JEST takes its final bow

Jerusalem’s oldest English theater company hosts its farewell production at Ramat Rachel this month

Anne get your gun (photo credit: COURTESY JEST)
Anne get your gun
(photo credit: COURTESY JEST)
After 29 years, Jerusalem’s oldest and most beloved English theater company, JEST, is finally closing the curtain. On November 20, JEST will host its final production at Kibbutz Ramat Rachel. It will be a night of music, theater and memories of past productions.
There will also be a raffle to win tickets to plays from Jerusalem’s other theater groups. In preparation for this, Leah Stoller, the director behind 55 of JEST’s 101 productions, talks about the legacy that JEST leaves behind.
Can you talk about JEST’s history? It was started in 1985 by Sheldon and Inez Klimist. They called for a group of people to get together, but when everyone found out that they weren’t going to be paid, a lot of them left. However, the stalwarts stayed and are still with us today.
I was invited by Sheldon because he liked my work, so he asked me if I wanted to direct. I got started a year after the group was founded. We were five couples who were retired, whose children were no longer in the house, and so we had the time to devote to an activity like this. Each one of us brought something unique to the table.
Inez is a wonderful costume designer, and my husband became the business manager.
So it was a golden time for us, and there was no other English theater group at that time in Jerusalem. We had an open field and could do what we wanted. It’s amazing that some of our actors who joined in the very beginning are still with us today. This is also true of our audience members.
What kind of plays did JEST put on? We tried to do all kinds of English theater, except for Shakespeare. We didn’t take that on. I didn’t feel qualified to touch that. But everything else was open to us. We did John Osbourne, Oscar Wilde, Bernard Shaw and Terrence Rattigan. We basically covered all the greats. We also tried to keep current, bringing the best of old and new theater. At some point, I realized that musicals were where the money was, so I started directing musicals. Our first was Annie Get Your Gun in 1989.
JEST has been rather nomadic over the years in terms of venues? Yes, I think we’ve been in seven different venues around Jerusalem. We did go out of the city occasionally, to Beersheba, Netanya and Haifa. We were invited three times to Ireland for the International Amateur Theater Festival. It was wonderful for our group to go meet with other people from around the world. But in terms of Jerusalem, we were all over the place. Eventually, we got a miklat [bomb shelter] in Katamon, where we were able to store our costumes, props and sets. It’s also where our wonderful creative people did all their work. We got the last free miklat in Jerusalem, and we were eternally grateful.
But even with that, the expenses became too much. We didn’t want to gouge people on ticket prices, so we never went above 80 shekels. Even though we felt our productions were worth more, it didn’t feel right charging more. Also, people stopped coming out to the plays, and were only interested in the musicals. But that’s happening all over the world. Since we had no young people to take over, we decided it was time.
I don’t know if anyone could have taken over; you would need a huge investment.
We reached the point where we knew it was time to close.
Did you have any production highlights? Yes, we put on a play called Korczak’s Children. It’s a beautiful play about [Janusz] Korczak and his relationship with his children.
It’s such an uplifting production, even though the ending is sad. David Glickman, who was one of our finest actors, portrayed Korczak and a group of charming children were cast. That was my favorite play.
What are your parting thoughts now that JEST is finally closing down? We all got old during our time at JEST.
After 29 years, we didn’t remain younger than springtime. We did everything as volunteers.
We had kids who came through and learned lighting because that’s what was needed. We also had great musical people.
Eventually, some people got paid, but never the directors. We had a wonderfully loyal bunch of people. It was community theater in every sense of the spirit. What’s really amazing is we crossed over all religious persuasions, and also brought together people of every political opinion. Theater became the main focus and all other issues were put aside. JEST brought everyone together.