In the background stands an 1845 Pleyel grand piano with yellowed ivories once caressed by Chopin. In the foreground, actor, playwright and pianist Hershey Felder waxes lyrical about life in Tuscany and his Live From Florence brand.
Helen Farrell: Hershey, we met through a mutual friend. Now here we are talking at your exquisitely restored castle in the hills of Florence. What brings such a successful actor, playwright and pianist to these parts?
Hershey Felder: When I was 17, already it was very clear that I was going to devote my life to art and to music. I came to Florence because I knew that the piano had been invented here and that the first opera was performed here. What I love about Florence is that it’s when you turn a corner that you find something. It doesn’t have the big presentation of a big city; it’s all the little reveals. I absolutely fell in love with that. Then something happened over the years. I started to find that things I was collecting from my travels, that the way I was painting my house in America, the décor I was doing was all Florentine. I bought something in upstate New York and at one point everything was painted like Palazzo Pitti. I asked myself, Why don’t I just go there? It’s about finding your artistic soul. For me, your artistic approach, whether you’re a writer or even a doctor, is about how you can make the world more beautiful. The truth is, Florence, from first setting foot in town, felt like home.
HERSHEY FELDER: GEORGE GERSHWIN ALONE
will be streamed live from Florence, Italy on Sunday, September 13, benefitting US arts organizations, creative artists and The Florentine.
Tickets ($55 per household) are available for purchase here. Includes viewing access to the live stream and additional one-week access to the recording:
Helen: What conveys that feeling of home to you?
Hershey Felder: It’s not only the art, it’s the people. They’re not easy until they see that you genuinely love Florence, and genuinely love them, and then the Florentines will give you everything they have. My friends and I call it a soft city. There’s a gentility to it.
Helen: It’s true. I’ve always referred to Florence as a bubble. To me, you come across as a generous performer, somebody who’s intimate with your audience. Now that you’re not touring the theaters due to the pandemic, how does performing virtually change the experience for you?
Hershey Felder: What I don’t miss is the torture of eight performances a week for week after week after week. By that, I don’t mean to suggest that it’s torture to do it for the audiences; it’s just physically taxing. Over the 6,000 performances in my career, I’m proud to say I’ve never missed one. There was one that was cancelled because a pipe burst in the building, so I said, “Thank goodness. A pipe’s burst, I’m going home!” In terms of being in the theatre, on time, to perform, every single night, it’s 26 years, 320 or so nights a year that I haven’t missed one. This is the longest that I’ve not been on stage in my adult life, and I won’t lie and say that I’m unhappy. What I’ve had is an opportunity to practise other than what I’m performing that night, so it’s Chopin by day and Beethoven at night, or Rachmaninoff in the afternoon and Chopin at night. To be able to focus without giving my all at night is a physical and mental gift that I’ve not experienced in my grown-up life. The idea of being able to have a normal working life, to be able to have dinner. By the same token, I do miss being with the audience.
Helen: In May, in the middle of lockdown, you live streamed a performance as Irving Berlin here in your home in the hills and raised significant funds for US theaters and arts organizations. How did the Live From Florence brand come into being?
Hershey Felder: The whole live streaming thing was never something I’d dreamed about, other than that I knew eventually the art would be produced here in Florence. The plan was that, in 10 or 15 years, I’d relax into life and art here. The pandemic has pushed everything forward. Against my better instinct and out of a responsibility to the company staff who have been with me for years, I created the Live From Florence brand, and it took off!
Helen: You’ve called the Irving Berlin live a “lark”. Beethoven is a whole different animal, which you’re tackling soon. How much preparation goes into performing and presenting a live streaming event of such exceptional quality?
