It was a sunny afternoon on May 15, 1985, when some 50 people gathered in the garden of Sheldon and Inez Klimist on Rehov Bar-Kochba in French Hill in response to an ad they had seen in the paper inviting anyone who was interested in creating an English-language theater group in Jerusalem.
"Those who thought it would pay salaries left immediately when they heard that the idea was to have a community theater," says Madeleine Lavine, 52, from Leeds, who was one of the enthusiasts to answer the call.
American-born Sheldon Klimist was a prominent lawyer in Jerusalem. On a road trip in the US, he and his wife had seen a community theater production of Cabaret in Monterey, California. Impressed by the show, he thought, "Hey, we can do that, too," recounts Lavine, who later sat on the board of directors and served as treasurer for many years.
Freda Leavey was also at that first meeting. Seeing that they had attracted a substantial group, "We had to find a name," says the Londoner, who'd had previous acting experience in England. Playing around with words and letters, she came up with "Jerusalem English Speaking Theater" and its acronym, JEST. Not only is the word easy to say, but "jest" is also a theatrical term, explains Leavey. "I am very proud to have given birth to the name," says the 88-year-old actress and the theater company's long-time secretary.
After that meeting, a nucleus developed and the theater company began to take shape, welcoming amateur cast and crew from across the gamut of anglophone countries, with members from the UK, the US, Canada, Australia and South Africa.
JEST's first production was Terence Rattigan's drama Separate Tables, which opened on December 31, 1985, at the now-defunct Tel Or auditorium on Rehov Hahistadrut. Lavine played the part of a maid, while Leavey garnered the role of Mrs. Railton-Bell.
The director was Zippora Peled. Her vision was to have the amateur theater company perform plays translated from Hebrew, says Leavey. But that was not the intention of the rest of the company and its newly formed board of directors.
Enter Leah Stoller. A former teacher who made aliya from New York in 1973 with her husband, Larry, and their two sons, Stoller and her family lived for several years on Kibbutz Tzova, where she helped teach the children English by having them put on performances of Broadway musicals. Asked by the board to direct their plays, Stoller joined JEST in 1986 and her name has been synonymous with the company ever since. Twenty-three years later, the 79-year-old director is now working with the cast on her 48th play, Another Antigone, which will be performed at Ramat Rahel.
In its 25-year history, JEST has put on more than 85 productions under a variety of directors and an ever-increasing panoply of amateur actors and backstage crew. Spanning centuries and continents, the material has included musicals, comedies and dramas ranging from the classic and well known to the relatively obscure.
FOR YEARS JEST enjoyed the distinction of being the only English-language theater company in Jerusalem; but over time other groups have formed, performing mainly musicals. Thus JEST has modified its repertoire, concentrating on high-quality drama and comedy. "What's the point of doing musicals if the other companies are doing them?" says Stoller. "We want to stick to good serious or comic theater."
In the annals of JEST's musical history, the company produced such blockbusters as You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown; Annie Get Your Gun; South Pacific; The Pajama Game; The Music Man; Annie; The Mikado; She Loves Me; The Pirates of Penzance; Camelot; and Peter Pan.
Sue Hendrickson remembers the heady heyday of the major musicals. As JEST's musical director for several years, the 66-year-old opera singer and musician worked on many of the big shows.
"To create something is very special," says Hendrickson, who made aliya from Philadelphia in 1980. "We created something together, layer upon layer. The actors did whatever we said. I taught them the music - the songs and the harmony - and Diane Herman played the electric keyboard," she says.
"She could do anything," Hendrickson marvels. "She worked out the different parts and made it sound like a full orchestra."
Musicals generally took eight months to prepare, with rehearsals several times a week. During that time, "We got their voices to sound their best," says Hendrickson. "We had a particularly great chorus in The Pajama Game." So great, she recounts, that the singers wanted to remain together. Thus was born The Jesters, a group of 25 singers who performed for a few years, putting on shows such as Cole Porter medleys and The Jesters Sing Rodgers and Hammerstein, and entertaining at old-age homes.
