When I first moved to New York City a few years ago, I splurged on a tiny studio apartment in Manhattan, 160 square feet (not counting the bathroom and closet) on the 15th floor of a building just blocks from Columbus Circle and Central Park. It was a dream (one that put me in debt, but still…a dream), and it didn’t take me long to realize that I was also just blocks from the storied complex of theaters, performance venues and classrooms that is collectively known as Lincoln Center. Boasting the famed Metropolitan Opera, Lincoln Center Theaters and Film Society of Lincoln Center (and more), the several-city-block-wide campus collectively houses some of the most impressive artistic endeavors in the country. One of those is the Juilliard School, the institution that’s generally accepted as the standard bearer for arts education, cultivating performers and creators that go on to great success in film, on stage and more.
But for all my days walking past the school, I never really knew what went on inside those hallowed halls—what, exactly, are they teaching that so consistently results in such success? Rauzar Alexander’s debut documentary Creating a Character: The Moni Yakim Legacy offers a peek behind the proverbial curtain into the methods of one of the school’s most esteemed instructors, the motion-acting instructor Moni Yakim. A native of Israel who left the country as a teen, he found he had a talent for the type of mime performance taught by Étienne Decroux (as opposed to the “circus act” championed by Marceaux…), learning to control and contort every muscle to perfection, emoting in ways beyond the reach of actors who focused on the face and hands. He was plucked from obscurity by none other than Stella Adler (the acting teacher who established the art of method acting) and brought to the U.S. with his wife, Mina, where they traveled the country performing their mime act to adoring audiences until interest grew in learning how to do what they do.
Alexander weaves together Yakim’s history (including how, on that tour of the US, their name was always misspelled with an M at the end, so they just kept it…) and his larger-than-life role at Juilliard, where acting students both anticipate and dread qualifying for his class in their second year in the program. The four-year program gives the film a bit of a narrative arc as current and past students (including many you know: Jessica Chastain, Kevin Kline, Anthony Mackie, Laura Linney, Oscar Isaac, Michael Stuhlbarg) recount how each year is designed to train the budding actors in a new aspect of their craft while building on the one that came before it. Though the film centers on Moni Yakim and his legacy in the Year 2 class, it could just as easily have been a double-Yakim affair, as Year 1, a class all about acting through masks (ultimately removing an actor’s first tool in their emotive arsenal), is taught by Moni’s wife and fellow legend Mina.
About halfway through the 76-minute film, we’ve learned all there is to learn about Moni’s life (including his striking resemblance to Tony Curtis in his youth), so the second half shifts its focus to the legacy of the film’s title. Certainly, all the famous faces popping up to tell us about what they learned from his exhausting, liberating classes drive home the idea that he’s doing something right, creating performers ready to take the entertainment industry by storm. It just so happens that Alexander and his cameras are following one of Moni’s latest students during the making of the documentary, including his auditioning for a small play you might’ve heard of: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime. (It’s not small, that’s a joke—it was a massive Tony winner the year it premiered, but I won’t spoil it entirely for you). The inclusion of this storyline dates the film a bit, as that play premiered in 2014…but as we watch the “groups” (as Juilliard’s classes are apparently called) progress from Group 1 (Kline) to upwards of Group 40 (present day), it’s clear that Moni’s impact on generations of actors is timeless.
Creating a Character is now streaming as part of Music Box Theater’s Virtual Cinema. A portion of your rental goes to support the theater while it’s closed.
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