Three years after they were summarily kicked out of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, the cast and crew of the Jerusalem- based Incubator Theater’s The City are planning to make a cautious return next week.
In 2014, the actors behind the cult-favorite hip-hop opera flew to Scotland to stage their show at the largest arts festival in the world. But after just one performance, the venue canceled the rest of their shows due to the large, raucous anti-Israel protest that gathered outside.
The venue and the police said at the time that the logistics of securing the location were too much to handle. But when the cast of the show – members of The Victor Jackson Show ensemble – couldn’t find an alternate location, they were forced to leave the festival, and take a heavy financial hit.
Now, three years later, they will be heading back to Edinburgh for nine shows from August 8 through 10 with help from an unlikely source, and little aid from the Israeli government.
“The first time we came to make a show and to expose it to a big market,” said Arik Eshet, CEO and artistic director of the Incubator Theater. “This time we’re going really to recover from our trauma and to stand for our rights to perform. Now it’s an ideological mission... We want to come proudly and announce our rights as Israeli artists to perform everywhere.”
This time, the show will be part of not just the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, but also the International Shalom Festival. That event – a three-day festival within a festival – was organized by Nigel Goodrich, a Scottish resident who was upset at the boycott efforts in 2014 and Israel’s almost nonexistent presence in 2015
. So he launched the Shalom Festival last year in order to “build cultural bridges and celebrate coexistence and peace.”
In addition to The City, Goodrich’s festival includes a series of discussions with Jewish, Muslim and Beduin activists; films spotlighting peace and coexistence; and a gala concert featuring Israeli-Ethiopian Meski Shibru and the band Jamaya.
All of the Shalom Festival’s events – which ran for the first time last year – are cross-registered at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, which is open to all participants.
“All registered Fringe events have to undergo certain procedures as part of the registration process,” Goodrich told The Jerusalem Post. “We are no different.”
Goodrich has also been in contact with the Fringe Festival organizers, the municipality and the police to ensure everything goes safely.
“I had several meetings with Rachael Sanger, head of participant services at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe Society,” said Goodrich. “Rachael assured us that the Fringe does not support boycotts and does support freedom of artistic expression.”
Goodrich said the Fringe Festival “was aware that our event would present security concerns, but these are not the concern of the Fringe; they are the concern of the City of Edinburgh Council.” To that end, he said, the city and the police have created an event planning operations group “and have worked positively throughout the last nine months with our planning team to ensure that the festival goes ahead successfully and safely.”
In response to a request for comment, the Fringe Festival would not say whether they expected protests or were prepared for any violence.
Festival organizers noted that the month-long event is “open access... this means that anyone with a show can take part.” The festival added that its role is “to provide support, advice and encouragement to all of the artists, producers... and we continue to work with all concerned to ensure that performers can present their work and that our audience can enjoy the friendly and relaxed atmosphere that they have come to expect here.”
Meanwhile, everyone else involved is bracing themselves for the likelihood of repeat demonstrations.
While the Shalom Festival has received support from Scottish politicians across the spectrum, there are already calls for boycotts and protests.
Nicola Sturgeon, leader of the Scottish National Party and first minister of Scotland, said, “We recognize the importance of the International Shalom Festival in promoting peaceful coexistence and I wish you all the very best for a successful event.” The leaders of the Scottish Labor and Conservative parties also offered their support.
But an open letter published this week in Scotland’s The Sunday Herald called for a boycott of the event, which it said “claims to support peaceful coexistence in Israel/ Palestine, while whitewashing Israel’s violations of Palestinian rights.” The letter was signed by screenwriter Paul Laverty, director Ken Loach and The Sunday Herald’s theater critic, Mark Brown, who didn’t seem to mind abandoning any claim to journalistic integrity.
While Eshet and the cast of The City are steeling themselves for protests, they hope things will go more smoothly this time.
“I believe that this time everybody is ready for it,” said Eshet. “I believe that Nigel did very good work and assured us that the police and all the authorities – this time they are ready to protect our rights to perform.”
But Eshet, who will be joining the group this year, still remembers the trauma of 2014.
“It was frustrating and it was sometimes frightening because they were on the verge of being violent,” he recalled. “We tried to demonstrate ourselves, and we did a silent show... and they were following us everywhere we went.”
But the worst part, he said, was how alone they felt when everything went down.
“We felt like it was traumatic because everything happened very quickly. We were very optimistic in the beginning because we thought the festival would be for us and the authorities would be for us – and they were not,” he said. “We felt very unwanted, and we didn’t want to replicate this experience.”
But they were convinced otherwise by Goodrich, who was determined to change the narrative, said Eshet.
“He was very insistent that we should come because that’s why he’s doing the festival,” said Eshet, “to correct the wrong that was done to us. We couldn’t say no to that and we decided to go back.”
While The Incubator Theater is grateful for all of Goodrich’s support, Eshet was surprised that the Israeli government hasn’t been more helpful. The 10-member delegation – including creators Amit Ulman, Omer Havron and Omer Mor, plus additional cast members Dorit Lilien and Roni Rocket – got plane tickets from the Foreign Ministry, said Eshet. But both the Culture and Sport Ministry and the Strategic Affairs Ministry turned down their requests for help, both economically and strategically.The Strategic Affairs Ministry told the Post that it was in contact with the theater, and while it offered it advice, it chose not to to provide financial support "due to a variety of considerations."
“We thought we would get greater support – even with security,” said Eshet. “I though the government is more ready for these things, to stand behind people who are standing up to the BDS [Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions] movement.”
Instead, he said, the government has left the struggle “in the hands of a private citizen who isn’t even an Israeli citizen,” he said. “The government is not really up to the struggle, and that’s quite disappointing.”
The Israeli Embassy in London, meanwhile noted that there were 32 Israeli artists at the festival this year - a record number. "The vast majority of these participants are supported by the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, including the Incubator Theater," the embassy told the Post. "This is part and parcel of the continuous support and development of cultural relations between Israel and the UK."