Israeli theater's enduring visionary

Due to receive the Meir Margalit Life Achievement Award, Oded Kottler, maintains his passion for theater as a means to grab people's attention and 'make them aware.'

Oded Cotler 88 224 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Oded Cotler 88 224
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Due to receive the Meir Margalit Life Achievement Award tomorrow, Oded Kottler, 70, maintains his passion for theater as a means to grab people's attention and 'make them aware.' Oded Kottler stays in theater, he says, because it's what he loves. "I want to be a part of it, regardless of its faults. You're walking on a lifetime journey with all its potholes, but it's my journey and I keep going." A rumpled, tousled, slightly overweight and very attractive man, Kottler still has all his own hair, an urchin grin and a way of talking that enwraps the listener. When he gets up in the morning, he straps on his lust for life with his watch. It is this lust for life and dedication to theater (as an actor, director, manager and above all visionary), that has earned him the Meir Margalit Life Achievement Award, which he will receive tomorrow at the Israel Theater Prize ceremony. Right now he's busy directing a new play at Beit Lessin - Ro'i Reshef's French Movie about two young couples experiencing problems not only with their marriage, but with finding solutions. "And you know what," he says ingenuously as he attacks a plate of watery soup, "I thought I'd cut the play pretty well, but at the first rehearsal we saw that there were more lines that could go. Pushing the scenes around made the action flow better." As he speaks, it's clear that enthusiasm continues to light Kottler from within. A play, a role, even an actor has to rise above the mundane, he says. They all must "illuminate the human condition, and the more deeply and brightly, the better, because they reflect our lives today and tomorrow. When I take a role, I look for something I haven't done yet, something in the character, his life, even his period that will excite me. In an actor, I look for someone whose presence talks before he does, who's willing to take a risk." For Kottler, risk is the proper arena for theater and he's spent his professional life trying to get local theater to do just that. A BORN and bred Tel Avivian, Kottler, 70, started playing leads in his elementary school, and established his first theater group at 14, calling it Kla'im (Curtains). He ran it, acted in the plays, and pestered Shaul Levine, then manager of the city's cultural affairs department, until the municipality made Kla'im Tel Aviv's official youth theater. They did solid performances, like William Saroyan's Hello Out There and Thornton Wilder's Our Town. The company members included the likes of Oded Teomi, Gila Almagor and Avraham Mor. In the army - during the time of the army troupes - he became a member and then commander of Central Command Troupe. Afterward, he followed Teomi to the Cameri theater where his acting career blazed. But Kottler itched to direct, so in 1960 he went to the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York, then the mecca for exciting new theater. Among his teachers were Martha Graham and David Pressman, "who became my mentor and still calls me today," recalls Kottler. His first production for the Cameri on his return was Chips with Everything by Arnold Wesker. Theater can't influence events, but "it can compel people's attention and make them more aware," says Kottler before quoting London's National Theater director Nicholas Hytner who, "in a recent local interview, said that 'the more we dare, the more the audience responds, which encourages us to dare more.' That understanding isn't relevant here. On the contrary, the more conventional [the material], the happier everybody is, and the better you can market it." In 1970 Kottler left the Cameri to make daring (i.e. unconventional) theater with his Actors Stage, initially an actors' studio he'd established with Amnon Meskin in 1965. Without public funding, Actors Stage affiliated itself with the Haifa Theater, which Kottler ran until 1979 and where he nurtured his other passion, original playwriting. Yehoshua Sobol, Hillel Mittelpunkt and the late Hanoch Levin belong to that period of creativity. Kottler extended the arc when he founded the Acre Festival of Alternative Theater in 1980, which still flourishes, and the Neve Zedek Theater, which has died. Of course he's disappointed when a venture fails or doesn't live up to its promise. People get cautious, he thinks, or pretentious, or maybe their heart isn't really in it any more, but when something flies, really flies, like David Ma'ayan's epochal Arbeit Macht Frei, or Rina Yerushalmi's biblical epic Vayomer Vayelech, "I get so excited, and involved, and I say there's hope." Four years ago Kottler was instrumental in creating The Laboratory (Ha'Maabada), a cutting-edge, multidisciplinary theater center in Jerusalem, and early next year the Cameri, Beit Lessin, Gesher and Habimah theaters will unite to present Kottler's latest brainchild, a two week festival of plays dedicated to one great playwright, whose plays "need to be done." The first will be devoted to Harold Pinter. Through all of this, Kottler still found the time to win Best Actor at Cannes (1968) for Three Days and a Child, organize Channel 1's drama department (1977), run the Israel Festival from 1985-90 from whence he returned to run the Haifa Theater again until 1997, play Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady and a host of other stage and TV roles (including the popular Ugly Esti), and direct, of course, plays preferably by local playwrights, such as Savyon Librecht's award-winning Am I Talking Chinese to You? And how has all this come to fruition? "Years ago," Kottler recalls, "Gila [Almagor] said of me 'I remember Oded with a folder full of ideas and texts under his arm, his feet on the ground and his head in the clouds.' You have to want it, and go after it, and get back in the saddle if you fall off. Theater isn't going to change anything, but if you leave a show uplifted, then for a short time, you become a better, more profound person."