Jews meet drag queens in Philip Himberg’s ‘Paper Dolls’

Philip Himberg writer and director Indhu Rubasingham
with the dolls

Philip Himberg writer and director Indhu Rubasingham with the dolls - Credit: Archant

Writer Philip Himberg tells why he was so intent on adapting a hit documentary about Filipino performers working in a care home

Tomer Heymann’s life-affirming documentary about a group of Filipino drag queens caring for Orthodox Jewish pensioners in Tel Aviv has scooped numerous film awards.

But when Philip Himberg first saw it at the Los Angeles Film Festival, he immediately spotted the story’s theatrical potential.

As artistic director of the Sundance Institute’s Theatre Lab he was used to nurturing writers in creating theatre work.

But this time, Himberg took on the writing himself and the resulting play Paper Dolls has its world premiere at Kilburn’s Tricycle Theatre.

“I immediately felt the story was so theatrical it should be on stage and right there and then I spoke to the producer about acquiring the option to develop the piece.

“The subject matter about crossing boundaries literally and figuratively resonated with me.

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“Immigration is a huge issue right now in the States with such polarity around people’s right to work in different places.

“The politics of the piece are persuasive and interesting, the clash of cultures and profound need to find home and what home means for people, and the idea that although Israel is a nation state created to be a home for the Jewish people, some of those working there are unable to be in their own homes because they need to send money back to enable people to live.”

Dramatic license

Realising he needed to fashion a successful play from a slice of filmed reality, Himberg has taken dramatic license with Heymann’s 2006 documentary about five Filipino male nurses who by night perform in gay clubs as drag group the Paper Dolls.

“The documentary has a lot of exposition but you can’t just have a world on stage, you need drama or conflict so I had to invent a major character and remove the film-maker from it. Tomer puts himself in every scene and is a conciliatory presence. In the play, the film-maker is more exploitative, an antagonist who has an agenda.”

The play also features several big nightclub numbers for the Dolls.

“In the film, they lip-synch but I thought the experience of having drag performers singing live on stage – American, British and Israeli pop – speaking English, Hebrew and Tagalog, would be more dynamic. So they mix it all together from Lady Marmalade to the Hava (Nagila).”

Hailing from a deeply Catholic country, the Filipino workers found themselves freer to express their inner divas in Tel Aviv’s liberal club scene.

“One says he could not dress up and wear ear-rings in the Philippines. Ironically, the clubs in Tel Aviv are more liberal than New York and this environment – getting together as a little family – gives them the bravery to reconstitute themselves and express their diva personas.”

Inevitably, there is a culture clash with the Orthodox men they care for, some relationships are uneasy, others surprisingly touching.

In one scene, an elderly patient gives his carer a dress. In another, the daughter returns to take her father home and is horrified at the relationship.

“These are old men, their families have abandoned them, moved away or cannot handle their needs any more and because they are Orthodox they cannot be touched by women. They become dependent on these guys who are so devoted and loving and begin to treat them almost as daughters. They begin to accept them and their femininity.”

Back in 1996, Himberg landed what he describes as “the best job in the world” at Robert Redford’s Sundance Institute.

“Although the film festival is the most public side of the institute, it’s only part of what Sundance does. Robert created it to provide workshops for film directors and playwrights. Every year, we are sent 1,000 new scripts and choose eight to 10 to bring to the mountains in Utah where we run a month-long residency for writers to shepherd their work towards production.

“It’s a place for experimentation and risk taking with no producers or audience, which encourages writers and producers to take chances.”

Now, after playing midwife to numerous writer’s projects, it’s Himberg’s turn.

“It’s been amazing to have this opportunity. It feels great to be on the other side of the table, in the hot seat, receiving the questions and challenges, holding your ground – I will come back to my job with a whole new perspective.”

n Paper Dolls runs at the Tricycle from February 28 until April 13.