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Where theater and psychology intersect. Blog, interviews & insight from a psychologist, about the shows YOU love.

Alexandra Silber – Radical Awe

Alexandra Silber – Radical Awe

Alexandra Silber has played many of the great roles in the West End, Broadway, and major concerts, including Julie Jordan in Carousel, Sophie de Palma in Master Class, Maria in West Side Story, and Amalia in She Loves Me. But the world she has spent the most time inhabiting by far has been in the small village of Anatevka. The 34-year-old actress performed as Hodel in Fiddler on the Roof in London’s West End in 2007, as Tzeitel in the 2015 Broadway revival of the show, and then several years working on her debut novel, After Anatevka. As evidenced from this history, Silber is someone who prefers depth over breadth. In conversation and in performance, she goes deep to mine careful thought and profound exploration.

I recently spoke with Silber about losing her dad at the age of 18, how Fiddler has helped her to better understand her Jewish father and Latina mother, the therapeutic power of theater, the importance of boundaries, and how we are all just like smartphones.

Your father was Jewish and your mother is Latina. How has it been for you to navigate those two parts of your identity?

My grandparents were part of the first generation of immigrants after the First World War who really wanted to identify as American. They did not want to own their culture and country of origin. My parents became “all American kids”, particularly my mom. This is a very common story, that the onus of cultural ownership goes to that 3rd generation. I have a half-brother from my dad who is 17 years older than me but I am my parents only child. So I didn’t feel that I had a lot of people to share this identity search with in my family.

The journey for that cultural ownership on both sides of the coin has predominantly been in my adulthood. The melting pot and the relationship to immigration and this country of welcome that we used to be is a very American outlook. But the first 10 years of my adulthood were spent in the U.K. where they have a very different relationship to both of my cultures. They still have a very anti-Semitic, Jewish ignorance. Their relationship to being Latina is completely disconnected because their relationship to Spanish speakers is through Spain. It’s something that I’ve really only started to develop and nurture and draw bold lines for myself in the last 7 years, since I’ve returned to America. I came back to the U.S. at the age of 26 where I felt like an immigrant in my own country. I had this American childhood but I had to relearn everything. So it put me in this keen observational place about America. It has been fascinating, especially over the last really heated couple of years.

My understanding of Judaism developed in the absence of wanting to know my father where he didn’t exist. Wanting to connect with him. I don’t think that Judaism was particularly meaningful or important to him as an individual but for whatever reason it made me feel connected to him. Then, of course, I kept connecting with Judaism because I kept getting cast in Fiddler. I started to associate Fiddler with being handed these gifts from my dad. I definitely identify as a Jewish person of faith but not necessarily as a Jewish person of culture because I don’t have any family left anymore and I don’t really share that with my mom.

Alexandra Silber, Danny Burstein, and Adam Kantor in Fiddler on the Roof (Photo credit: Sarah Krulwich, New York Times)

My relationship to my mom’s culture, to Latin America, to Spanish, to all of the things that make up being Latina feels more distant, probably because it is more distant for my mom who had a very typical 1950’s/early 60’s experience of southern California where being Latina was branded as really negative. She really fought very hard to become the woman she is, in spite of her last name, which, incidentally, is a really heated last name, Noriega. Being Latina does feel very secondary. It’s funny, but I have this psychic instinct that it’s going to be a big part of the next wave of my life. I just have a feeling that I’m going to get to engage with that more.

It’s interesting how you have been able to explore your Jewish identity through your art and to connect with the Jewish culture through people outside of your family.

I wrote a blog post about this man who had a significant impact on my life, Rabbi Syme. In the blog I said that I had not seen this man in 16 years, the last time I saw him was in his office when I was talking to him around the time of my father’s death. The thing I love about getting older is that you have these memories that get experienced through lenses. I have the actual memory of Rabbi Syme and then I have the memory of him as told through my honoring him through my book and recalling him over and over and over again from the same cluster of memories. Someone got this post to Rabbi Syme and he called me! Everyone in the temple was saying, “Rabbi Syme, there is this book that’s out and your name is in it, your whole name is this really important character.” He thought that was interesting, completely not realizing that it was me who had wrote it. Then he sees this post and put it all together. He read the book and then called me and said, “This is one of the great honors of my life.” We had an amazing conversation. What I think is really interesting is with my next book, he is an endemic part of my dad’s passing away and the rituals. I realized, Rabbi Syme is the only “character” in both books.

