In 1999, Israeli-born Itai Erdal moved to Vancouver, B.C. to pursue a film career. A year later, he found out his mother had been diagnosed with lung cancer and had nine months to live. Erdal returned home to care for her and to film the last part of her life. The result, “How to Disappear Completely” merges film, theater, and the grieving process into an honest and uplifting performance.
JTNews: Describe your show, “How to Disappear Completely.”
Itai Erdal: My mom died 12 years ago. She asked me if I would take care of her, because she didn’t want to go to a hospital. I filmed the whole thing. It was actually her idea.
JT: Why did you decide to use the footage for a theater performance instead of creating a documentary?
IE: First of all, at the time, it was just way too close and personal. It takes years to process what I had been through.
I work in theater, and I love verbatim theater. There’s something about real stories that touches me like no other theater does. It’s such a rare opportunity to reflect on one’s life like this through a piece of theater.
JT: How do you interact with the film onstage?
IE: All of the footage is in Hebrew with subtitles. Sometimes I do translations, sometimes I comment in general about what they’re saying, sometimes I say my friend’s words as if they’re mine. It’s a tool and device that moves the story forward constantly. Doing the show is like hanging out with my mom for an hour. I’m getting emotional just talking about it. It’s a joy. It’s a gift.
JT: How did the experience of taking care of your mom change you?
IE: All the priorities change about what’s important or not important in life. It’s the toughest thing I’ve ever had to do. My mom was such a strong woman; she was a rock. To see somebody like that, to see her fall apart completely, particularly mentally, was horrible. There was never any doubt or question about what was the right thing to do, once it’s somebody that you love. It changed me profoundly.
JT: Did it change you in a religious or spiritual way?
IE: I was brought up as an atheist, and my mom was an atheist. But since she died, I have felt her presence many times. Whereas I remain an atheist, I am somewhat more spiritual than I was. I do think that maybe the notion of a soul can exist. My mother is as present in my life in her death as she was [when she was alive].
JT: In the trailer for the show, there is a part where you are reciting Mourner’s Kaddish…
IE: It might be the first time in my life where I did do some Jewish customs, because I found them useful. My mom’s funeral was such a surreal experience for me. But saying the Kaddish, I get it now. By doing something public in the moment of your biggest grief, it forces you to be present. You can’t not be there. You can’t not feel things.
And same for the shiva: A week later, everybody cooks for you, your house is open, everybody looks at photos together…It’s a lot of laughter, a lot of joy, a lot of the tension kept in the house for months and months while waiting for someone to die is released. Suddenly, there are children in the house, there’s laughter in the house. Shiva is a fantastic tradition. I also grew a beard that I’ve kept ever since. I didn’t have a beard before. In the 30 days after your parents die, you do not shave. It’s another thing I sort of took with me.
JT: How have audiences reacted to the show?
IE: This show has touched so many people. Every time I do it there’s a line of people with tears in their eyes waiting to tell me about parents that have died, siblings that have died. People have written me letters and emails telling me their whole life story. It has by far exceeded any of my dreams for anything I could create. I don’t want people to think that it’s super depressing; [my mom] had a great sense of humor. The show is very funny! I am funny. A lot of people see the poster, my mom’s shaved head in the poster, and think it’s a depressing show. And it is sad, but it is also uplifting.