Shakespeare in the South

Desert youth bask – and flourish – in the limelight

MIDDLE AND high school students from the Hevel Eilot region perform ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ at Elad Theater. (photo credit: OREN RAVIVO)
MIDDLE AND high school students from the Hevel Eilot region perform ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ at Elad Theater.
(photo credit: OREN RAVIVO)
Elad Theater, named after Elad Dan, a soldier who died in battle in the Second Lebanon War, is a small organization, jumping from stage to stage in the region just north of Eilat. This small gem, however, shines bright, as their performances have slowly gained attention for unique perspectives on classical plays, primarily the legendary works of William Shakespeare.
With performances using relatively simple costumes and props, the theater is primarily carried by the actors, in love with their art and traveling far and wide to share their work and unique show styles, involving strange tricks such as blindfolding the audience, leaving all other senses to perceive the show.
The most recent endeavor of the theater has been to teach the local youth in the area of Hevel Eilot, a kibbutz that stands far from the glittering theaters of Tel Aviv, to express themselves through the works of Shakespeare.
Dana Itzhaki and Boaz Dan, the brother of the fallen soldier whose name the theater has taken in his honor, created the theater after a glistening career of working on the best stages in Israel.
“I wanted to do something that I can control – control the content and the inspiration,” Itzhaki told the Magazine. “There is no better place than the desert to do this. We are a group of professional creators who are trying to expand our boundaries.”
They decided to start the youth project after learning about a program in Massachusetts called “Shakespeare and Company” (not to be confused with the famed Parisian bookshop of the same name).
“It was clear to us that we wanted to touch people through the theater,” Itzhaki explained. “After several years, a director turned to us, Noa Egozi, who moved to the US and works for the Shakespeare and Company theater Massachusetts. She told us about this project that’s been happening there for 30 years now, in which 10 different schools each put up a Shakespeare play and then, in one big festival, present their productions to one another.”
She explained that the project immediately sparked inspiration within her and Dan’s hearts. Within several months, the first youth performance of their theater, a pilot of sorts, was under way: A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
During the several performances, night after night, the children took an imaginative spin on the famous play, impressively reciting Shakespearean tongue in Hebrew, in a manner that can only be described as biblical. Each and every one dominated their space, showing impressive control, as well as high-level theatrical techniques, reflecting the months of intensive training up until the performances.
With cross-dressed girls fighting over the same lover, a young man singing in Hebrew and rocking a donkey hat, and fairies and sprites that wandered around the corners of the stage, the performance certainly felt like a delve into Shakespeare’s mysterious fictional universe, only made up of quite an array of young characters.
Children in middle and high school came together several times per week to practice different acting exercises and movement techniques, as well as to build props, construct intricate stage decorations, and of course, rehearse for the fantastical performance.
“I thought, ‘How can youth connect to Shakespeare?’” Itzhaki admitted. “But the more they study his writing, the more they realize he writes about people. Love and loss and jealousy and things that interest us from the moment we know how to say our names. These kids constantly tell me that they can see themselves in the situations that happen within the play.”
THE PILOT program brought along with it numerous special opportunities for the children, including an experienced theater teacher, Ryan Winkles, who had worked with Shakespeare and Company in Massachusetts before being invited across the globe to teach theater to a group of children in Hevel Eilot.
The first question that arises with Winkles is simply regarding his ability to communicate with the kids. He, however, said that there was no trouble at all, as theater lies beyond the words.
“I know what they’re saying even when I don’t know what they’re saying,” Winkles told the Magazine.
He explained that one of the core principles of the study of theater with Shakespeare and Company, a technique that he brought with him to teach the Israeli crowd, is not to give them inherent behavioral stage instructions, but rather to present them with the story, language and tools to interpret it however they feel is suitable.
“We don’t tell them what to do,” he stated. “A lot of the direction is by asking questions. A lot of times, they’ll come up with stuff that I would never think of because they’re just riffing, they’re using their imaginations to play, and that’s what creates this project, brings it all to life.”
He further explained that this style of theatrical study proves to be highly educational, as it provides what many school systems lack these days.
“The school system in the US in particular focuses on your verbal and logical intelligence,” Winkles explained. “Harvard worked in conjunction with Shakespeare and Company to look into our fall festival of Shakespeare and the skills that the kids gain. Their intelligence and their ability to learn was seen by Harvard as optimal. It just requires so much of a student to imagine being somebody else rather than just sitting and reading.”
“These were a really busy couple of months,” Isabella Resnick, a 10th-grade student playing one of the lead rolls, Lysander, confided. “I had so much fun. We came all together, got to know our characters, and connected with the language of Shakespeare. I had never been in a production like this before. I was never in a play, most of us weren’t.”
Itzhaki explained that part of what makes the project so special is how local it is; everybody knows everybody.
“The audience members coming tonight are local; the kids know them, they’re coming for the kids, and they can speak with them,” she said. “This is exactly what we came here to do: to bring the audience to an experience.”
Despite the practically silly feeling (after all, these are preteens reciting Shakespeare in Hebrew in Israel’s South) that the idea gives, the performance is something that cannot be found anywhere else.
“These plays are the greatest writing in the English language, which actors work on their entire lives and never really feel like they’ve gotten it,” Winkles said of Shakespearean theater. “There’s something about these stories that transcends borders, languages, time – and it still matters to us.”