I love that story about Rabbi Syme and how it came full circle. You are talking about narrative, how our experiences are translated through that lense and our narrative shifts as we grow older because we are evolving.

One of the central themes in Judaism is “radical awe”, that everything is a miracle. Rabbi Larry Hoffman, who was our consultant for the Broadway production of Fiddler and, by the way, was an actual classmate of Rabbi Syme in rabbinical school. Rabbi Larry told us that the tenet of radical awe is where the song “Miracles, Miracles” as a phrase comes from. It’s the idea that everything is a miracle, from a flower opening in the morning to actual inexplicable occurrences. Another one is “meaning-making”, that everyone from challah to Sabbath, everything is a symbol, everything has meaning. I think the word you used, “narrative”, is kind of a secular term for that. I translate that for myself as meaning making. One of my best friends recently said to me that I almost instantly try to do this. And it’s true, I do. In my own way, I mythologized Rabbi Syme, as an example but was rewarded for doing that. That’s an important part of not only telling our stories but interpreting it for ourselves so that we can sit with it.

You have referred to yourself as an extroverted introvert. People often misunderstand and think that if you are an outgoing person. Can you speak about what it means to you to be gregarious but also introverted?

Extroversion and introversion are not about shyness or aloofness or misanthropy or anything like that. It’s about how a person recharges their energetic battery. I have always recharged my batteries in solitude. I have a very rich inner life and I’m also a highly sensitive person, so I get very easy overstimulated and overwhelmed. I have a lot of things that require repair but I have a great love of people and of party gatherings and social celebrations. It just means that when I engage with those, my battery drains.

I think the best ways to describe it, especially in modern times, is that it’s like a smartphone. I can only recharge my battery at home plugged into the wall. I also have a group of highly developed extroverted skills. I’m really good at interpersonal relationships and diplomacy.

I think it’s also a very real struggle, not only being in an extroverted society, even though there is this great introvert movement happening in the last decade, but I am also in a super extroverted industry. One thing I found challenging about being an actor is that it is an innately social art form that you can’t create a piece of theater without doing it with other people. And that is one of the joys of it, is that it’s a collaborative art form and a social art form. For me, at its very, very best, it’s incredibly rewarding and draining. At its worst, it’s very, very frustrating and draining. So I longed for a way to create and use my creative storytelling skills in solitude. To me, writing was a natural gift to my introvert self.

Henry Goodman and Alexandra Silber in Fiddler on the Roof in London (Photo credit: Catherine Ashmore)

The question really emerged for me about 10 years ago when I was first doing Fiddler in London. The creative part of being an actor is over at about the 4-5 month mark of a run. I have to take charge of my own creativity but also I needed to restore myself from the social aspects of the theater. Writing became a natural form of answering the question, “How can I tell stories, get inside people’s psychology, get creative, but do it alone.” Writing is a natural answer for that. So I feel that I have a balance of all of the things that I love and also am good at. One is energetically expensive and one is energetically restorative.

I have a theory that most stage actors are very emotionally sensitive people. I find it striking when speaking with stage actors how close to the surface those emotions are. That probably makes you really good at what you do but that probably also makes it that much more draining to be out and engaged in the world.

Years ago I was doing Carousel in London, which is this incredibly traumatized character, who weathers it with such dignity. At that time, I was working through a lot of stuff about loss and that is a play that is all about loss. So I didn’t really know how to engage with that play and that character without actually going to that traumatized place. I went for my annual physical and my doctor said something that was really wise, which was, “You know Al, your body really doesn’t know the difference between fact and fiction. If you’re drawing upon traumatic memories, if you are experiencing actual emotion every night that have to do with grief and abuse and suicide, those chemicals are actually flooding your body. And you need to repair yourself.” It was a huge “Aha” moment for me.