When it came to auditions for the musicals, "People would come out of the woodwork," says Hendrickson. "Everybody wants to sing," she says - but not everyone can. "We tried to get the best voices for the lead."
On the subject of lead singers, Hendrickson recalls with reverence the singular voice of the late David Schnee. When the young American man came in to audition, people looked at each other and said, "Wow! Who is this?" He had the most beautiful tenor voice, says Hendrickson of the man who starred in South Pacific, The Pajama Game and, of course, The Music Man. When he sang at rehearsals, the actors would burst into applause - and actors never applaud at rehearsals, she recounts.
You don't see how hard people work to be on stage, says Hendrickson. "It is a thrilling experience to be involved."
It may seem like a risky judgment call to give all that up. "Musicals fill the theater," says Larry Stoller, 80, JEST's treasurer and long-time business manager. But unwavering dedication to the craft has been the mainstay of JEST and one of the reasons for its sustained longevity.
That dedication is evidenced in every aspect of the production process. From the set designers and stagehands to the actors, directors, publicity managers and box office workers, the all-volunteer participants approach their tasks with tremendous zeal.
"There is a sense of joy and enthusiasm in amateur theater that you don't see in professional theater," says Lavine. "There is a special buzz from the actors and the audience. They are full of joy, joie de vivre. Professional actors may give a quality performance, but it is missing a spark."
THAT SPARK is ignited by love, asserts S. Kim Glassman, a 32-year-old graphic designer from Scranton, Pennsylvania, who joined the JEST family when she was 14. As a young girl, "I learned from Leah that the word 'amateur' comes from the Latin amare, 'to love.'" So amateur theater doesn't mean incompetent or second-rate, it means it's being performed by people who do it for the love of theater, says Glassman, who has had experience in both spheres as an actress and a director. "I prefer amateur to professional theater."
Inspired by Stoller, "I bring that love to my shows," she says.
And she is in good company. Those who participate in JEST say they feel like they are part of a warm, welcoming family. For new olim, JEST serves as an ideal way to meet new people, make friends and become involved in a dynamic set of activities. When a new play is launched and the auditions are called, no one who wants to participate is turned away. Be it on stage or behind the scenes, there is a place for everyone, says Stoller.
For those who have been in the country for a longer time, JEST is a good outlet and a chance to do something different. "It keeps me sane," says Artie Fischer, a Jewish education teacher from New York who has been with JEST for the past 15 years as an actor, director and a recent board member. "There are wonderful people in JEST. It's an opportunity for people to come together and work on a common project. Young, old, religious, secular. People of varying backgrounds all get together to be creative, entertaining and enlighten others. It's good for klal Yisrael [Jewish camaraderie]."
One of the highlights of JEST for Fischer and for many others is the opportunity to work with their children. Of Fischer's six children, two of his sons have shared the stage with him, while two other sons worked backstage. "We want to attract young audiences," he says, to pry them away from TV and the Internet. "There is no substitute for live theater. Nothing involves them as much. Younger audiences need to be exposed to that. It's a wonderful education. It opens up the mind."
"We sell a lot of tickets to children to introduce live theater to kids. Some have never been to a play," says Larry Stoller. Many of the high schools send groups. "Ramat Hasharon sent 100 kids, and an Arab school sent 200 young women to see Tom Sawyer," he elaborates.
TO TAKE the educational element of the JEST plays a giant step further, former Milwaukee teacher Abbe Krissman creates material in English for elementary and high school teachers to use with their students. To prepare the students for the play, the learning packages contain such material as a summary of the plot; definitions of potentially difficult words and slang terms; background references; and questions to answer after the play.
In fact, the theater can be an education for all ages. "Each play has been a course in itself," says Marvin Meital, a 69-year-old language teacher from Boston who has been with JEST since 1987 and has appeared in 20 plays. "Thanks to each director, I have learned to hone my skills in stagecraft over the years, such as movement, approach, point of view and getting into character."
