I lost my virginity to a young woman I met as a young theater major at a local college. Lisa was her name and she was utterly dazzling; I adore her still and we are still very, very good friends.
Another true story.
I was born with spina bifida. I walked on crutches until a tragic fall off a stage while dancing in a college musical caused a break in one of my feet that would never heal. The very last thing I did with my lower legs before they were amputated was to finish that very show, a musical adaptation of Studs Terkel's "Working" where I sang and danced on my crutches as a tie salesman known as Ralph Werner.
Oh God, how I love that memory.
Alas, eventually my body simply couldn't handle the physically demanding world of acting and I instead began devoting myself to writing, directing, and occasionally producing both stage and cinema. These days, as you can probably guess, I spend most of my time as a film journalist with occasional forays into short film producing and even more occasional voiceover work.
But, oh my, I love acting and I love, really love, the world of theater and film.
All of this love splashed over me like majestic ocean waves as I watched Rauzar Alexander's immensely engaging and incredibly entertaining feature doc Creating a Character: The Moni Yakim Legacy, a First Run Features release exploring the remarkable world of longtime Juilliard drama instructor Moni Yakim, the sole remaining founder of Juilliard's legendary Drama Division.
What do Jessica Chastain, Viola Davis, Patti Lupone, and Adam Driver all have in common? They are but a few of the extraordinary performers who have studied under Yakim. It's a reunion with Kevin Kline, who coincidentally once spoke to my own acting class, that serves as the film's most inspiring and emotionally resonant face-to-face interview as the two embrace in that kind of way where there's never any doubt that love is in this place. Pantomime, a legacy of Yakim's, takes center stage here yet it's truly the unspoken body language and facial expressions that tell the story. It's a beautiful segment that lingers in the heart long after the film itself is over.
There are other interviews and appearances, of course. Oscar Isaac reminisces warmly and with great passion, while the always lovely Laura Linney reminds us why we love her and why she still love this man. Anthony Mackie is present often throughout the film, his calm demeanor and steady presence reflecting the discipline he learned at Juilliard.
Jessica Chastain? Just sigh. Chastain is also an executive producer for the film.
Weaving together elements of a biographical documentary with following one of Yakim's classes, Creating a Character shines a spotlight on Alex Sharp, a student who will, just one year post-Juilliard graduation, win the Tony Award for Best Actor for his Broadway performance in "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time." For those unfamiliar with the world of drama, Creating a Character may seem to only skim the surface of Yakim's strong focus on movement and internalization, but for those who've experienced the world of drama and/or acting where the film really excels is in capturing the true spirit of not just studying acting but surrendering to it. The classroom scenes are mesmerizing in their beauty, wholly committed students profusely sweating as Yakim pushes them and then pushes them even more.
A native of Jerusalem, Yakim came to the United States at the encouragement of esteemed acting coach Stella Adler specifically to act. While act he certainly did, Yakim found his greatest fame in pantomime and, of course, eventually and for the past 45+ years as an instructor at Juilliard alongside his wife Mina.
The film's 76-minute running time feels like a mere introduction into the wonder that is Moni Yakim, his presence so steady and assured that every time he speaks you lean over toward the screen to make sure you don't miss a single word. The film is greatly enhanced by the original, atmospheric music of Ryan "Bullet" Shields and Alexander's own warm, inviting lensing that is intimate without ever becoming invasive.
Filmed over the course of six years and notably following one of Yakim's classes for its entire four year journey, Creating a Character is one of the most engaging films on the subject of acting in years and a film that truly celebrates the impact of Yakim as a creative influence and, indeed, the absolute importance of having a creative influence in one's life. He is also the author of "Creating a Character: A Physical Approach to Acting."
Creating a Character brought back my fondest of memories, engaging me and challenging me and even reminding me why my own acting days were limited as I struggled, really struggled, to trust my body and surrender it to acting. Everything came back in waves of nostalgia and celebration and grief and wonder and by the time the closing credits for Creating a Character were rolling I found myself wanting to watch it all over again.
First Run Features is, rather excitedly, making Creating a Character: The Moni Yakim Legacy available via virtual cinema and you are able to support participating theatres. In my home town of Indianapolis, that's Studio Movie Grill where 50% of receipts will go to support the cinema during this most challenging time. You can also choose to support a local theater in your own home town! For more information, visit the film's official website and check out the list of participating theaters!
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic