Considered the “Best Kept Secret in New York City,” Moni Yakim has been a movement teacher at Juilliard for nearly fifty years, shaping the lives of stage and screen stars such as Kevin Kline, Laura Linney, Jessica Chastain, and Oscar Isaac—all of whom are featured in brief interviews throughout the documentary. Creating a Character: The Moni Yakim Legacy is an engaging if somewhat thin portrait of what led Yakim to such a prestigious role, from his rebellious childhood on the streets of Jerusalem, to his fascination with productions at a local theatre, to his tutelage under the famed mime Marcel Marceau and actress Stella Adler in New York City. Vintage photographs and video footage neatly illustrate Yakim’s story along with intermittent modern scenes of him performing mime on a bare stage surrounded by bright lights and hazy smoke, crafting a beautiful display of his talents. However, he was not alone on his journey to success. Yakim’s wife Mina is also an accomplished mime and teacher at Juilliard. Creating a Character could have used more of her perspective and focused on her accomplishments instead of sidelining her as Yakim’s subordinate when she was his creative and professional equal.
Director Rauzar Alexander accompanies Yakim’s narrative with the educational arcs of his Group 43 students, particularly Alex Sharp. The most fascinating facet of Creating a Character is this glimpse into the acting training at one of the greatest theatre schools in the world. Here we see Yakim’s method at work, his idea that “Movement is action. Action is acting.” Shot in slow-motion, these sequences are filmed with a sort of awe as we hypnotically take in the bodies of these young thespians dripping with sweat, breathing heavily, and contoured in strange positions. The drum score adds a sense of urgency and power to their intensely physical work. The aspiring actors recite monologues while running and flailing across the room, suspended in a sit up position, or holding their hands in the air for an inordinate amount of time. To the non-actor’s eye, this seems ridiculous, but Yakim explains this kind of chaotic activity enables performers to push through their barriers, anxieties, and nervous habits so their body can truly become a malleable instrument to fully inhabit any kind of character.
The parallel story of teacher and pupil comes to satisfying close when Alex Sharp graduates and wins a Tony Award for Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, a highly corporeal role that fully incorporates Yakim’s training. This is a pitch-perfect ending for Alexander’s breezy documentary and reinforces that Yakim’s legacy will be preparing actors like him for the spotlight. Creating a Character: The Moni Yakim Legacy is for a very niche audience, particularly those interested in the art of performance. It would have benefited from more varying perspectives and in-depth interviews from the actors who learned from him. The nature of drama and the creative process is visceral and difficult to explain, but this documentary particularly flourishes in the careful observation of the young actors learning from Yakim. The raw energy and power in their dynamic, fluid motion is all the explanation you need for why his work endures.
by Caroline Madden
Caroline hails from the home state of her hero, Bruce Springsteen. Some of her favorite films include Dog Day Afternoon, Raging Bull, Inside Llewyn Davis, and The Lord of the Rings. She has an MA degree in Cinema Studies from SCAD and her writing also appears on Fandor, Reverse Shot, IndieWire, and Vague Visages. You can follow her on Twitter @crolinss and Instagram @crolins