Lesley Garrett and Alexandra Silber in Carousel

It was the first time that I recognized that there are some aspects of this work that can be sacrificial. It’s always sacrificial in terms of your commitment and your energy but sometimes it’s also sacrificial in terms of your well-being. To me, I have always thought of it as service. It requires emotional intelligence to navigate without trauma.

The constant flooding of stress hormones in your body depresses your immune system. I’m sure if you weren’t already sick at that time, you were well on your way. It’s similar to what we do as psychologists, where we have to put boundaries around our work so that we are experiencing the emotions with our patients without letting down the floodgates because if we do, we will crash and then lose our ability to be helpful. I suspect that similarly, you have to titrate your emotional input and output and be mindful of your boundaries.

I see the parallel, where the relationship between doctor and patient is the same as actor and character. Ultimately it’s that Al is guiding Julie or Al is guiding Tzeitel and allowing the character to have the necessary emotional experience but Al is monitoring that process and keeping an eye on not letting it get out of control. There has to be a foothold in reality.

A lot of the shows you have been in centrally involve death or loss, including Carousel, Fiddler on the Roof, The Woman in White, West Side Story. Do you think you are drawn to those kinds of projects because of your own experience with loss?

Cheyenne Jackson, Alexandra Silber, and Jessica Vosk with the San Fransisco Symphony performing West Side Story (Photo credit: Stefan Cohen)

Totally. I did Fiddler in London with an actress Beverley Klein, who played Golda, and she is one of my best friends to this day. She gave me this phrase that I love, which refers to when an actor “has something to say” about a character. This is something she has shared publicly, but Beverly had an experience of romantic love in which she became quite obsessive. She was speaking about the musical Passion and how she always felt that she could create a sympathetic and relatable Fosca [the character is obsessed with her lover] because she had been in that place. She “had something to say” about Fosca. There are certain roles or pieces where you look at it and think, “I have so much to say about it.” There are other roles where you don’t have a lot to say about it, but that’s what technique is for. But there are certain things that feel special. When you get into an audition room or someone is asking you to do a project, they are responding to something that they know you are capable of sharing. I think one of my gifts/talents, part of my innate story, is that I do have access to the nature of loss, which is something that most adults don’t experience until a little bit later. When I was auditioning for Fiddler the first time around and I said the line, “Papa, God alone knows when we shall see each other again”, it resonated something most other 20-year-olds would not have access to. You could hear an echo and see something in me that spoke to it. Sometimes I have to navigate my way around bringing strong, intense emotions into everything I do because it informs me, Al, but it’s not appropriate for the character. In the Broadway Fiddler, to me it’s very clear that Tzeitel is a less overtly emotional character than Hodel and that overt emotion is not as accessible in their culture. But there is this huge breakdown scene where she is begging on her knees to ask her father to not have her marry this butcher. So I had to find a way to create this moment, I had to grapple with, “Okay, it’s great that you have access to all of this emotion but this is a character who, even if she was feeling the emotion this intensely, would do everything in her power to overcome it.” Whereas Julie Jordan might let it flow or Hodel might let it flow and just unapologetically feel the feelings, this character would not do that. And knowing that and trying to be sophisticated about that. I think that not only am I drawn to projects about loss, I think I get assigned to those projects because I have something so deep to say.

What role do boundaries play in your self-care and being able to be available and present for your work as an actor?

Being really honest, I don’t think that I had a relationship with either self-care or boundaries until last year even. I made myself really sick, I developed an autoimmune disease because I figuratively drove my car into the wall. I am so grateful to AI [autoimmune disease] because it forced me to prioritize self-care and boundaries. This was serious, I was taken to the brink of existence, if I kept going like that, I was going to die.

I learned so much from it and felt incredibly close to my dad. When I was a teenager, I felt unfairly kept from the majority of the disease in my family. I felt like I was knocking on a window and I wasn’t being let in. I now see as an adult that the majority of those choices were quite appropriate. As an adult, this experience helped illuminate the everyday realities of facing down a health crisis. I felt so close to him.

