"I wanted to make something that explores identity in a way that people might be able to better understand, but that also represents my own voice."
Storyteller and street performer Nick Cassenbaum
Bringing the bathhouse to Valletta with Nick Cassenbaum’s Bubble Schmeisis
By William Henry Crisp
‘Bubble Schmeisis’. The title is a play on two Yiddish words: ‘Bubbemeises’, which translates as a grandmother’s story or old wives’ tale; and ‘schmeiss’, a type of steam bath. In this one-man show, Nick Cassenbaum invites his audience to eat a Beigel (and not a bagel) as he tells us his own story. It’s a story about identity, memories, and of his experience of growing up as a Jewish boy in Essex in the UK. And it’s a story about a person who doesn’t feel he fits in with either Jewish groups or Essex cliques – and who somehow finds his place in the bath house.
A graduate of Goldsmiths, University of London, Nick has made his name giving solo performances around the UK. In this performance at Valletta 2018, he takes his Maltese and international audience on a journey to the Canning Town Schvitz – East London’s last authentic bath house.
As audience members, we become a community rather than a group of passive watchers. Nick has us performing breathing exercises between scenes and he asks audience members to answer personal questions. There is no stage and the closeness between actor and audience sets a very intimate mood. It feels as though he is telling a story over a few drinks – which is appropriate, it seems, as Nick tells me that the idea all started at his local pub.
"I used to tell these in the pub to my friends and thought this could make a great show," he says. "I wanted to make something that explores identity in a way that people might be able to better understand, but that also represents my own voice."
Nick says he is "interested in storytelling, what one can do and where one can take an audience by telling stories."
"I believe that with stories and monologue you can create what I call a third space, a space where the story exists in a way that the audience can collaborate with you to create it. You can make a big performance and a big show just by telling stories."
Nick wants to tell a story of diaspora culture in a way that anyone can understand. He calls this an "accessible collaborative experience".
Valletta, this year’s European Capital of Culture, is of particular interest to Nick. "Malta has a huge tradition of people immigrating to it and out of it," he says. "This is a country that understands diaspora culture. That made it an exciting idea to come and share my story."
Nick admits that he has "had to change and explain a few bits that I don't usually do" before bringing the show to Malta. The obvious sign of this is the ‘translation sheet’ he gives audience members explaining the London and Yiddish slang he uses in the show. "But that is all part of the fun!" he says. "No show is the same."
The autobiographical monologue is accompanied by live klezmer music, performed by Dan Gouly and Josh Middleton – both dressed in bathrobes and pool shoes.
Everything concludes with a re-enactment of a ‘schmeiss’ – a vigorous massage performed with a raffia brush carried out by another fellow ‘schmeisser’ in the bath, usually an ‘alta kakas’ (an old man).
In Nick’s eyes, Jewish culture is not just about religion – and this is the point he wants to get across with his show. "The secular Jewish culture is suffering," he says. "And I want to celebrate it!"
Bubble Schmeisis was brought to Malta by Latitude 36 as part of the Valletta 2018 Cultural Programme. Two performances were held on 9 and 10 July 2018 at Blitz in Valletta.