Tonys 2018: Katrina Lenk on the Cultural Representation of 'The Band's Visit'

Katrina Lenk - Publicity - H 2018
Susan Stripling

The lead actress in a musical nominee shares what she most admires about her character, along with audience reactions underscoring the show's theme that "people are people."

Before each performance of The Band's Visit, Katrina Lenk practices a little self-induced amnesia. She started with the show in early workshops, before performing in its acclaimed 2016 off-Broadway premiere at Atlantic Theater Company and now on Broadway. After more than a year in the role of sultry Israeli café owner Dina, she needs to start fresh each night to maintain the vibrancy.

"At the beginning of the show, I have to remember to forget what happens at the end," she says. "It's like a little game you can play with yourself. You have to constantly think of new things to erase your brain, if you will, and I really enjoy that challenge. The best thing that happens is when I'm surprised onstage in a moment."

Lenk is still finding surprises. The Hollywood Reporter's chief theater critic David Rooney wrote of her performance: "Lenk is simply wonderful as Dina's world-weary numbness gives way to sly flirtation and then to dreamy romantic longing."

The performance earned Lenk her first Tony Award nomination, for lead actress in a musical, one of 11 noms for the show — including best musical, original score (David Yazbek), book (Itamar Moses), direction (David Cromer), lead actor (Tony Shalhoub) and featured actor (Ari'el Stachel).

There's no pomp and circumstance in this intimate, minor-key musical, based on the 2007 Israeli film of the same name. The story follows an Egyptian police band that gets stranded overnight in a small desert town in Israel, where the citizens take the musicians into their homes. While the musical is a tapestry of gentle cross-cultural connections, the most poignant of them is between no-nonsense Dina and the stiffly formal Egyptian bandleader, played by Shalhoub.

Ahead of the Tony ceremony on June 10, THR caught up with Lenk to learn what she admires about her character, how she prepares and what makes the story so relevant.

How do you prepare before a show?

I have this playlist of Israeli pop music and some old Israeli pop music from the '60s and '70s. There's a podcast called Israel Story, and every week, there are stories of people that live in Israel. They always stimulate something in my imagination. Just to hear someone speaking in Hebrew or speaking with a Hebrew accent is a good touchstone.

What do you admire about your character?

That her strength is not like steel. It's not an immovable strength; she's very flexible and very open and vulnerable. That's where her strength is. It's not like she's trying to intimidate anyone. She knows where she's been. She knows who she is, and she's open to things she doesn't know.

Do you relate to her, or are there parts of yourself you bring to your portrayal?

I'm way more shy and way more American than Dina. So often, I have to get those habits out of the way when being Dina — like the impulse to be polite or to smile to make sure everyone knows you're okay.

Would you have taken a police band into your home if they knocked on your door?

I might have done this. What's so beautiful about the story is that this is something everyone can do and has the capacity to do and has done in some manner in their lives.

How much inspiration did you take from Ronit Elkabetz, who plays Dina in the movie?

I stayed away from the film after seeing it just before the audition. I love them all so much, especially her, and instantly, I was like, "Okay, I'm just going to want to do everything she does." There are certain things in the play that are little homages to the movie itself and little homages to what Ronit does in the movie. But then I had to separate, so I wouldn't just copy. She's an amazing actress and artist and really inspiring.

You're also an accomplished violin and viola player, and you played in the Broadway productions of Once and Indecent. Do you ever play with The Band's Visit musicians?

George Abud, who plays Camal in the show and is the violinist in the band, has an extraordinary knowledge of classical Arabic music. So he's been teaching me these classical Arabic songs on violin and also singing some of them. He and I have jammed together a little bit.

The story follows two cultures coming together in the Middle East. What have been some of the audience reactions to the show's relevance?

We've had lots of talkbacks where people have wondered about the political ramifications. We wind up always discovering that it's political in that it's not talking about politics. It's really only pointing out that people are people. I had a girl whose parents are from Syria write me, and there have been kids from Iraq, Israel and Yemen who have seen the show or have heard of the show and are so moved to write to say that they're excited to see representation onstage of Middle Eastern people that is not about politics and not about bad things happening. They're just people, and these are stories about people.

What are you looking forward to about Tony night?

The hamburger and French fries that I'm going to shove in my face afterward.