One of the main things I had to change was the entire concept of self-care and boundaries and energetic budgeting. When you’re faced with mortality and the true and very real limitations of what’s possible, you start to see in stark black-and-white what matters and what doesn’t matter. Recognizing toxicity not only in things and food but in people and energy. For me, the majority of my self-care had to do with my engagement with other people, it had to do with feeling that I had to give away of the energy that I had until I was at 0% battery and sometimes even operating inside of the deficit, never giving myself enough time to restore back to 100%, just constantly running on low battery. Figuring this out was essential to survival and I don’t think I could have learned that skill at all had it not been a health emergency, I think I would have just kept driving until the car exploded. I think that moderation and the central tenet of kindness to the self means that I know I have a lot to give but I’m not going to be able to give it if I’m not at my best. Boundaries are about preserving my ability to continue giving.

It’s challenging to advocate for the self. People really hate hearing “no” and all kinds of crazy comes up. You have to recognize that they are responding to their own relationship with rejection.

When I was in Fiddler, Tzeitel was my priority, I had to be at my best to serve her story. The way I always put it was, “Tzeitel needs me.” I didn’t miss a lot of shows but I felt that if I was not the best person to tell her story that day, then it’s my responsibility to say that and let one of my understudies tell her story because this isn’t about me, it’s about Tzeitel.

Actually, one of the biggest things I had to do was I had to cancel cable. That was one of my first highly sensitive person self-care actions. I recognized that I was passively consuming toxicity from the television, particularly the news. I now have absolute access to the news at my speed, at my ability to process it. By my very nature, I am a conscientious and responsible citizen but I didn’t have to just continue to swallow other people’s tone and other people’s toxicity on a constant basis. That one choice changed my life.

Prior to this, I also had a very common and ordinary relationship to food and sleep. We live in a society in which we brag about how little we are able to continue to operate on. “I only got 4 hours of sleep last night but I’m here.” I was definitely one of those people, living in a constant state of deprivation. I completely turned that around, trying to be really proud of being one of the people who always gets 8 or 9 hours of sleep, who makes space for that and really feels the difference. When you have physical consequences, it’s a very real relationship. If only I had been encouraged to think about these things years ago, it might not have been necessary to be an emergency.

Sometimes we need to be knocked on the head real hard by life to learn the lesson.

Oh yes, like a ton of bricks for Al Silber!

Turning to your novel, After Anatevka, why was it important to you to give life to these characters after Fiddler?

For me, Hodel is a combination of me and my mother and Perchik is almost literally my dad. The emphasis on Tzeitel came later. She became even more prominent after I played her.

With Perchik, I felt that I need to internally explore his struggle. Perchik is a character I will never play on stage so I can’t physically embody him. But what is amazing about writing is that, sort of like in psychology, you get to sit inside of someone else’s perspective and see what it’s like. The character Gershom was my paternal grandfather, which will be hugely illuminated in my next book. My dad’s and Perchik’s relationship to innate brilliance and the burden of giftedness. My dad’s kryptonite, by his own admission, was his obsessive need to be loved by his dad. I believe it killed him. I believe that if there is such a thing as third degree murder, it was executed by my grandfather and I have no shame in saying that. I wanted to explore it in the book and give my dad a voice. He was always a freedom fighter, like Perchik, a justice-seeker. More of a voice than just a eulogy.

Playing Hodel, I hugely judged Tzeitel, I think the way we judge our own family, the people closest to us. We are shaped, not just by the people themselves, but also our judgements of the people. So Hodel’s response to Tzeitel being herself was that her sister was different from her, was serious, didn’t love her, they were at odds with each other. Hodel longed to have something with her that wasn’t delivered to her so her response was a direct result of that. Writing about Hodel, there is a direct parallel between an 18-year-old girl who gets on a plane to Scotland, as I did, and an 18-year-old girl who gets on a train to Siberia, as Hodel does. I think at a very basic level, I deeply needed to assure Hodel resilience in a way that I needed to do it and assure it for myself. To experience that there is no trial that she cannot face, therefore there is not trial that I cannot face.

Then I embodied Tzeitel and came to realize how much I had judged her. As Tzeitel, I so longed to share with Hodel, and also with my younger self, the illuminations I had gained from embodying this person.

