'In view of the ongoing cultural renaissance in Haifa, we declare the Tel Aviv-Haifa road open," said a bullish Yona Yahav, at Sunday's press conference introducing the new roster of plays at the Haifa Municipal Theater - yet again.
Battled, beleaguered and all but bankrupt, the Haifa Theater is literally fighting for its life with a new top management, an audience-friendly line up of plays, top drawer artistic advisors, a public receiver and a tough rehabilitation plan.
Yahav is currently mayor of Haifa, but has solid theater credentials that include many years as chairman of the Haifa Theater board of governors. The theater's continued existence was a given, he said, and he fully expected it "to take its proper place among the country's leading cultural institutions once again."
The new general director is the formidable Oded Feldman whose CV includes many years running the Cameri Theater, the cultural department at the Jerusalem Municipality and the administrative end of the Ha'aretz and Ma'ariv newspapers. His big gun artistic advisors, directors all, are Itzik Weingarten, head of the drama department at Seminar Hakibbutzim, Gesher's Yevgeny Arye, Habima and Acre Festival artistic directors Ilan Ronen and Daniella Michaeli.
The first four plays will be produced through the end of the current year. The rest, and some 13 are listed, are slated for 2007-08 and reflect Feldman's statement that "Haifa's social and cultural pluralism requires a response from the municipal theater."
What happened? Bluntly put, after two resounding flops - Ionesco's Hunger and Thirst, and The Duchess of Malfi - the board fired then artistic director Doron Tavori in February, and administrator Israel Ben Shalom followed him in April. Meanwhile debts continued to mount, income to dwindle because subscribers were canceling in droves when they weren't walking out of performances, and the creditors were hammering at the door.
A month ago the theater went into receivership because of NIS 17.5 million in debts and attorney Ofer Attias was appointed public receiver with a mandate to freeze bankruptcy proceedings and provide a rehabilitation plan. This he did. Among the rest, the rehab plan calls for 10% salary cuts, 19 dismissals and a debt repayment plan spread over 18 months for some creditors.
At the end of May, Attias went to court to beg for an extension on the freeze, which was granted, and for more time to negotiate the cuts with the workers. Earlier this week, the Haifa Theater announced that management, Attias and the workers representatives had reached agreement in principle on the necessary cutbacks that will reduce salary expenses by NIS 3.5 million. The plan will be presented to the court on June 12.
This time, says Yahav, "rehabilitation will be by the book. We won't give in to pressure," and he means from creditors and workers. Failure is not an option this time he says.