Ari’el Stachel is a 2018 Tony winner for his Broadway debut in “The Band’s Visit,” but his beginnings with the show were somewhat less auspicious. Stachel, who plays smooth-crooning flirt Haled in the Tony-winning best musical, auditioned seven times before booking the role for the 2016 Off-Broadway run—and he’s glad he did. Amidst New York’s theater awards season frenzy (and prior to winning his trophy), Stachel made his way to Backstage HQ to discuss how each audition helped him mine the nuances of his character, the advice he has for other actors to harness resilience, and how the musical’s Middle Eastern representation helps him keep his big-break moment in perspective.
On visiting the town in Israel on which ‘The Band’s Visit’ is based.
“I had been before to Israel but not to this particular town, and being in this particular town was astonishing. We performed some of our songs and music for the townspeople under the desert sky—literally—and spent time with some of the locals and had a local meal…. I just remember feeling the wind and seeing these people but also sort of hearing from a different demographic of Israelis…. It was really interesting to anchor ourselves in who the story is about. And now, there’s 1,100 people watching us every night, which on some level is an uncomfortable thing. It’s not a natural thing. But that experience anchors me. So when I get jitters or nerves, or Bill Clinton is there, I just feel that heat, go back to that sense memory, and think about those people. It makes whatever’s happening at the Barrymore feel a little smaller. That’s the difference for me between the Off-Broadway and Broadway [runs]: There are some scenes where I look out a window, and I know exactly what I’m looking at now.”
His seven ‘Band’s Visit’ auditions were instrumental in layering his performance.
“I auditioned seven times for ‘The Band’s Visit’ over the span of nine months. I’m grateful it took me that long: a) to teach me about resilience, but b) because I needed to bring all of my humanity to it first. And then all the cultural stuff, the accent, it’s just layered on top. I think I was trying to do the top first, and it had to come from somewhere very deep. This is my first big job, and to permeate this business feels close to impossible. There needs to be so much of your own skin in the game in order to actually land it. It’s all about: keep going.”
The audition process was also a crash course in perseverance.
“I remember getting the email from my agent in December 2015 when I didn’t get it the first time, and I remember just sinking into my couch because this just felt like my shot. But what I learned is that, even though I was culturally and ethnically appropriate, the work still needed to win. The thing I love about that process is we’re always evolving, always changing, always expanding. Our work always has the potential to get better. So what I was doing [during that time] was I was in acting classes every single week. I coached the material and sides ad nauseum; I never let the material go. That’s not to say I was valiant or confident every time I went back in, but by the seventh audition, I literally went in front of the whole team and was like, ‘We’re family right? What more can you see from me?’ I just kept chipping at the craft. In this business, you just gotta be like a punching bag dummy and you just gotta get up.”
The show’s Middle Eastern representation trumps accolades.
“It’s seismic. It’s huge. The other day I was speaking at a panel, and for the first time it occurred to me, ‘What would this have meant to me as a high school student?’ It just didn’t exist…. I pretended that I wasn’t Middle Eastern [growing up], so much so that I didn’t go to my high school graduation because I didn’t want to be seen with my Yemini father. I feel like if there [had been] positive representation of us in the media, if there was a musical like ‘The Band’s Visit’...that would have meant a lot to me. Israeli and Arab kids alike are messaging me, telling me that they can’t believe their language is being [spoken] onstage, flabbergasted by this new pathway that they never knew existed. It’s like a brand new highway that just never existed before…. More than ever, we need more things that build bridges. The fact that both young Arab and Israeli kids are seeing themselves in and identifying with the story and creating this bridge [is] the greatest.”
The show’s stillness demands unwavering truth.
“[Originally], I was trying to physicalize something and I was trying to show how I was thinking and I was moving and [director David] Cromer looked at me and said, ‘You don’t have to do anything. Just think of the music starting to flow out of your body and think of as the music starts, that’s the beginning of your answer to him, and then the words come later.’ Basically, what that meant was, in those moments, there is this very activated energy that moves forward, and if you’re really zoned in on your intention and you’re really connected to the other characters, somehow that stillness feels extremely active. If you’re not connected to your intention and you’re not understanding exactly what you’re doing, you want to fidget as an actor. I would say, for my first six auditions I was fidgeting. [Now], it doesn’t feel like this is a silent, still moment. It feels like truthful storytelling.”
An actor is in constant evolution—so long as you let yourself be.
“We are always capable of evolving, so whatever sort of environment you’re in...you must give yourself permission to evolve. The person that you feel like you are, wherever you feel like you are in the pecking order, you just gotta give yourself space to evolve. And if you give yourself permission to evolve, things change…. People can’t believe [where I am] right now, and the only reason why is because I was daring enough to believe that I could just keep going, in spite of my fear.”
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