The end of an era

After 29 years of presenting English theater, JEST is bowing out.

‘Annie Get Your Gun,’ 1989. JEST has 101 productions under its belt. (photo credit: MEL BRICKMAN)
‘Annie Get Your Gun,’ 1989. JEST has 101 productions under its belt.
(photo credit: MEL BRICKMAN)
In the Frank Sinatra ballad “My Way,” Paul Anka penned the line “And now the end is near, and so I face the final curtain.” Those words strike a relevant but bittersweet chord for JEST, the Jerusalem English Speaking Theater. After almost three decades of presenting high-quality English-language productions, the community theater company is closing up shop.
It was not an easy decision, but at the JEST board meeting in June, the members agreed that it was time to end the amateur theater company’s extensive run.
Increasing costs and diminishing attendance were two of the major factors that led to the decision, says Leah Stoller, one of the company’s founding members and director of more than half of its 101 productions.
When JEST first came on the scene in 1985, it was the only English-language theater company in Jerusalem.
Another founding member, Freda Leavey, was the one who came up with the name. The 93-year-old Londoner performed in many of the plays and serves as the company’s secretary.
JEST filled an important niche for Anglo olim, giving them the opportunity to meet fellow English-speakers, share the love of theater and participate in a communal activity, be it on the stage or behind the scenes. And for the audience, it provided an opportunity to enjoy a diversity of plays in English, ranging from classical and contemporary comedy and drama to children’s plays and a few musicals.
Today, there are several other English-language theater companies in Jerusalem, most of which perform musicals. Many of them – such as J-Town Playhouse, Encore! and Israel Musicals – were formed by people who had participated in JEST.
“We can’t compete with musicals,” says Stoller. People nowadays want to escape, to be entertained and see lighter fare, she explains.
The cost of producing musicals is prohibitive for a company like JEST, which, unlike the others, was not designed to make a profit, only to cover costs. The majority of the JEST cast and crew took part on a strictly voluntary basis, for the sheer love of the craft.
“Most people have no idea how much work goes into putting on a play,” says Stoller, who turns 85 this month.
For each production, the participants in the community theater did everything themselves – securing the props, creating the sets, sewing the costumes, doing the lighting, and evolving from a group of strangers into a cohesive cast and crew. While some had prior theater experience in their countries of origin, many were total novices who wanted to try their hand at acting and stage production.
“We were like a family,” says Abbe Krissman, who got involved with JEST a week after she and her husband, David, made aliya from Wisconsin in 2006. She started out doing makeup and later worked as Stoller’s assistant director on several plays.
“I felt so at home with this group of people,” she recalls. “JEST made our aliya a success. I can’t say enough about the people who were drawn to the organization.
The closeness, the bond that was created – I could never have imagined the depth of that kind of tie. The friends we made at JEST will still remain part of our lives.”
For people who are part of a production, the time commitment is tremendous, she adds, as they devote several months to a schedule that includes preparation, rehearsals and performances.
“But,” she says, “it was never a chore – it was always a joy.”
FOR SEVEN years, David Krissman, an engineer and teacher by profession, was in charge of set design and was responsible for the large rented storage space where the sets were kept. He and a team built the sets in such a way that they were easy to assemble and disassemble, since for every performance the sets had to be taken up the stairs of the storage unit, transported to the theater, erected on stage, taken down after the performance and returned to storage.
“At JEST, I learned a lot about theater and about what you can and can’t do in Israeli society,” he says, citing as an example one theater owner who required him to obtain a ladder license.
“I can climb water towers now,” he laughs.
“I also understood how hard it is to learn a lot of lines,” he continues. “Some people were great at ad-libbing without the audience ever knowing.”
As a set designer, he experienced one of his proudest moments in the first scene of the drama The Winslow Boy.
“When the curtain opened, the audience burst into applause when they saw the fireplace – it looked so real, as if there were actual flickering flames,” he recounts.
That sense of pride may well continue to accompany former JEST participants when they go to see other performances in Jerusalem.
“We gave a lot of our props, sets and costumes to the other theater companies, so we will be able to see them there,” explains Madeleine Lavine, JEST treasurer, actress and founding member.
“Those pieces are full of memories,” says the Leeds native, who is a tour guide. “We had fabulous sets and costumes. Many of the same props, sets and pieces of furniture kept reappearing in various forms in our plays.”
One of Lavine’s fondest memories is the experience of “making things happen without much money” and the joy of participation.
“There is a special magic, a joie de vivre, that you get in community theater that you don’t have in professional theater,” she says.
And there is a tremendous degree of dedication. As JEST chairwoman Rachel Keene explains, a community theater cannot afford to have understudies, so anyone who takes on a role is committed to ensuring that “the show must go on,” no matter what.
She cites three salient examples of that dedication. In Witness for the Prosecution the lead actor, Mel Brickman, broke his arm the day before opening night, but he sallied forth and carried on. In Korczak’s Children, Ronit Glaser performed her role on crutches after undergoing foot surgery. And in a scene in The Music Man, Keene recalls with a smile, the set fell down in the middle of a musical number, and without missing a beat, the actor deftly lifted it up and held it aloft until the end of his song.
Keene says that one of the highlights of her experience with JEST was working with children. In addition to the children’s plays they put on, such as Peter Pan, The King and I, Prairie Lights and Tom Sawyer, children had roles in the adult plays as well or helped to work behind the scenes.
“The children developed skills over the years,” she says, “and as adults, some of them took it on as a profession.
Now they work in the theater here [in Israel] and in New York.”
IT WAS also very gratifying, she says, to see families working together at JEST.
One of those families was Artie Fischer’s. A rabbi and teacher from New York, Fischer worked with the theater company for some 20 years, acting in more than a dozen plays and directing one as well.
“JEST gave me the opportunity to find similar interests in my own family,” he says. “I worked with two of my sons on stage and two others backstage, and we connected that way. I was never interested in sports,” he elaborates, “so we found a common interest. It was very special.”
As an actor, Fischer says he relished the opportunity to play a wide variety of roles, ranging from a small-time hood in Lost in Yonkers to the 13th-century Rambam in The Disputation.
And, he says, “I enjoyed working with talented, committed people who love the theater; wonderful people who do it just for the love of it. I always managed to fit JEST into my busy schedule. It kept me sane. It will be a bittersweet farewell to something that has been very important to me, my family and the community.”
Another JEST actor from New York, Howie Metz, has been a board member since 1989. A dentist by profession, he, too, enjoyed the chance as an actor to assume the personas of different characters. In fact, he recounts, in the comedy Sylvia, he played three roles – a woman, a macho man and an androgynous person.
“JEST put on such a wide variety of plays that anyone who wanted to act could find an opportunity for themselves,” he says. “We had the love of theater in common, and that is what brought us together.”
Meanwhile, people like music director Susan Hendrickson cemented them together as a cast.
“We took people off the street and turned them into professional actors and singers in just three or four months,” says Hendrickson, a drama teacher and vocal coach who has been with JEST from the start.
“We guided them, they performed it and did a fantastic job,” she says. “It was hard work, but everyone worked hard to do the best they could do. Everybody gave it their all, and we had a lot of fun.”
So now that JEST is taking its last curtain call, where will the dedicated cast and crew members go from here? To paraphrase a line from The Sound of Music: When God closes a curtain, a stage door opens somewhere else. Exeunt.