Comeback in the North

After a summer of postponements, cancellations and devastated ticket sales, arts organizations in the North are getting back on their feet.

Karmiel  Festival 88 29 (photo credit: Karmiel Dance Festival )
Karmiel Festival 88 29
(photo credit: Karmiel Dance Festival )
The Safed Klezmer Festival got lucky this year. It ended July 11, the day before the outbreak of war in the North. In most years, summer is festival time all over Israel, but not in the North, not this July and August. "The first rockets fell on Karmiel on July 13," said Eli Aboud, whose popular Karmiel Dance Festival was originally scheduled to run this year between July 18 to 20. The rocket barrage would ultimately force the postponement of that festival and Kfar Blum's Voice of Music Festival. It booted the Kibbutz Dance Company from Kibbutz Ga'aton and the Mirror Theater from Kiryat Shmona. The Haifa Municipal Theater and the New Haifa Symphony Orchestra saw their prime month for selling subscriptions succumb to the sound of sirens. Explosions replaced applause - and ticket sales - for arts groups across the North. Not all the facts and figures are in yet, but financial losses incurred by more than 100 northern arts institutions during the war may have totaled between NIS 30 and 40 million, said Culture Ministry spokesperson Gilad Heimann, who said the numbers remained only a tentative estimate. The losses stemmed mainly from the cancellation of events, pre-show investments and others expenses, he said, as well as the cost of travel and venue rental fees for performances moved to the center of the country during fighting. "We'd already built the stages, printed tickets and paid for publicity for the festival," recalled Aboud, who said he's not yet sure just how much money the Karmiel Festival lost as a result of the war. "About NIS 500,000," said event coordinator Hagi Agmon, speaking about the rescheduled Voice of Music Festival. The figure was also quoted by Kibbutz Dance Company deputy Eytan Peer, whose group was preparing for its first public performance in several years when fighting began. The start of the war forced the group to relocate to Kibbutzim Shfayim and Yakum, a move that didn't keep the company from a planned appearance in Oslo last month but represented a serious disruption nevertheless. The Haifa Municipal Theater, meanwhile, lost what spokesperson Amalia Eyal called the theater's "best month for subscriptions." The theater's July telemarketing efforts fell far short of normal expectations, she said, and performances for the month were cancelled. Concerts and a subscription drive by the New Haifa Symphony Orchestra suffered a similar fate, according to orchestra general director Efrat Lavry. At the prestigious Acre Theater Center, meanwhile, rehearsals were in full swing at war's outbreak for Massarhid, an Arabic-language drama festival originally planned for August 8 to 10. Massarhid, too, was postponed. And so it went. But while cultural events and institutions found themselves in unfamiliar territory as fighting roiled the North, the response was rarely to shut down. "[A performance] doesn't make you forget. It doesn't alter anything. A show just pushes away reality for an hour or so," said Gideon Schirin, whose non-profit Omanut L'Am organization sponsored free performances by dozens of artists for those stranded in northern bomb shelters. "When the war started, we went into emergency mode." Roughly 700 artists performed in about 2,700 free shows in the North during the war, and in about 100 additional free performances for evacuees in the center of the country. Artists performed voluntarily, typically giving three or four hour long shows a day, "but a week into the war we started paying them nominal fees," Schirin said. In addition to individual performers, teams of artists from the Vertigo and Batsheva Dance companies, from the Cameri, YiddiShpiel, Beit Lessin and Gesher Theaters and from the Israel Chamber Orchestra also performed as a way of boosting wartime morale. It was a huge effort, but one that Omanut L'Am was amply qualified to coordinate, Schirin said. Established in the 1950s, the organization's mandate has always been to bring culture to the masses, particularly to development towns and areas where budgets for the arts are small. Together with the Ministry of Culture, the group paid out some NIS 2 million to maintain cultural life in the North during the month-long fighting. Affected cultural organizations also acted independently to ensure the continuity of arts programming during the war, with the Haifa Municipal Theater offering subscribers the opportunity to use vouchers issued by the theater for plays in Tel Aviv. The theater itself, Eyal said, began staging organized activities and entertainment for neighborhood residents, many of them Russian immigrants, who were unable to leave the area during rocket bombardments. Located in Haifa's Hadar neighborhood, where most homes are not equipped with shelters, the theater's underground spaces were eventually used by many locals for shelter. Actors and crew members at Kiryat Shmona's Mirror Theater all live in the city or its surroundings - an area that was one of the hardest hit by Lebanese rockets during the war. Unable to perform in their hometown, Mirror actors gave free shows in Tel Aviv for fellow evacuees, also performing at the Hutzot Hayotzer arts festival in Jerusalem. The Acre Theater Center, by contrast, was able to maintain a reduced performance schedule in its hometown, and also hosted workshops in Gesher Haziv and Nahariya. The group moved the play it was set to perform in early August, Silhouettes, to Tel Aviv, because the show's principal actor will be abroad during its rescheduled full run. Several of the major summer arts festivals will take place this year in the fall, with the Sound of Music and Karmiel Dance festivals moved along with the Acre Festival of Alternate Theater to October. Organizers of the latter two festivals report that most of the foreign acts originally signed up to participate have indicated a willingness to come to Israel for the rescheduled festivals. The New Haifa Symphony Orchestra is also back in action in its hometown, having performed something of a comeback concert in Haifa on Saturday night. And another center of the city's cultural life, the Haifa Municipal Theater, also recently returned to work, beginning rehearsals for its next play, Argentinian import Tango Treatment. The extent of governmental and private financial support for northern Israel's cultural recovery has yet to be determined, but the war has already begun to inspire new productions. Late November will see the Haifa Municipal Theater premiere of Heroes Despite Themselves, a play based on the testimony of Israelis who spent the war in the North.