Boston-based actor Jeremiah Kissel, who plays the role of Tevye in the New Repertory Theatre’s production of “Fiddler on the Roof,” talks to JewishBoston about the iconic role and what he brings to his performance.
You’re a luminary in the Boston theater scene. What have been your favorite roles?
When I came here back in 1980, I discovered that Boston was a place where I could live and work. Rather than wait on line to be seen for acting jobs, I was actually offered acting jobs. It’s been close to 40 years and I’ve never regretted my decision to stay here. I’ve done many wonderful shows. As far as favorite roles, I don’t judge my roles. I don’t pick and choose roles either; they choose me. Whatever the universe throws in my path I take from that and learn from it.
What was it like to step into the venerable role of Tevye?
I started out by not thinking about it as a venerable role. Every single part I do in every single play I do, I tackle in the same way: I pick it up as if I’m discovering it for the first time. I deploy the technique of an actor: What is the story? What am I doing? What do I want? Why do I want it? How badly do I want it? Every once in awhile I think I’m filling big shoes, but that’s not useful. My job is to serve the play and disappear. The rest of it is showbiz and not theater. The showbiz part has never interested me, but I love the theater—it’s a temple for humanity.
How did you prepare for the part?
The milieu of “Fiddler on the Roof” is in my DNA. I’m a Jew born in the Bronx. Two of my four great-grandfathers were rabbis from shtetls in Galicia and Poland. I grew up with [the literature of] Sholem Aleichem and Isaac Bashevis Singer. I went to the Ramaz School for 12 years. And by [virtue of my background] I turned out to be the Jewish expert in the rehearsal process. I told my colleagues rehearsal is at 6 on a Friday evening, but let’s all show up at 5:30 to light the Sabbath candles. I’ll say kiddush too, and bring challah. When we got into the space I explained what the Sabbath is and why it’s a basic precept of Judaism. I pointed out that the song from the show—“Sabbath Prayer”—reflects the structure of the Priestly Blessing, with which we bless our children. It’s a three-pronged blessing that makes up some of the oldest liturgy we have.
Nothing. I only have a contract with the script.
“Fiddler on the Roof” has a darker side. How did that darkness influence your portrayal?
I wouldn’t be able to do my job if I was thinking that way. I just look for the truth. The show’s darkness is centered on the question of what it means to be human and that is a very serious, meaningful topic. To quote one of the songs from the show, it’s “laden with happiness and tears.”
What has been the most difficult aspect of portraying Tevye?
I had an enormous problem with the way Tevye treated his third daughter when she married outside the faith. His faith calls upon him to lose his child to death. She’s dead by his understanding and his call. We live in a time in which horrendous acts are committed by people around the globe based on their faith. I drew a direct line from what Tevye does in this story to himself and his daughter to some of those horrific acts we see on the part of [so-called] religious people, people that completely ignore civil humanity.
What has been the most joyous aspect of portraying Tevye?
The celebration of mysticism and the Baal Shem Tov—the idea that God delights in melodious songs. And also that prayer and devotion to God is not necessarily about scholarship or texts; it’s about love. I found the love to be stronger and deeper than I thought it would be. Our cast comes from the four corners of the world, and there’s so much love on the stage.
What has it been like to be directed by Austin Pendleton?
Austin is a loving, brilliant director. He stands at the ground zero of good acting in New York City. I know him to be someone who couldn’t care less about showbiz. He wants truth on stage wherever it leads you. I’ve never worked with anyone who knew how to get the best out of you in such a joyous way. Watching him direct is like watching a master class.
“Fiddler on the Roof” runs at the New Repertory Theatre in Watertown through Jan. 1, 2017. Buy tickets here.