When you hear Andrew Polk speak in his own voice, you might be surprised. The actor’s American accent can be jarring after hearing his thick Israeli accent as patriarch Avrum in Broadway’s hit The Band’s Visit. “People are a little shocked when I come out [at the stage door] with my California accent,” he admits. “I’ve met a lot of Israelis and [that reaction] is gratifying.”
Polk’s authenticity—in his accent and in the cultural nuances of his character—are, in part, thanks to his family. Not only is his wife, Israeli playwright Zohar Tirosh-Polk, the dialect coach on The Band’s Visit, life with her side of the family proved the best introduction to Israeli culture an actor could ask for.
Before Polk met his now-wife, he didn’t know much about Israel or its people. A self-described assimilated Jew, his image of Israel amounted to a lot of Jews and a desert. That image isn’t so far off from the setting of his Broadway debut in The Band’s Visit, but, having been welcomed into the Tirosh side of the family, he’s been able to imbue his role with cultural authenticity.
“I’ve [now] made many trips to Israel and really found it to be an incredibly rich, complicated, beautiful country, totally different than I thought,” says Polk.
In fact, as Avrum, the widower and Israeli patriarch of one of the households that welcomes in members of the titular stranded Egyptian Police band, Polk channels an Israeli patriarch from his own life. “[Zohar’s] father, Peter, passed away two years ago and I took a lot of characteristics he had—the warmth, the directness, the no-bullshit culture,” says Polk.
As a subtle reminder of the bundle of contradictory characteristics, Polk hangs a picture of a sabra fruit on his dressing room mirror. “I think it’s a great metaphor for Israelis because they can be kind of prickly on the outside, but inside they’re sweet and warm,” he says.
But Polk also found inspiration in his family when it came to mastering the Israeli accent and even his character’s physicality. “I plant my feet in the ground and I start walking like a bull,” he says. “That gets me into the physical vibe of the people and this character, and then the sounds fall into place.” Not to mention Polk and many of his castmates start talking like an Israeli beginning with the half-hour call.
Polk brings a simultaneous gentleness and energy to the role. As a widower, Avrum feels as lonely as any of the other characters in this show about reaching out to your fellow human, but he also represents a vigor and unrealized zest for life in his big number “The Beat of Your Heart.”
“You feel that it sets the table for the themes in the show,” Polk says of the number. “These Israelis and Egyptains in that scene in that song are finding connections through music, through jokes, through love and I do feel something change [in the audience].” But mostly, he’s thrilled to be able to shine a light on a culture (and a man) he holds dear.
“The Band’s Visit [Off-Broadway] happened right after [my father-in-law] died and it really feels like he has something to do with it,” he says. “Here I am, a fully assimilated Jew who has never really done that many musicals in a hit Broadway musical playing an Israeli grandfather and that’s who he was. It feels like maybe he’s looking after me.”
Ruthie Fierberg is the Senior Features Editor of Playbill covering all things theatre and co-hosting the Opening Night Red Carpet livestreams on Playbill's Facebook. Follow her on Twitter @RuthiesATrain, on Instagram @ruthiefierceberg, or via her website.