Swiss-born actor Lea Kalisch is 25, exuberant, confident, athletic, with high energy and a sense that everything is possible. She loves New York, loves being around Jews. All sorts of Jews. And she loves to dance salsa. While she lives in English these days, she speaks French and German fluently, and also knows Yiddish, Spanish, Italian and some Hebrew.
Kalisch debuts her one-woman show, “In Love with a Dream,” next week, in a production of the New Yiddish Rep at Playroom Theater that is directed by George Xenos.
“It is my story,” she says of the performance piece, an autobiography in song, rap, dance, beat box, comedy, some piano playing, too — with Irving Fields’ “Miami Beach Rhumba,” salsa adventures in Cuba, a Jewish wedding sequence, theatrical auditions and many phone conversations with her mother. She alights upon love, Judaism, the artist’s life, questions of identity and dreams.
She speaks and sings in English with Spanish, Yiddish and German. Onstage, she says, she feels both “strong and nervous, very aware of the audience.” And, she adds, “never shy.”
Asked about the title, she says, “Perhaps the purpose of having a dream is not getting to the dream but the act of dreaming.”
Kalisch grew up in Zurich, the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors — her grandfather survived Auschwitz and her grandmother was hidden in Italy. She attended a Jewish school for two years when she was young, but things changed when her parents divorced. At a young age, she also began ice-skating professionally, with serious daily training. She says that skating took her away from religious life but she remained connected to Judaism, with regular Shabbat dinners and summers in Israel. She felt between two worlds, professional skating and the Jewish world of Zurich.
In skating, Kalisch was more passionate about the performance and choreography than the competition. She also took voice lessons, studied dance and starred in shows at her arts high school. At 18 she stopped skating, and began to concentrate on singing and dancing, but the rigors of practice stayed with her. She describes a “nerdy anti-social childhood,” and now, she says, she is the opposite.
Kalisch came to New York five years ago and studied at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy and then graduated from the New School, with a BFA in musical theater. She was more attracted to ethnic music than Broadway.
Asked to describe her voice and style, she says, “My voice is little Amy Winehouse, not as amazing — more a mix between Amy Winehouse and Edith Piaf, with a Jewish touch, a little more sacred sound.”
Over the last years, she has been going to many auditions. She would get up at 5 a.m. three days a week and wait in line. She recalls going reluctantly to an audition on the second day of Rosh HaShanah, and discovered that the line wrapped in front of a Manhattan Chabad, where she was welcomed.
Even when not chosen, she enjoys the audition process. She says, “Like in ice-skating, I was never technically the best, but I’m interesting to watch,” adding, “I’m a bit different.”
Kalisch began rapping while working on a fundraiser for a Latin American arts organization called “Revolucion Latina.” She seems to live by its mission, “Dare to go beyond.” Since she always liked to rhyme, it came naturally. In her show, she raps that an “actor is an athlete of heart, failure is our best friend, the more I fall, the more I want it all, I crave, I am a slave To my dream. I am in love with a dream.”
Kalisch also sings with the spiritual folk-rock group “Revival.” Just before Shavuot, HIAS released a music video with the group’s song “You were strangers.” She has previously performed in New Yiddish Rep’s “God of Vengeance” and “Awake and Sing” and in “Bad Jews” in Florida.
After working in Yiddish theater, she says, the Yiddish world opened up to her. She met many from the chasidic community, some who were “off the derech” and in the process of leaving, others within a sub-culture of double lives, staying in that community, but with much curiosity about the world outside.
For a music video she was creating, she would borrow the men’s streimels, large fur hats worn by married chasidic men, taking the subway out to Brooklyn and returning with hat boxes.
“I had to take an afternoon to listen to their stories. I would go out with them, very innocent, and they would tell me about their lives. I was giving them something they didn’t get otherwise: Someone who would listen without judging. I also gave them my sense of hope — I think I infused that into them.
She shows me a video of her teaching salsa dancing to two chasidic guys who were curious and wanted to learn how to dance.
As a child, she liked wearing her grandmother’s Russian fur hat in winter, and finds the traditional streimel massive, lavish and better suited to women. After our interview, she is off to Brooklyn to borrow another one. At one point she had 10 in her apartment for her music video. In the video — a piece of it is shown as part of her new show — she does a hip-hop rendition of “Ayshet Chayil,” mixing musical genres and wearing a streimel.
“With a streimel, I’m larger than life in some moments,” she says. “I’m not making fun. This is from a deep love. The streimel is not a religious object, like a tallit. I don’t think it’s disrespectful. Provocative, maybe. I care about Judaism. I’m happy to have a discussion.”
Easily at home in Jewish settings, she has led children’s groups in an Orthodox synagogue, enjoys the music at B’nai Jeshurun and is dating a rabbi who just graduated from Hebrew Union College.
“I like to clash different worlds, like hip hop and chasidic,” she says. “I’m such a rebel in some ways, and I’m also so traditional. My show is about all these parts of myself.”
Lea Kalisch performs “In Love with a Dream” June 19-23, 9 p.m., Playroom Theater, 151 W. 46th St., 8th floor. Presented by the New Yiddish Rep.
Each night at 7 p.m., in the same theater, New Yiddish Rep presents the world premiere of “The Crazy Meshuge Hurricane Earthquake” by Amy Coleman, directed by David Mandelbaum (Coleman and Mandelbaum lead New Yiddish Rep).