Reality Check

In quantitative terms, it appears our theatrical sector is in good health.

‘A Mountain Does Not Move’ is a nominee for Best Original Israel Play. (photo credit: RADAY RUBINSTEIN)
‘A Mountain Does Not Move’ is a nominee for Best Original Israel Play.
(photo credit: RADAY RUBINSTEIN)
So, how are we doing on the theater front? We have clearly made great strides in cinematic areas and, particularly, in the documentary field. But what about local board-treading endeavor? With the annual Israel Theater Awards taking place last Friday, it seemed like an opportune time to take a look at the nominees across a range of categories, as well as taking stock of how we are doing in the art form in general, and how far we have come, in artistic terms, over the past 60-70 years.
Gad Kaynar-Kissinger was a good port of call before the glittering event, at which Culture Minister Miri Regev was due to present the award for the Best Play of 2016. Kaynar-Kissinger teaches theater at Tel Aviv University, and has enjoyed a long career in the art form, both as an actor and behind the scenes, largely as a dramatist.
In quantitative terms, it appears our theatrical sector is in good health.
“We create theater – including repertory, fringe and also performance – in volumes that I don’t think exists in any other country in the world, per capita,” Kaynar- Kissinger notes. Is this is a matter of escapism? Is this due to the same anxiety backdrop that fueled the massive output of Hollywood blockbusters in the 1930s, when most people in the United States were having a very hard financial time? Kaynar-Kissinger takes a slightly rosier stance on the quality of our yield.
“In my opinion, our theater is more interesting than the theater produced in ‘Anglo-Saxon’ countries, but far less interesting and progressive than the very progressive theater made by central European countries, and particularly by German-speaking countries. There they have avant-garde theater actually inside repertory theater, which is amazing.”
Kaynar-Kissinger also got that from the horse’s mouth.
“Theater professionals came here from Central Europe and said we have excellent actors, but your theater looks like our theater back in the 1950s. This realism, the acting technique, the sets – it is all so old-fashioned.”
That goes for other, seemingly less innovative realms of theatrical endeavor.
“I was in London about a month ago, which you call the mecca of acting – but certainly not the mecca of innovation. I saw a production of Twelfth Night and another play, at the National Theatre. The most advanced sets we have are light years behind what they have at the National Theatre. The way they use computers to create a space of consciousness is wonderful.”
But it is not all doom and gloom here – far from it.
“We have excellent directors and actors,” says Kaynar- Kissinger. “There is, for example, Our Class at Habima – I love the director, Hanan Snir, who I think is Israel’s best director – even when he uses sets by Ronny Toren, and the actors draw the landscape on the walls, that’s nice but it has been used before.”
Snir was in the running for Best Director, along with Ilan Ronen for the adapted rendition of Alone in Berlin.
So, according to Kaynar-Kissinger, we have a problem in the set department. But that doesn’t mean we don’t have theatrical quality here. That is certainly in evidence in the nominees for Best Original Israel Play, such as Woman Flees Tidings, based on the David Grossman novel and produced by the Habima and Cameri theaters. Other candidates for the award include He Walked Through the Fields, written by Moshe Shamir in 1947, and revived by the Beit Lessin Theater, Hillel Mittelpunkt’s The Wolves, and A Mountain Does Not Move, by Gilad Evron, who died last year at the age of 61.
The “Translated Plays” foursome roster features Green Mile, based on the best-selling book by Stephen King and directed by Irad Rubinstein, who was also nominated for Best Director for the Beersheba Theater, and Alone in Berlin, which was adapted by Shahar Pinkas and directed by Ilan Ronen for Habima. Both works are, no doubt, familiar to the wider public from the successful movies based on the original books.
Kaynar-Kissinger feels, regardless of the quality of the staged end product, that our theatrical offerings are frequently exploited as a means to circumnavigate certain unpalatable realities.
“I’d use the term escapism,” he declares. “Most of Israeli theater works ignore the fact that, just 20 or 30 kilometers from the theater, things are occurring which they don’t want to know about, and that we are living in a reality that is very problematic, in terms of morals, regardless of whether you are right-wing or left-wing. The problem is here, but Israeli theater does not engage in it. I think it is theater’s job to address that.”
That is not the case with our film industry.
“Israeli cinema does take on that responsibility,” Kaynar-Kissinger suggests, “and particularly our documentary film works.”
That, he says, can be put down to the bottom line.
“Israeli theater does not take on those difficult issues simply because of money. I think state support for theater is around 26% to 27%, while in most Western countries that is between 80% and 100%, for repertory theater. And in Europe, there are many fringe theater companies that have support from all sorts of foundations.”
Political considerations may also come into the repertoire selection equation.
“There is something unique to Israel whereby there is no buffer zone between the giver and the receiver of funds. That means that the Culture Ministry can set conditions which are tainted by politicization.”
That, Kaynar-Kissinger feels, has a direct impact on artistic expression. “Because of that, you have plays that are designed to please audiences, rather than challenging them.”
Criticism about the way things work here notwithstanding, he sees plenty of light on the horizon.
“It’s not all black and white. Take, for example, The Wolves, which talks about the death of the agricultural base on which the state was built.” The play stars Tikki Dayan, who was in the running for the Best Actress award, along with Agam Rodberg, from He Walked Through the Fields, and Shiri Golan, who topped the bill in the Beersheba Theater’s adaptation of Jean Cocteau’s Les Parents Terribles, directed by Gadi Roll.
Kaynar-Kissinger also expressed optimism about the increasing number of women who are gradually climbing the theatrical professional ladder. Indeed, the Best Director candidate quintet included Shir Goldberg, for her work on S.Y. Agnon’s A Simple Story for Habima. Then again, Kaynar-Kissinger would like our theatrical professionals to give us a more uncomfortable ride and more food for thought.
“In the late 1950s and 1960s, there was a generation here of directors who put on avant-garde plays, following their world premieres, or as their world premieres – I’m talking about foreign plays, not Israeli plays – including plays by [Romanian-French playwright Eugene] Ionescu, such as [absurdist] The Chairs, and The Birthday Party by Harold Pinter, which was the second production of that anywhere in the world. That has disappeared from Israel. Back then the people that went to theater knew languages, and cultures.
“I think we are a little more narrow-minded today.”