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In December JEST (Jerusalem English Speaking Theatre) will open their 20th season with a production of Tom Sawyer directed by Leah Stoller who joined JEST in 1986 and has directed 38 plays of its plays.
The seeds of JEST were sown on May 15, 1985, when Sheldon and Inez Klimist, olim from Detroit, MI, held a meeting at their home in French Hill to discuss the practicalities of creating a community theater group in Jerusalem. They felt that for many English-speaking olim in Jerusalem, to whom the language barrier was a deterrent from attending Israeli theater, it would be much more enjoyable to attend plays in their native tongue.
That initial meeting included Madeline Levine, Arthur Ingram and Freda Leavey who were to become JEST's founding members. Leavey was the one to suggest the name.
Once JEST was born, the core group placed an ad in The Jerusalem Post which led to a second meeting that was generously attended. With funding from the Klimists and a group of dedicated actors, JEST took off and has not slowed down in the 20 years since.
The first play put by the group was Separate Tables by Terrence Rattigan. Leavey had the lead in the play, which was directed by Zipora Peled. The play opened December 31, 1985.
Since then JEST has become more than just a theater group. New immigrants have found a home with JEST. Many people who started with JEST remain with them today. Children have grown up with the company, starting as child actors in plays and musicals such as Annie, and now fill adult roles. Most of the actors are American, but the list also include Canadians, South Africans and British. Some native Israelis with particularly good English have also joined past productions.
JEST is run almost entirely on a volunteer basis. Although set designers, actors and directors are all volunteers, paid professionals are brought in to help with costumes and lighting, but almost everything else is done by volunteers. JEST is funded by ticket sales and donations.
Beginning in small venues all over Jerusalem, JEST now performs at the Richard Hirsch Theater at Hebrew Union College, which has 350 seats. Each show usually has six to seven performances.
The number of people who come out for auditions really varies with each play, says Stoller. Musicals and plays involving children, attract a large turnout. Stoller recalls that when she was directing Annie approximately 65 girls came out for only 8 spots.
JEST has put on about 76 plays over the past 20 years, never repeating the same production twice. The plays they select have evolved over time. Over the years, JEST has added more plays with a Jewish theme including The Disputation, Korczak's Children, and Kindertransport.
"Our hopes are to bring the best of theater to the English speaking population in Jerusalem," says Leavey. JEST's playbill includes a musical each year. They have not put on any Shakespeare plays. As a director, Stoller feels that people really need to know Shakespeare to be able to perform it well.
Not only does JEST perform in Jerusalem, but it has also taken plays to Tel Aviv, Beit Shemesh, Haifa, and Netanya. Despite the fact that it is not easy to take the plays out of Jerusalem, due to the difficulties involved in ser transportation, the company has also performed abroad.
In the late 1980s and 1990s JEST took part of in an amateur play festival held in Dundalk, Ireland. Leavey recalls the excitement of traveling to Ireland.
"Going to festivals was fun, you met a lot of people from many other places," she says.
When JEST traveled to Ireland, its members took along Israeli flags. Ireland made them feel very welcome. In recent years hey have also attended a Gilbert and Sullivan festival in Buxton, England.
In 2006, JEST plans a staging of the Gilbert and Sullivan musical HMS Pinafore with a cast of 40 and a full orchestra.
Today JEST has become an integral part of the cultural scene in Jerusalem. Auditions are open to all those who wish to attend.
To contact JEST, call (02) 642 0908.
David Kross, Columbia, MD, USA: I very much enjoyed reading about the evolution and success of the Jerusalem English Speaking Theater. However, the roots of JEST were perhaps misstated. I actually started an English language theater in Israel in 1981-82 called the Jerusalem English Theater (JET). We performed at a now defunct kibbutz-owned theater on King George Street. Freda Leavey, with whom I have stayed in touch over the years, played a role for me in a sold-out production of "The Fantasticks." Sadly, the Lebanese incursion began shortly after "The Fantasticks" closed. Legitimate theaters as well as movie theaters were shut down at that time, and I returned to the States to continue my theater work. Kudos and best wishes to the persons who have picked up the baton that I put down in 1982.
Miriam, Ridgefield CT, USA: Great article!
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