Steal a Pencil for Me: Meet Director Omer Ben Seadia

Stage Director Omer Ben Seadia. Photo: Opera Colorado/Kelly Maxwell

By Kelly Maxwell

The first thing you notice when talking to Omer Ben Seadia is how she speaks using her entire form. Ask her about her work and her whole being lights up. Ask her to tell you about her passions and she throws every muscle behind her words. She is absolutely electric. So, no wonder she gravitated towards the drama, energy, and intensity of directing operas. She was drawn to this life and simply cannot imagine doing anything else. Ben Seadia recently sat down to discuss the world premiere of Steal a Pencil for Me (opening tomorrow night!), her life making great works come alive on stages across the globe, and how collaboration makes her world go ‘round.

Tickets are nearly sold out for Steal a Pencil for Me, but if you act quickly you can still nab seats. The opera runs for only four performances, from January 25-30, at the Wolf Theatre at the Mizel Arts and Culture Center.

Tell me what mounting a world premiere has been like. How has the Steal a Pencil for Me process been for you?

Doing a world premiere is a wild adventure. It’s like nothing else. It’s an invigorating, thrilling, and petrifying thing to do… All of the above! This piece was born out of love, crafted in love, handled with love, and it’s performed with love. It has so much humanity to it. Every day you learn something new about it. I mean, that’s the thing that we strive to do with opera all the time, even if it’s a piece that’s been done for 200 years. But a world premiere gives you the opportunity to really ask, “What does this mean? What is the significance of that? How do we craft the story?”

L to R: Soprano Inna Dukach (Ina Soep), stage director Omer Ben Seadia, and mezzo-soprano Adriana Zabala (Manja Polak). Photo: Opera Colorado/Kelly Maxwell

How did you get connected to Steal a Pencil for Me?

I was brought onto the project by Opera Colorado Music Director Ari Pelto. He is a dear, longtime colleague of mine. Two years ago, when it was decided that this show was going to be realized into a production, he approached me to direct it. It seems almost imaginary because you think, “Oh, two years from now, who knows what it’ll be?” But we’ve been living with these characters ever since. I’ve lived with their story, their past, their present, and I’ve lived with this beautiful music and the words. Over the last two years, I’ve done a lot of other projects—but these characters and their lives have continued to travel with me. So, now, being able to put them on stage and give them life, is thrilling.

What do you consider to be some of the stand-out moments of this opera?

Oh, I can’t tell you. It’s going to be for the audience to say. Because it’s based on a true story, we didn’t want to play it from the end backwards. We were really cautious to play every scene as it’s happening. That’s the thrilling thing you can do with a world premiere, that you can’t do with Tosca or La bohème. The audience doesn’t know how it’s going to end. Those moving parts are when I forget what’s happening. Even yesterday, there was one moment when I heard a little gasp from one of the five people that were there during rehearsal. And I was like, “Oh! Good, okay, that’s right!” Because to me, I’m thinking, “Are the artists going to get their entrance? Are they going to make their beat?” When it worked and everyone reacted to it, I went, “Oh, that’s live theater! That’s what we’re here to do.”

L to R: Mezzo-soprano Adriana Zabala (Manja Polak), soprano Inna Dukach (Ina Soep), and baritone Gideon Dabi (Jaap Polak). Photo: Opera Colorado/Kelly Maxwell

Let’s talk a little bit about your experience as a director. How did you choose this path?

I’ve wanted to do this my entire adult life. I grew up in the theater and I always wanted to be part of it. I knew I wasn’t the performer type, but I knew I wanted to be able to express myself and my worldview through theater. Opera became the perfect breeding ground for that. When I was fifteen I was in an opera, and I found it there. After that, I never wanted to do anything else. I think opera allows you the opportunity to explore the human spirit and human circumstances to the extreme, to their most delicate, their most beautiful, their most vulnerable, and their most exciting. I love directing more than anything because it’s the great joy of being master of none. I don’t conduct, I don’t play, I don’t sing, I don’t dance, I don’t act, and I don’t design, and yet I can bring all these people together with a singular path. I have all these creative geniuses come along and I, hopefully, steer everyone in the right direction.

Let’s talk about the team you brought together for Steal a Pencil for Me. Can you tell us a little about your creative squad?

I think I’m so fascinated by the work the designers have done on the show. We have costume designer Jessica Jahn, scenic and lighting designer Francois-Pierre Couture, and projection designer Hana Kim. They are three incredible artists on their own path, in their own right. I have a personal and a creative connection with each of them separately, and they’ve collectively made this show into a world that I could not have imagined myself. This is a realistic story, but it’s not necessarily told in a literal way. The design imagery is taken from Jewish mourning traditions. In Jewish mourning traditions, when someone passes, you rip a piece of clothing to symbolize the mourning of a person in grief. The tearing is expressed throughout the set, the costumes, and the projections. It reiterates this deep scar that impacts all of these characters, these people. After the war is over, any survivor will tell you, the scar of those events is one that takes generations to heal, if it is even possible to do so. That deep, profound tearing was something that was really important to express in the design. I can’t say enough what an incredible job this team has done with that.

The cast of Steal a Pencil for Me. Photo: Opera Colorado/Matthew Staver

You’re from Israel and have a deep cultural connection to this material. With your background, what stands out for you, both historically and culturally, about this piece and the way the story is told?

We’re sort of used to Holocaust stories being ones of great heroism, people putting their lives at risk and going through extraordinary acts of bravery. The compelling thing about this story, for me at least, is that they’re very ordinary people. It’s hard for me to imagine myself in that situation, but when I do, I don’t see myself breaking through the ghetto gates and stealing a Nazi’s pistol and shooting. But I do think there’s a great act of bravery in simply surviving, keeping hope and love, while holding onto humanity during those times, and I think that’s something we can all relate to and all aspire to.

I find that every person has a different relationship to the events of the Holocaust, to a memory, to family, to the way that they hold onto it. I don’t think that there’s any uniform reaction to it. There are so many different ways to connect to this material. For a lot of people, every day that they can tell this story, and connect to it, is a good day. For some people, it’s the last thing they want to talk about; it’s so painful and so present. For my generation, we have so many questions because we didn’t get to hear enough stories growing up. I know from my experience, we got the history in a formal way in school, but I never got to hear stories because our survivors didn’t make it. I know there are people who will have a direct connection to it and say, “I don’t want to hear it because it feels too close.” And I also know people who have a more distant relationship to it who might crave it, to know more, because they want to be part of the conversation. I think it’ll be fascinating to see how it resonates with different people.

You don’t have to be Jewish to come see the show. You don’t have to have family who perished or were involved with the Holocaust in any way; you’ll still be able to connect to Steal a Pencil for Me. We have a diverse group of people coming together to tell this story, and that was very significant for us. We’re inviting the story to be related to from all these different perspectives.

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