Stereotypes exasperate actor-director-playwright Ami Dayan: They're insultingly simplistic and reductive; they're also impediments to the creative process. For instance, Ilan Hatsor's Masked, about three Palestinian brothers in 1990 forced to make life-and-death decisions, could easily have degenerated into a tedious polemic on the ongoing conflict in the Middle East. But the Israeli-born-and-bred Dayan, 44, who helmed the Off-Broadway production of Masked that opened Aug. 2 at the DR2 Theatre, steers clear of the traps that might trip up others when tackling topically sensitive, polarizing material.
"It was not just me but everybody involved," says Dayan of the decision about how to approach the play. "At the first reading, I remember [the actors] were talking about the whole community of Middle Eastern–looking actors—how they meet each other at auditions for shows like 24. The parts are always negative; they're never human beings. Sometimes you get a role and you just want to vomit. You don't want anybody to see it, but you need the money."
Some actors came to audition for Masked with accents so thick, he says, they seemed more like rejects from an al-Qaida training video than like brothers mired in a brutal conflict. The affectation agitated Dayan: "I would ask them why they are talking with an accent—you're talking to your brothers! This is your language. Then they tell me about all these productions they've been in and this whole issue of the actor's accent."
Dayan's unpretentious, no-nonsense approach is a reflection of his background. Raised in a kibbutz near Haifa, a third cousin of the Israeli military leader Moshe Dayan, he first became interested in theatre after completing compulsory service in the Israeli army. After he'd toyed with various "kinds of art," Dayan says, his curiosity led him to take a theatre class. A month and a half later, he was so obsessed that he applied to and was accepted by the three-year acting program at Bet Zvi, a prominent drama school in Ramat Gan, a Tel Aviv suburb. A year into the program, however, he grew restless and moved to New York City, where he trained with Uta Hagen, Herbert Berghof, and other teachers at HB Studio. Their instruction filled a void in Dayan's burgeoning life as a theatre artist.
"I was working very hard in Israel, but I was feeling like they weren't really dealing with the art of acting," Dayan recalls. "There was a lot of pressure and I wasn't ready for it. I just wanted to go back to the core. I needed to find the artist in me and how that translated to the performing." After a year in New York, Dayan returned to Israel to complete the Bet Zvi program following a brief stint in Paris, where he studied acting with teachers from New York University's Experimental Theatre Wing.
Upon finishing drama school, he was hired immediately by an acting company in Israel, and with them he honed his talents not only as an actor but also as a budding director and playwright. Then, in 1999, Dayan made an arguably anti-career decision: He moved to Boulder, Colo. (his wife wanted to study yoga with an expert practitioner there). Enjoying the amenities of a community that seemed conducive to raising a family, he decided to stay permanently.
It was in Boulder that Dayan got involved in his first production of Masked—as an actor. He had seen the play performed in Israel and was so impressed by it, he brought the script with him to Colorado, intent on producing it one day. The impetus finally came in January 2006, when the Palestinian militant group Hamas won a majority of seats in the Palestinian legislature. "That was like a mayday," Dayan says.
In the play's current Off-Broadway incarnation, the power has shifted for Dayan: Now he's the director, while another actor, Daoud Heidami, plays the character (also named Daoud) that Dayan portrayed in Boulder. How challenging is that for a director? "We did not come here to revise the Boulder production" is Dayan's response. "We came to take it to a different level and work with local professionals who are just fabulous actors."
What Dayan does find challenging are his solo shows, such as the well-received 2006 Off-Broadway production of The Man Himself, which he directed, performed, and adapted from Alan Drury's 1975 play. (Dayan is currently developing it into a screenplay.) "It's a lot easier to have partners," he wearily admits.
Ultimately, Dayan would like to concentrate more on directing and less on performing and writing. "The director is the center of it, and everything else basically facilitates that," he says. Yet acting always informs what he does as a director and even as a writer. "That's the core of it: feeling the character in the body and being able to articulate it. It is physical, but it's in the context of the beat."