From the spirit to the theater

Elisheva Mazia steps up as the new general director of the Khan Theater

he Khan kicked off an English translation project with its new production of S.Y. Agnon’s play ‘Tehila' (photo credit: YAEL ILAN)
he Khan kicked off an English translation project with its new production of S.Y. Agnon’s play ‘Tehila'
(photo credit: YAEL ILAN)
She came to Jerusalem as a student, fell in love with the city and decided to turn it into her home. She became deeply involved in a wide range of projects – all to some degree political – but was always careful not to cross the line of becoming a politician. She is secular, yet often speaks about the beauty and the values of Jerusalem’s Jewish traditions, raising more than one eyebrow in concern that she is becoming religious. She has supported Nir Barkat since the beginning of his mayoral career. She has launched many projects for students and young adults in the city – the best-known being the establishment, with her friends, of New Spirit, which stands behind many of the programs focused on the life of the young generation and students in the city, culminating in Beit Alliance, a hub for artists and performers of all denominations and sectors in the city.
Elisheva Mazia has done more here in a decade than most other young Jerusalemites even dream of achieving. Only about a year ago, her path seemed clear – to undertake more projects and initiatives. With municipal elections looming in the horizon, there was speculation that she might finally step into politics. Then, surprisingly, she moved to the national civil service level, taking a high position at the Treasury.
Nine months later, Mazia is again involved in Jerusalem affairs, this time in the artistic realm: she was appointed general director of the Khan, the city’s official theater company. Asked about these career changes, Mazia says that Beit Alliance was a peak after which she decided to leave New Spirit and move onward.
“I had a dream for many years, to work in the government. I watched the West Wing series and it seemed to me that that was the place where I wanted to be – not in politics, but in a governmental office. That was a dream.”
About a year ago, Shay Bahbad, the CEO of the Treasury, a close friend, said he was looking for a chief of staff for his office and asked her if she would be interested.
“I realized immediately that it was a small task, but I thought that could be a good beginning, and I went for it.”
Mazia realized quickly that it was not for her.
“The position was for someone who can operate according to procedures and rules, not for someone like me who prefers more inventive thinking and acting out of the box. Working for the government is not for me. The people there are among the best – young and gifted – but tied to so many procedures. I was exposed to the way things are done and conducted, and I can tell you – it’s even worse than I thought, the way money is moved from one place to another according not only to professional needs, but to political interests. To say that I didn’t find my place there would be an understatement, but the most compelling reason I decided to leave the Treasury after only nine months was my longing to deal with Jerusalem affairs.”
The Khan opportunity came just in time. As soon as she heard that the position was vacant, Mazia presented her candidacy. Ironically, she had already been a candidate for the position at the Khan in the past, some seven years ago, but then, she reached only the penultimate phase.
“I realize how lucky I was not to have been selected for the job then, since I was too young and lacked experience, but now I feel the time is right. I have learned what it is to be a director and how to do it the best way.”
But this time, she will be part of a well-established institution, unlike the projects she has conceived and brought to life so far.
How was a young woman received by the veterans of the institution? Mazia admits that it was, apparently, not easy for all.
“But there were also quite a few who understood that this venerable institution needs a refresh. This is part of the discourse here, how to renovate yet still keep the best of the existing things. I feel I have succeeded in convincing them that I can do that – integrate the ancient with the novelty required.”
Mazia realizes that since not many come to Jerusalem to watch the Khan’s productions, the company must perform in Tel Aviv, too, “despite the fact that in the theater milieu, the Khan is highly regarded for its professional level and for its capacity to innovate, to bring the most interesting productions to the theater stage.” Mazia admits that for her, having the “brand” name of the Khan, with its 50 years of productions behind it is a much larger thing than she has done before, including the remarkable achievements of New Spirit.
“The Khan is not a dinosaur, buried beneath its 50 years – it is highly esteemed as a subversive and innovative artistic institution. On the other hand – most of the audience are senior citizens. We need to bring young adults here. Most of the work I want to invest in here is tied not to the productions, but to other aspects. Take for example the compound here, it is an awesome location and little is done to exploit it. There are lots of possibilities. We could bring in some fringe theater. We have to find a way to better utilize the little stage of the Khan – it has about 70 seats and very few events take place here. There are lots of possible ideas and projects.
“I’d like to see more of the religious public. Here in Jerusalem, this offers enormous potential. It is a community that knows and appreciates culture, but for rather prosaic reasons still does not come. Much of the community lives in the surrounding neighborhood and I want to reach out to them. That’s the reason for our decision to offer a translation of the plays into English on electronic boards. There are other groups – French and Russian speakers – but I want to start with the Anglos, since I live here and hear English speakers all around me at the coffee shops and in restaurants.”
Despite being the official theater company of the city, supported financially by the city, neither the director nor the actors live or even rehearse in Jerusalem, even though there is an expectation that they do so. Her reaction?
Mazia says she is aware of the fact that the actors and the director (Michael Gurevitch, who is retiring at the end of this season) neither live nor rehearse in the city.
“Some of the rehearsals are held here, but yes, it bothers me. At this point, it would be irresponsible to make any declaration, but I will study the issue and make a decision after things are clear to me. My vision is that the Khan Theater should be a Jerusalemite theater, but it is premature to make any declaration about that now.”
The list of ideas and projects Mazia has in mind is quite interesting: a joint exhibition to mark the 50th anniversary of the Khan with students from Bezalel; events to connect the actors with different aspects and groups of young Jerusalemites involved in a range of renewal projects; more events in the Khan courtyard; and even an ensemble made of Jerusalemite students from the local theater and art schools in order to connect them as early as possible with the Khan.
“You cannot force people to move to Jerusalem, but you can give them more than a glimpse of what is happening here, to broaden their awareness of what the high quality level we have here.”
An English translation project started last week with a new production of S.Y. Agnon’s play Tehila. Shir Goldberg, the in-house director for the past two years, says that the permanent company of actors who have worked together for years ensures a high quality of work unique to this theater, and the Jerusalem public that comes to the Khan is itself on a very high level.”
Adding translation to a play is a clear invitation to a public that hasn’t appreciated the Khan till now.
“At this stage, the translation project is a pilot, but we really want Jerusalem Anglos to come and enjoy the theater, so we are paving the way to make it easier for that public to come,” says Goldberg.
Asked if the translation project will have any impact on the repertoire, Goldberg says it will not. Tehila was first produced by the Khan years ago, but it was chosen to launch the translation project for many reasons – among them that the story takes place in Jerusalem.