the State of Israel,” said Melde.
This year, the world will honor Semel’s life and work through a memorial symposium that will be held November 28 in Amsterdam and on December 2 in The Hague, and Alaska will be well represented. Actress Nava Sarracino, director Vivian Melde, and composer Christel Veraart will travel to Amsterdam at the end of November to participate in a series of events, shows and talks on Israeli culture honoring Semel. Veraat, the 2017 recipient of the Connie Boochever Fellowship and 2014 Individual Artist Award from the Rasmuson Foundation for music composition, originally scored a lullaby and recorded it in Yiddish. When she sent the lullaby to Semel, the playwright encouraged Veraart to change the lyrics to Hebrew, the national language of Israel. The lullaby is available in English, Hebrew, and Yiddish at https://christelveraart.com/discography/lullaby/.
The work between the four women was transformative for local audiences but also for the three Alaskan (or Alaskan-based) artists. Semel’s work impacted each of them personally but also created a collaborative spirit between the women, the work, and the communities that the work touched. The Anhoarge Press asked Melde, Sarracino, and Veraat about their experiences working with Semel’s work, their answers are honest and inspiring.
For Melde, Semel’s work transcends nationality, “I wanted to take this to communities, particularly rural Alaska, because in my travels to villages for the planning work that I do, I believe the message this play brings is one of love, compassion, honesty, and hope. I've also met itinerant special education teachers and students, some differently abled, while being lodged at the village schools. In the play, there's a story of the mother, while visiting her grandmother as a young girl, sees a boy with Down syndrome being bullied into giving away bread for chewing gum. When she tells her grandmother about the incident, the grandmother asks her, "And, what did you do?" Later as a mother, she sees her own daughter stand up to boys who bully her little brother.”
Sarracino arrived at the play in search of something personal, it sounds like it was serendipity at work, she stated, “Theatre for me is a spiritual calling. I had finished the last play I was in and was hungry for something new and so had been praying quite intensely for what I was meant to do next. Through an interesting series of events which led me to look for the meaning of my name “Nava” I was led to “Nava Semel’s” website. As soon as I read about her play “ Child” [The Child Behind the Eyes] I felt that I had found what I had been praying for.”
For Veraat, Semel’s work offered an opportunity to explore geographies. She states, “As a composer, my sound palette has always been nourished by geographical places and not only the ones familiar to me. If you name me a place, even if I have never been there before, my ears wander off – only to settle when discovering an overall emotion. In my correspondence with Nava Semel I wrote: ‘A couple of months ago, while escaping the Alaskan winter, I read your play in Mexico. At a perfect, remote and quiet place, it was the poetry and atmosphere of your writing that drew me in at once. The mother’s love for her son Yotam spoke to me first, and it was her unconditional love that urged me to compose the lullaby Viglid.’”
The collaborative aspect of The Child Behind the Eyes, created a bond between the Alaskan artists. According to Veraat, “For many months, the three of us worked intensely together. As a composer, it was extremely helpful to tap into Vivian’s vast theatre experience, both as an actress and as a director, and it was wonderful to witness Nava Sarracino grow into a role that ultimately lead to stirring performances that never left the audience untouched.” Sarracino said, “I learned the power of unity and of vision. When I decided I wanted to do the play and take it to the Victoria Fringe Festival I really had no idea what I was getting into. Vivian through her experience, intensity, passion and dedication was able to help my vision become a reality. I am forever indebted to her. Vivian then brought Cristel into the production and it was complete as Christel’s talent and conscientious love of the play brought music that carried our production to another level. Not to mention her marketing skills. I was constantly amazed by how each of us were so important to the project and each brought a crucial element. Collaboration makes me fall in love with the mystery of life as I see how each part brings something so important to the whole and the whole is so much greater than the individual parts. RKP productions, our stage manager…. so many pieces.”
As Melde, Sarracino, and Veraat travel to Amsterdam to honor Semel, they are also saying goodbye to her in this life but will carry Semel and her work with them probably for as long as they live, “I feel she has been part of my destiny on planet earth and I am forever changed because of her. She was a beautiful woman who I wish I had met in real life and I feel very honored to be part of remembering her through this event in Holland,” says Sarracino. The memorial will likely be different things for different people, but it is likely they will all share in Semel’s echoing love for humanity, no matter how flawed we are and hope for the future. Perhaps Sarracino’s sentiments will also reach beyond borders and cultures, “I feel my soul will be fed and nourished. Since so much of “Child” has been like watching a beautiful story unfold, I am looking forward to see what this next chapter brings. Melde reaffirms, “In times of chaotic uncertainty that seem to be spreading worldwide, what better way to form alliances with other countries than through the arts. “