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Art-up Nation: Theater Galore

In repertory companies and fringe festivals, all Israel's a stage where identity is explored and boundaries are tested

Israeli theater, like most of our other arts industries, has an export apparatus that is supported by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of Culture. “The International Exposure” annually shares innovative works with non-Israeli theater colleagues with the distinct motivation of promoting our Art-up nation’s theater. I was excited and frankly very proud to see the list of this year’s crop which will be presented here next month for a delegation of heads of theater festivals, arts centers and theaters in Europe, Asia and North America. More to come below.

Full disclosure – I’m an Israeli theater addict and I’m not on the path to recovery. In fact, I’ve systematically passed on to my three children the craving for high-brow theater, fringe theater of all sorts, including the performance art and many site-specific pieces produced here, as well as community and other ‘applied’ theater productions – You name it.

Israeli theater is at the core of our Art-up nation. Interestingly, we’re in the top five around the world of per capita consumption of theater, including over three million theater visits per year in the seven major repertory theaters alone – Tel Aviv (Habima, Cameri, Bet Lessin), Jaffa (Gesher), Jerusalem (Chan), Haifa and Beersheba. My colleague, Dan Urian, has coined the oxymoron “synagogue for the secular” (Bet Knesset l’hilonim sounds better in Hebrew), referring to Israeli theater’s role as a venue for reflection for a large subset of Jewish Israelis about their identities, problems, fears and hopes. Observant Jewish Israelis and Arab citizens also create and consume theater here and to varying degrees are integrated into the mainstream theater activities.

Addicts like me and lots of teenagers and tourists make a pilgrimage every autumn over the semi-holy days of the Sukkoth Festival to the Akko Festival of Alternative Israeli theater in the northern coastal town of Acre (Akko in Hebrew, Acca in Arabic). The festival was established in 1980 to provide a stage for artistic works that seek a new or different theatrical language, encouraging works that offer an original approach to theater space, directing or audience-performance relationships – in short, a breeding ground for Art-up Nation. Over the years, one of my favorite shows at ‘Festival Akko’, was “Hummus Chips Salat” (Hummus, French Fries, Salad) referencing the common turn of phrase of the waiters greeting Arab restaurant goers.

Performed in the 2008 Festival by a group of Arab and Jewish actors, created collaboratively with Yoav Bartel and Avigail Rubin and still appearing occasionally throughout the country, it parodies the Festival’s image as an enlightened fringe theater gathering and its alleged liberal Jewish Israeli artists. Set in a makeshift hummisia, (hummus joint), audience members are served really good hummus, donated by the mythological local Hummus Sa’id restaurant in Akko’s Old City, and are disarmed with comic characters and situations relating to a power struggle within one of the Festival production’s rehearsals and tensions between the restaurant staff and the condescending theater people. Like some other plays I’ve seen here over the years, Hummus essentially prophesied external events, in this case, in almost real-time, the violence that ensued that year in Akko. Entertaining but spooky.

This year in Akko I saw, with two of my kids of course, the productions that won best performance prizes: “Pfffff” and “My Facebook”. “Pffff” is a zany black comedy about an Israeli submarine commander who unilaterally decides to nuke Iran. And how our Prime Minister, Defense Minister, Chief of Staff and Head of the Navy, through the auspices of….the head of Hamas, who joins them in the PM’s secret war room, create rapprochement with Iran’s President to pre-empt the attack. I’m doubtful if this was prophetic but a lot of belly laughing and catharsis was to be had.

“My Facebook,” with an ensemble of five talented recent theater graduates, dramatized Facebook interactions among Jewish Israelis in their twenties, at an often meteoric pace, probing the angst of meaningfully sustaining friendships and intimate relationships, amid the need to make a living, cope with reserve duty and differing political opinions.

Back to the International Exposure — 14 plays were selected from over 150 proposals. These include some exciting and often edgy interpretations of world classics including two which I have seen and really enjoyed, a soulful, visual adaptation to Chekhov’s “The Seagull” at the Tmu-na theater and Euripides’ “Iphigenia”, a futuristic ‘electro music’ rendering by the Beersheba theater.

Other classics selected include “Anti” (based on Sophocles’ “Antigone” – Jean Anouilh’s contemporary version) of the Gesher theater Ionesco’s “Exit the King” by the Itim Ensemble

and “Ding Dong: First Act”, performed by one of the pioneering performance artist groups, Ensemble 209, inspired by Lorca’s “House of Bernarda Alba.”

Two other notable selections are the site-specific “Life & Strive” by performance director Anat Eisenberg,

where audience members are invited to a real-estate adventure inside of Tel Aviv’s most exclusive housing project and “This is the Land – The Zionist Creation Rejects’ Salon” a response to the Zionist Creation award initiated by Minister of Culture, Limor Livnat in 2011.

The selection of Zionist Creation Rejects was not a given, as the International Exposure selection group, headed by first-time Exposure Artistic Director, Lilach Dekel-Avneri (an accomplished theater director in her own right), is composed of theater professionals, academics and representatives of the supporting ministries. It’s a testament to the professionalism of those involved, including the government officials, that a theater piece raising pointed questions about the boundaries of Zionism and cultural policy in contemporary Israel, and which is in essence critical of a current government policy, has been included in the International Exposure. This speaks to one of the underpinnings of our Art-up Nation, our culture’s key role in strengthening the fabric of democracy and civil society.

While I haven’t yet seen “This is the Land”, I did see this year’s Zionist Creation Award Winner in theater, A.B. Yehoshua’s “Can Two Walk Together?” the exquisite co-production of the Herziliya theater Ensemble and the Cameri, set in London in 1934, when two of the great Zionist leaders, David Ben-Gurion and Ze’ev Jabotinsky secretly meet to discuss the character of the future Jewish state.

The line-up of the rest of the selected shows is no less impressive including two critically acclaimed productions “Little Man, What Now?” of the Cameri, directed by Itai Tiran, our Lawrence Olivier (not an exaggeration!)

and “No One Dies in Vain”, a poignant rendering by Shahar Pinkas of short stories set in early 20th Century village in White Russia of Devora Baron, considered the first modern Hebrew female writer. The latter piece at the Habima National theater was really uplifting to see. It partly employed the story theater style, which actually grew out of the improvisation theater scene in the U.S. in the 1970’s, as well as a very sophisticated use of puppets, that made for a surprisingly pleasant attack on the senses. I felt like I was experiencing what it was like to live in Tel Aviv in the 1920’s and 1930’s with mixed feelings about the communities that had been left behind in Europe. The weaving of these stories brought to life the perennial Jewish pursuit for justice and fairness, whether in Belarus, pre-state Palestine or contemporary Israel.

Our Art-up Nation’s theater is cultivated in our repertory and fringe theaters, theater festivals, theater schools, local communities and among independent theater and performance artists. My hope is that the scope of international exposure through theater and all the art forms will broaden among growing numbers of professional arts colleagues internationally and also include Jewish communities throughout the world.

About the Author
Lee Perlman is the Executive Director in Israel of the America-Israel Cultural Foundation. Manhattan born and bred, Lee has lived in Israel since 1982. Ha'aretz newspaper named him in 2013 as one of "Israeli Culture's 100 Most Influential Figures". He received his Ph.D. on Israeli theater from Tel Aviv University. Lee is a research fellow on Israeli culture at the Tami Steinmetz Center for Peace Research at Tel Aviv University.
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