I suppose that the lesson is that we need to take a minute to sit inside of the other person’s shoes and see it from their perspective. When I did that I realized that they are not so different after all. What emerged was this dialogue between my older and young self saying, “I’m sorry I judged you”, in both directions.

I was curious if you had done any specific research in preparation for writing the book about trauma and loss but it sounds like you own experience was your research to fill out that part of the experience for the characters.

My own experience was definitely my emotional research, all of my actual research was very academic, such as going to Siberia. The emotional content was embodied and lived research. Hodel gave me the greatest gift, she gave me a chance to really understand the nature of what my mother lost. It was a lesson that actually began with Julie Jordan in Carousel. I really dedicated that performance to understanding my mother but this completed it so much more thoroughly and directly because the characters paralleled my parents’ spirits. In death, we all lose the same human being but we lose very different relationship to that human being. No one would deny that losing a spouse or a parent are equally horrific losses, absolutely irreplaceable. What I learned is that my mother lost more than a spouse, she lost more than a husband, it was a 1 in a billion soulmate connection.

The original novel by Sholom Aleichem has such a strong, male voice in Tevye as the narrator and protagonist. Was it important to you to take inspiration from that source material but tell it from a female perspective?

Very important. I was under no illusion that I am competing with Sholom Aleichem and the writers of the musical. I didn’t feel that I had any right to continue Tevye’s voice and also didn’t feel that was my task. I felt that he is a titanic voice that should remain to those original creators, it was not my baton to take and carry. So I focused on the women and that was very intentional. Which is also because that is how I experienced my adulthood, with an absence of a father. And on top of everything else, there is an element of feminism here. It’s appropriate for Sholom Aleichem to be one in the same with Tevye because that is his alter ego. For me, my alter ego is these women. It’s appropriate for me to speak on behalf of them and carry their story forward. The future is female!

What has it been like emotionally to explore your own personal experience with loss and grief for your upcoming memoir, White Hot Grief Parade? What can readers expect from the book?

The book reads a lot like my blog, it’s absolutely was a product of the blogging experience, which was self-exploratory. I want it to feel very connective but through my specificity.

It is also, just like the blog, a little patchwork quilt of tone. How I experienced the first 6 months of my grief was like a kaleidoscope of tones and colors. There are conventional memoir chapters that are observational and poignant and hard. There are chapters that are written like a screenplay. There are chapters that are word searches. It’s wild and crazy because I want it to feel like you are on the roller coaster with me. It is much more overtly direct about my life than it is on the blog. I reveal unflattering sides of myself, things that I do not look forward to answering to. There is one particular chapter that I go back and forth including for the last 5 years, knowing that the repercussions and people’s opinions of me might radically change. Ultimately I have decided to include it because it’s the truth. We don’t live in a time where people can be silent about this stuff anymore. I feel a responsibility to speak out. I feel apprehensive about the publication but there is power in the truth, there is power in owning your story.

I am proud of the human being I have become and it is because of all of these choices and my responses to all of these events. I hope that if anyone else has been taken to the edge and thought they couldn’t make it back, I hope that they can see that it’s possible to achieve their dreams, not just in what they want to do but who they want to become. I endeavor to be a person I can admire. I hope the book is a very human exploration filled with virtues and flaws and a lot of laughter.

I think people are attracted to honesty and vulnerability.

It’s very interesting to me how I am extremely willing to do that in service to a character but I am almost as extremely reticent to do it as myself. I will report as facts all of the hard things but actually sitting inside of the emotional experience of those facts in someone else’s presence is vulnerability. That is something I am very hesitant to do. And I made a choice with this book to not avoid it.

When will the book come out?

It should be released between June and August of 2018, with the hope for it to come out around Father’s Day. I’m really excited about it, I think it’s the best work I have put out into the world.

If you want to read more about Silber’s experience of writing After Anatevka, you can check out this New York Times piece. Her illuminating blog can be found at http://alexandrasilber.blogspot.com/. And if you have ever loved the story of Fiddler on the Roof, be sure to pick her up profound novel, After Anatevka.

Best,

Dr. Drama