Hershey Felder: I prefer to call it “live cinema” because what we’re doing is producing these live movies in two hours, and hoping to God the thing works. What I opted to do right from the beginning was to take it one step further from the Zooms and the like. I had the sense early on that people aren’t going to want to return to the theater until there’s a vaccine, so this isn’t a band-aid, it runs deeper than that. You rehearse it, you do your camera and sound blocking, and you go! Recently somebody asked me if it scares me to be by myself for two hours. I looked at them and went, “No!” I’ve been doing it my whole life. The technique I’ve developed is a lifelong study of not “phoneying” it up for the audience. It’s about stripping it back and being present, honest and real with them, that you can look into their eyes and tell them the story. It’s been interesting to have a camera trained on me and for me to speak to that lens, to just one person.
Helen: You’ve put together an impressive team with American broadcaster Rich Flier (who live streamed the Olympics worldwide and was formerly general manager of visual effects powerhouse Digital Domain, known for The Avengers, Beauty and The Beast and Titanic) and Florentine cinema group Montagni Audiovisivi, who have filmed with Italian actor Leonardo Pieraccioni.
Hershey Felder: What’s scary, if anything, is what can go wrong technologically, so expertise is essential. This is home theatre and people are paying for tickets. But we make it through the Oscars every year and they’re live, so together we’ll make it through this too.
Helen: As well as benefitting US theatres and arts organizations, you’re donating part of the proceeds from Beethoven to the Penumbra Theatre Company in St. Paul, Minnesota, to support the work of BIPOC theatre artists.
Hershey Felder: It’s difficult to be sensitized to what is happening, not to appropriate the stories as if it’s happening to us, and to contribute without grandstanding. It’s a very delicate balance of how to understand and be correct without being false. So, I’ve been engaging my BIPOC friends and asking them for advice. I just like to give, it’s what I do. Many people used to come to our house every Sunday morning for years while I was growing up. My father would always open the door, saying “It’s nothing”. It was only much later, when I was 17 or 18 that I found out he was giving money to people so that they could feed their families. He never announced it or ever said anything. When I asked my father about it, he replied, “That’s not what charitable giving is about. Real charitable giving is to aid people to aid themselves without calling attention to yourself.” It was a great lesson. I wrote to the Penumbra Theatre, explaining that I liked their work and that I was a child of Holocaust survivors, and while I couldn’t begin to understand their experience, I can understand what it means to be afraid. There’s so much hatred in the world, now more than ever.
Actor, playwright and pianist Hershey Felder in his Florentine home | photo by Marco Badiani for The Florentine, June 2020
Helen: Following on from that is the Hershey Felder Presents Arts Prize Competition that you’re generously awarding to artists inspired by Beethoven.
Hershey Felder: The encores throughout the shows have always been based on audience engagement. I talk with the audience and they ask questions. It’s very funny in a theatre of a thousand people. It’s become so famous that the audience wouldn’t leave at the end of the show. I wanted to do something significant to support people who are doing good art. So, in honor of Beethoven’s 250th birth year, a prize of $25,000 will be awarded to one of five artist finalists in the US, which I choose, who submit anything inspired by Beethoven for their video presentation. The five finalists are presented at the end of the Beethoven show. Then viewers vote and the winner is announced an hour later.
Helen: You regularly write melodic and entertaining anecdotes from Florence on your Facebook. What are your plans now that you have a permanent home here?
Hershey Felder: I’m interested in living art and how we can make life more beautiful for the people around us. Everywhere you turn in Florence there’s something beautiful. For all of its grandeur, there’s a human scale. I can’t figure out why that is, but I think it’s because the most important things in Florence are done by hand, fatto a mano. For me, there’s a magic to the humanity of Florence; that’s what I’d like to communicate: the continuum of living art.
HERSHEY FELDER’s next performance will be GEORGE GERSHWIN ALONE, streamed live from Florence, Italy on Sunday, September 13, benefitting US arts organizations, creative artists and The Florentine.
Tickets ($55 per household) are available for purchase here: http://theflr.net/hershey-felder-gershwin
Patrons will receive a link and password which will enable them to view the live stream.