An Interview With Actor Michael Levin, Plus Win Tix to "What's the Word For" at Illusion Theater

Illusion Theater in Minneapolis just opened “What’s the Word For” this past weekend (it runs through April 21st) starring MOT Michael Levin as Dr. Hayden Harris.  Michael took a few minutes of his busy pre-show preparations to answer a few questions from TC Jewfolk about the show and his Jewy background.  Michael grew up in St. Louis Park, became a Bar Mitzvah at Temple Israel in Minneapolis, and graduated SLP High in 1980.
Read on, and oh, of course, because we love you, we have an opportunity for you to win free tickets at the end of this article (but don’t skip the interview – Michael’s a pretty cool guy).

TC Jewfolk: How did you know you wanted to be an actor? 

Michael Levin: I first became interested in acting in the third grade (Fern Hill Elementary). Got the lead role in “The Pied Piper of Hamelin.” I still remember some of the songs. For school projects, I wrote short plays — I remember I wrote one about Columbus and Queen Isabella for a 6th grade history project.
I always participated in theater. I didn’t really consider acting as a profession until high school when I discovered there were actually people making a living doing it. Instead of focusing on big-name celebrities, I began to notice the “character” actors in the scenes with them. Same faces over and over appearing on film & TV opposite the big stars. I thought that would be a pretty cool job.

TC Jewfolk: Tell me about “What’s the Word For“? 

Michael Levin: “What’s the Word For” is a new play by Jeffrey Hatcher. I play a character named Dr. Hayden Harris who is still recovering from a traumatic brain injury 17 years after a car accident. He used to be a very brilliant film professor who has now lost the ability to think abstractly and suffers from memory lapses. He lives in the home of his caretaker, Mrs. Caleodis (played by Melissa Hart who was nominated for a Tony Award for “Georgy” in 1970)). Mrs. Caleodis has become aged and has now fallen ill from several strokes. She is unable to continue caring for him and must place him in a new home.
Although Hayden still loves movies, and spends a great deal of time watching them, he is unable to recall their titles or their significance. The few flashes of his remaining intelligence are only apparent when Mrs. Caleodis challenges him to complete her crossword puzzles –which he able to do with amazing mental agility. Hence the title “What’s The Word For?
The play is very bittersweet as it addresses universal questions of aging, illness, and the issues of finding the “right” placement for those we care about and who still need caring for.

TC Jewfolk: Modern theater was built by Jewish actors, playwrights, composers, and directors. Does your Jewishness inform your work as an actor? 

Michael Levin: This is very delicate question.

Michael Levin

In the past, I have encountered several directors who didn’t see me as an actor, but rather a “Jewish Actor.” It’s a double-edged sword, as I’ve gotten many opportunities to work because a certain role was specifically written as a “Jewish character.” And likewise, I’ve been denied even auditioning for certain roles because I’ve been accused of being “Too Jewish” for the part. This is something that happens more often than I would like or anyone would care to admit.
This being said, I’ve been working in the Twin Cities for over 30 years now and I’ve been given wonderful opportunities to pursue my craft here and all over the country. I’ve travelled more than I ever thought I’d get to. I’ve met and worked with some incredibly talented individuals. I’ve managed to buy a house, raise a family, and spend my days working at a job I love. There are very few actors anywhere who can claim that.
If anything, I think the opposite to your question is more accurate — my acting has more influenced my Judaism. Especially this time of year with Passover. The entire ritual of purging the house of non-Pasedecha foods, keeping only what we can use for the eight days is very reminiscent of what the ancient Jews must’ve had done to prepare for the Exodus. They took only what they could use for the trip.
In this sense, it feels very much like what an actor does to prepare and get “in character” for a role. As Jews, we are getting “into character” by reliving the actions of our ancestors. It serves as a gentle reminder of what their ordeal must have entailed. Likewise, the rituals of donning tefillin and tallit is similar to putting on a special costume for a performance. It’s not something (most of us) wear every day, but it’s reserved for the special time we have in the synagogue where we communicate (or “perform” ) our rituals with Adonai.
Actors are constantly told to be “in the moment.” This means living your time in the role as if the character was encountering it for the first time. As Jews, these rituals we perform remind us to be “in the moment” with Adonai.

After reading that, how can you not want to see this actor on stage? Here’s how you can win one of our pairs of free tickets:

TC Jewfolk is giving away two pairs of free tickets to a show of “What’s the Word For?” of your choice. How can you win? Just answer this question in the comments below before Thursday, April 5th at midnight:

How old were you when you realized what you wanted to be when you grew up? Or are you still figuring that out? 

There’s no right answer. Winners will be drawn randomly. Good luck!