Impending death of a theater

Haifa's once vibrant and recovering theater is fighting for its life.

stage dramatic 88 (photo credit: )
stage dramatic 88
(photo credit: )
Just a little over a year ago, Haifa Mayor Yona Yahav was ebulliently proclaiming the road open from Tel Aviv to Haifa. He declared that Haifa was undergoing a cultural renaissance, and that the then fiscally beleaguered Haifa Theater was expected "to take its proper place among the country's leading cultural institutions once again." The euphoria was short-lived. Today the Haifa Theater is dark. Nobody seems to have a clear picture of its future. Most of the tenured employees - i.e. the creative staff - have been fired, 33 of them within the last month. Performances are desultory. Yahav's optimism at the time was fueled by the choice of veteran theater manager Oded Feldman to get the theater onto the straight and narrow. Lugging an NIS 18 million accumulated deficit, Haifa Theater had gone into receivership, and the public receiver, attorney Ofer Attias, had nominated Feldman, the theater's fifth manager in four years. By the end of 2006, according to Feldman, the Haifa Theater had made a profit and the recovery was working. The trouble started when a new board took office this year. It was headed by Danny Nishlis, owner of Haifa's most popular radio station. Feldman and Nishlis clashed severely with the result that Feldman ("I told the municipality it was him or me, and they chose him") resigned in August. All of a sudden, or so it seemed, the theater was once again in deep trouble, and with an apparent NIS 6.7m. deficit. "Back in May-June we were rehearsing a new production, Tango Session," says Roberto Pollack, one of the recently fired actors and a member of the company for 12 years. "I personally heard Danny Nishlis say that the plays are marvelous and that the theater is succeeding, and after Oded resigned, all of a sudden the plays are no good and we're in deficit. How come in May everything is lovely, and in August it's in the pits? And if a deficit was accumulating, how come the board didn't jump all over it when it started? That's their responsibility." There was a deficit, Feldman allows, "a planned deficit of NIS 1.2 million." The figure of NIS 6.7m., he says, was an estimated operating deficit and "would have been covered." As he sees it, the Haifa Theater has been politicized, because "the board is politically constituted so that party political interests supersede those of the theater." The mass firing ignited fury. Those fired, theater managers and other theater professionals met with the Histadrut, and at a recent press conference it was declared that in principle there was every justification to declare a work dispute. However, a work dispute was not declared. Instead, on behalf of all the repertory theaters and other professional theater organizations such as the Directors Union, the Israel Theater Prize Association (ITPA) sent a letter to Yahav demanding to know what the Haifa Municipality intends to do to prevent the theater's final collapse. This was on November 11. They have received no answer. Dov Lissack is acting director of the theater. He denies that the theater is closed. Its productions Song and Dance, His Life's Work, and Pygmalion are all being performed, but at venues outside the Haifa Theater, and the actors are all freelancers. The most recent, and very well received, drama Mountain of God by Italian playwright Eri de Luca will also be performed, "if we can sell it." Playwright Danny Horowitz, the director of Mountain of God, says that "those responsible are not taking responsibility. The play is frozen. I have heard nothing. Behind the scenes there is talk of making the theater like Theater North, that only imports productions, rather than a producing theater. Nobody knows what they want to do, and they aren't saying anything." "No, no," protests Lissack. "Haifa will be a producing theater, but on a lower level, cheaper, easier to market, more efficient technically." Neither Yahav nor any of his deputies have replied to the letter from the ITPA, but Haifa Municipality spokesperson Roni Grossman writes that "from every possible pulpit, the mayor reiterates that the Haifa Theater, the only producing theater in all of the North, will continue to operate and will once again takes its place as one of Israel's leading theaters." She further writes that the mayor is personally leading the theater's rehabilitation together with the board. The statement that "the mayor is silent is as serious as the baseless contention that the theater is closed."