Having played a diverse range of roles such as a mute king in Once Upon a Mattress, a chipmunk in A Thousand Clowns and Otto Frank in The Diary of Anne Frank, Meital says the experience has been fascinating and challenging. "I can be whatever I want and get away with it. The sum of an actor is the ability to make the costume your own, to be one with it. You become the mask, not hide behind it."
He recounts that as Otto Frank, "I cried on stage. I wasn't faking it. You can't get more genuine than that. That's the beauty of theater - the way you can communicate with people."
The Meitals are another example of the JEST family affair, as Marvin's wife, Danby, helps sell tickets for the shows, and their two sons have performed on stage.
"PEOPLE SHOULD audition for the plays," says 16-year-old Josh Trachtman, who started with JEST when he was 11. "It's character-building. Not just on stage but backstage as well. It's good exercise," says the young man whom Leah Stoller is training to be the theater's next director.
"For teenagers, JEST can be interesting because you get to interact with people of all ages and kids that are younger and older, not just your own age group - and that's good and healthy," he says.
Having appeared in Korczak's Children, Tom Sawyer and Prairie Lights and being Stoller's assistant director for The Winslow Boy last year and her assistant director for the upcoming Another Antigone, Trachtman is setting his sights on lighting, sound, makeup, and stage management before he takes on a full-time directorial position next year. "I'm trying to get in as many aspects as possible so I will know what I'm doing," he explains.
For veteran amateur actor David Glickman, "Working in theater is a very universal thing. Theater is theater wherever you are," he says. A former clothing importer from England with 50 years of acting experience, he made aliya from Manchester in 2002. "I met with Leah almost off the plane," says Glickman, who is "on the wrong side of 70," as he puts it.
"I've had a whole string of very nice parts," he says, which include Dr. Janusz Korczak in Korczak's Children and the title role in The Mikado. He is now working on his role in Another Antigone, his 12th JEST play. Adds Glickman, "It is always a challenge to find plays that will attract audiences."
In that regard, long-time board member and recent JEST chair Rachel Keene says, "We choose plays based on our audience." According to the drama and literature teacher who made aliya from London in 1984, "JEST audiences are very conventional and like things that are tried and tested." Therefore, the board is very careful in its selection.
One of the factors in the selection process is finding plays of Jewish interest. In that category, JEST has offered its Jerusalem audiences such fare as Mrs. Klein; The Sisters Rosensweig; Kindertransport; The Disputation; The Action against Sol Schumann; and, as mentioned, Korczak's Children and The Diary of Anne Frank, as well as material by Jewish playwrights like Neil Simon, Arthur Miller and Woody Allen.
FINDING SUITABLE material is not the only challenge JEST has to face. Financing is a major hurdle for the amateur theater company, which is not subsidized by any organization and derives its resources solely from donations and ticket sales. And even then, it keeps the cost of the tickets at an affordable level to encourage audiences to attend. The average cost of a play run is NIS 150,000 plus overhead and other expenses, says Larry Stoller. "And that's just for a show of five performances," he points out.
As the group does not have a home base, the biggest expense is the rental of theater space. "I think that JEST has been in almost every theatrical venue in Jerusalem," says Stoller, whose many tasks include negotiating contracts with the theaters. At present, Ramat Rahel is priced reasonably enough to fit its budget.
Another large chunk goes to the monthly rental of the 200-square-meter bomb shelter in the Katamonim, where all the sets, props and costumes are stored and where all the building and painting of new, or rather recycled, sets and scenery is done. Under the trained hand and eye of former engineer David Krissman from Greenfield, Wisconsin, volunteers build the backdrops and repair or refurbish the frameworks for each new production.
Since the company does not have its own theater base, Krissman's engineering acumen is called into play, as each piece of scenery has to be built in such a way that it can be transported to the theater, assembled for the show, and then dismantled and put aside until the following night's performance.
Glassman waxes nostalgic at the very thought of that thespian storage space. "When you go into the miklat [bomb shelter], you look at the props and you see all the shows you worked on. For some of us, it was a big part of our life. The dresses, the furniture, the chandeliers, the set pieces - these are all remnants of our lives. Twenty-five years is a long time," she reflects.
But that's just Act 1.