Creating a Character: The Moni Yakim Legacy
Released June 19, 2020; 1h 16min
At the age of 17, Moni Yakim went to a Jerusalem theater to see a mime show. He was “utterly spellbound” at the “magical” performance by a figure creating “everything from nothing.” Moni, the youngest of six children (five boys and one girl) was born during the British Mandate for Palestine to a father from Aleppo, Syria, and a mother from Alexandria, Egypt. He always felt that, as a Sephardi Jew, he was a “second class citizen.” As a young child, he had sat on his parents’ balcony observing an “unbelievable theater of characters from all over the world” pass by. Acting, it seems, entered his bloodstream. To this day, the “father of Juilliard” says “I dream all the time about going back to Israel, I am very connected to the country, I was born in Jerusalem and I grew up in Jerusalem.”
The drama department of the Juilliard School in New York, arguably America’s greatest performing arts school, was founded in 1968 by John Houseman, who immediately asked Moni Yakim to teach there. Moni has never left and is today the sole member of the original teaching staff. Houseman nicknamed Moni “the erratic Israeli” but the list of pupils he has inspired reads like a veritable directory of top acting talent from stage, TV and screen. Former pupils who talk of what they learned from him include Jessica Chastain, Kevin Kline, Laura Linney, Anthony Mackie, Michael Stuhlbarg, Oscar Isaac, Charles Gerber, Peter Jacobsen, Michael Urie and Alex Sharp. Moni teaches movement, a vital skill because actors need to convey emotion with their entire bodies.
The great mime artist puts it this way: “what if you had no words? How do you express yourself physically? Actors have to deal with the inner life of the character.” As Kevin Kline so graphically states: “When I was at Juilliard, I was an unformed amoeba,” but Moni’s classes were “just bodybuilding for the actor’s emotional, and psychic and physical apparatus.”
Creating a Character charts Moni Yakim’s career beginning at a Jerusalem theater company, his move to Paris to study mime under Étienne Decroux, where he met his future wife Mina (who at the time was studying under Marcel Marceau). This is followed by their immigration to Brooklyn, NY, the founding of his own theater company and his long career at Juilliard, joined by his wife. Moni’s unique approach to the physical demands of acting has inspired legions of household names including a 2015 Tony Award for British actor Alex Sharp for his role as Christopher Boone in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.
This film is an insightful view into the life of a little-known luminary, replete with wonderful archival footage (not only of pre-state Jerusalem but also of his and his wife’s mime performances), whose legacy would otherwise be unknown to almost all of us.