A cult thorn in the parental side

‘1000 Thorns’ takes a look at the contentious topic of cults.

 CULTURE COMES to the community in Jerusalem’s Kiryat Hayovel neighborhood.  (photo credit: Mashu Mashu Theater)
CULTURE COMES to the community in Jerusalem’s Kiryat Hayovel neighborhood.
(photo credit: Mashu Mashu Theater)

Parenthood can be a trying experience. As our offspring face their own challenges, along the pathway to self-discovery, there can be all kinds of bifurcations, departures and, even, U-turns as they seek for meaning and an anchor in life. That can take on all sorts of guises, from boundless adulation of a rock star or athlete, some global existential cause or grabbing on to religious beliefs. 

In adolescence, and even later, one tends to adopt a monochromic view of life. Things are either black or white, and never the twain shall meet. That intransigence informs the 1,000 Thorns theatrical production, a new offering from the Goshen Theater company, which has been putting out quality onstage fare, primarily for younger audiences, for more than 30 years.

The play, written by Guy Hirsch and Eyal Heyne Galli and directed by seasoned thespian Natan Datner, will take its debut bow at the Eretz Israel Museum in Ramat Aviv tonight (March 27 at 9:30 p.m.).

1,000 Thorns takes a look at the contentious topic of cults, and how this not only affects youngsters who join their seemingly supportive but eminently suffocating ranks, but also those around them and, in particular, their family members.

Datner says he tried to maintain an even-handed approach throughout the preliminaries for the project.  “The greatest challenge in directing a play with such a sensitive subject is not to judge the characters. Even the ‘goodie’ makes mistakes, and the ‘baddie’ can also do good deeds.”

It was very much about making the subject matter as accessible as possible to the culture consumer, and conveying the idea that no one is immune to the temptation of breaking societal ranks and becoming infatuated by take-no-prisoners passion. “I tried to create a simple everyday tale with characters that are familiar to us, so that we can understand that the story on the stage can happen to anyone,” Datner continues. “That is the real danger with the various cults and gurus in Israel.”

That thinking also impacted on the way set designer Batya Segal went about her business. “An uncluttered stage, with very few accessories, and captivating video screenings and music, allows the wonderful cast members to take the audience on the spiritual, emotional and fascinating voyage of 1,000 Thorns,” the director observes.

The storyline of the play centers on 17-year-old Yarden, who, together with a school pal, sets off from her moshav for the bright lights of the city. Yarden’s dream is to be accepted for the Hakochav Haba (The Next Star) reality show and make it as a singer. 

Her life course takes an oblique turn when she encounters a mysterious and charismatic man called Emmanuel, who opens up a new world to the starry-eyed youngster. She is charmed, and drawn into an enticing ambiance that offers mutual support and respect, and is refreshingly devoid of the dog-eat-dog cauldron of talent shows. However, Yarden’s love affair with her new surroundings soon turns into a nightmare, while her friend does everything she can to help her break free of the emotional maelstrom.

The Hirsch and Heyne Galli collaborative venture was sparked by a TV current affairs show. “Before the corona there was a report on cults by Nesli Barda,” Hirsch explains. “Straight after the broadcast [Goshen Theater artistic director] Avigail [Shemer] called me and asked me if I, by chance, saw the program.”

The answer was in the affirmative, although that had nothing to with serendipity. “Of course I saw,” Hirsch laughs. “Eyal and I have taken a keen interest in cults for years now. Avigail knows that.” 

“We have always been interested in trying to understand how someone can take over someone else’s brain,” said Heyne Galli. “That is fascinating.” 

It is indeed, in the most compelling and darkest sense. 

One particular movement was uppermost in the writers’ minds, one that has variously been dubbed a business and a religious movement, as well as a cult. “Scientology is one of the subjects that attracted us powerfully,” Hirsch adds. “We discovered years ago that so many people fall into that. It is fascinating how people fall into things like that, and succumb to sets of rules.”

Heyne Galli and Hirsch wanted to spread the word about the dangers of coming under the intoxicating influence of obsessive pursuits, and losing ourselves in what we deem to be the real thing. “Avigail said we have to put on a play about cults,” says Hirsch. “It is something that is hardly talked about. And we live in a country in which there is no law against cults.”

Considering the continued synergy – considered by many to be unhealthy – between state and religion here, that comes as a surprise. Then again, as the experiences of the past couple of years have underscored, you do have to tread lightly when it comes to restricting freedom of speech, thought and – possibly – religious practice. 

“It is a bit of a gray area,” Hirsch admits. “But, there are factors that differentiate between religion and cult.

“In [New York sex trafficking and forced labor cult] NXIVM and Scientology there is a tendency to glean incriminating information from the followers, about crimes they may have committed in the past, and to use that to prevent them speaking out against the cult. And the cult leader always has a monopoly on the whole truth, and everyone has to obey him – cult leaders are mostly male.”

Those sentiments, and others, found their way into the 1000 Thorns script. And it wasn’t easy. “Avigail and I met up at the theater and we wondered whether we could really create a play about it,” Hirsch recalls. “We thought about how to convey the concept in as realistic a way as possible, to show the way the process works in reality. That was the most important thing for us. Youth, and also adults, in Israel are not necessarily aware of this area of life. There are more than 150 cults in this country. It is not such a rare phenomenon.”

Heyne Galli and Hirsch are planning on taking the show on the road – they have a slot at this year’s Children and Youth Theater Festival in Haifa on April 19 – including to schools and IDF bases around the country.

The writers hope the spectator experience is beneficial for one and all. “We want to show what families [of cult members] should do, to maintain some kind of contact,” says Hirsch. He and Heyne Galli consulted professionals in the field before setting pen to paper. “Rachel [Lichtenstein, head of the Israeli Center for Cult Victims] told us the best way to do that is not to confront the children. The parents just have to remain available and accessible on the phone, or in any other way.”

That, as parents can imagine, demands patience and plenty of forbearance. Perhaps 1000 Thorns can offer a helping hand in that regard.

For tickets and more information: (09) 950-8837, (050) 995-6630, https://tgoshen.com/ and https://www.facebook.com/tgoshen/