Voices of Jerusalem: Theater and the City

Loren Minsky from itraveljerusalem.com speaks to Arik Eshet, 53, the CEO of Incubator Theater.

Arik Eshet (photo credit: Courtesy)
Arik Eshet
(photo credit: Courtesy)
“I am a Jerusalem boy who left Jerusalem – and returned,” smiles Arik Eshet, the CEO and Artistic Director of Incubator Theater. Incubator Theater seeks to curb just this exodus of talented creatives by building an infrastructure for original theater in Jerusalem and thus providing actors and theater professionals with the means to establish themselves in the city.
Though “no easy task”, Arik and the Incubator Theater have produced more than 1,500 shows from 30 original productions and plays since 2005, including a TV series on Channel 10. For the past two years, thanks to the help of the Jerusalem Municipality, government, donors and the Beracha Foundation (who’ve been instrumental from the beginning), Incubator Theater is an established repertory theater with a permanent home at Beit Maziya, a grand 19th-century theater complex in the neighborhood of Nachlaot. “We’re so proud of what we’ve accomplished after many years of struggling and surviving with lack of meaningful help,” says Arik.
Arik’s family are originally from Sanhedria in Jerusalem and have been in the city for eight generations. His grandfather was a dairy farmer with over 100 cows but closed the farm down after the 1948 war when his huge property was cut in the middle. Arik’s grandmother’s family are from Hebron and have been in Israelsince the 19th-century.
Arik’s father worked as an army officer growing up and the family lived all over the country – from Bat Yam to Beersheba. “But Jerusalem was always our home,” reflects Arik. His father also worked as a consulate member in Sao Paulo, Brazil during Arik’s high school years. “Brazil was fun and colorful with lots of dancing on the streets, and I thought Jerusalem should become something like that.”
When he returned to Israel, Arik joined the army academy with plans to study law at Hebrew University and to then serve as an officer. However, after taking an amazing acting course at Hebrew University, he decided to study acting at Nissan Nativ acting school in Tel Aviv simultaneously. “Instead of working as a lawyer in the army, I landed up directing Army Theater and working with army entertainment groups as a choreographer and as artistic director,” shares Arik. “During my three years in the army, I gained a wealth of experience teaching, directing and doing everything one does in theater.”
Right after the army, in 1986, Arik was presented the opportunity (through the Jerusalem Foundation and Teddy Kollek) to open a branch of Nissan Nativ acting studio in Jerusalem. He did this for 26 years. What frustrated him was that graduates would usually head to Tel Aviv on the last day of school and so in 2005, he began working on the Incubator Theater project simultaneously to develop the theater scene in Jerusalem. Two years ago, he left his position at Nissan Nativ to focus solely on developing Incubator Theater.
Initially, Incubator Theater began by performing shows for young people in pubs using humor and satire, which became increasingly popular. Incubator Theater also collaborates with other establishments like Beit Avi Chai, where they perform their popular “Kalabat Shabbat” and their show on the weekly Torah portion. The ensemble draws on both traditional and modern theatrical techniques and produces performances that reflect the diverse ideologies that make up Israeli society. Cast members are equally diverse.
Not only does Incubator Theater produce quality theater productions but they are also focused on developing audiences in Jerusalem. “Since Jerusalem is not a theater-going city, we have to build the audience,” shares Arik.“Jerusalem is a poor place in generaland culture is a luxury and not natural for muchof the population.” This year Incubator Theater have come out with six children’s shows in order to also reach families.
Although they perform at Gerard Behar Center, in the neighborhood and travel around the country performing some of their favorites like Ha’irHazot (This City) and "PPPPPP", which won first prize in the Akko Festival, Beit Maziya is now home. The Beit Maziya performance center is also home to the well-known Psik theater group and Theater Company Jerusalem.
“What’s unique about Incubator Theater is just how innovative, original and humorous our shows are – from a cabaret of the Genesis stories in the bible to a hilarious parody of Hollywood films,” says Arik. “We take serious subjects like G-d, Shabbat, life after death, security and find the humorous side of them.” Something else that’s unique is that most of their shows are written, performed and directed by the actors. “Performers can be creators as well,” says Arik. “An actor is not only someone who receives orders, but most of the time can write and create by themself.”
The company are working on broadening their appeal to all audiences, ages, languages and ethnic groups and offer several non-verbal plays. They are hoping to reach English-speakers and tourists more and are currently working on translating Ha’irHazot into English. Last Saturday Incubator Theater participated in an Israel international exposure program and performed Ha’irHazot, which was one of 14 plays selected to participate from around the country.
Other recent highlights include performing their Matinee show in Brazil, Turkey and other countries. Their new non-verbal science fiction/ fantasy show “Babylon” will be presented in New York in January at a big conference. They will also travel to the Czech Republic and to Poland with This City.
Arik is also excited about their new show Macbeth. A group of six young actors have translated, adaptedand revived the original Shakespearean play and the result is a contemporary feel with rap and street poetry. Macbeth is one of 23 shows for 2014.
Most of the artists involved in general are Jerusalem-based; graduates from Nissan Nativ, Bezalel and the Music Academy. “Though we won’t say no to actors who live in Tel Aviv, we try encourage the Jerusalem base by holding all rehearsals in Jerusalem,” says Arik. “As we grow, we offer more, and more artists are tempted to stay in the city and work.”
Since Incubator Theater is a start-up, Arik is involved in all aspects from admin to his role as artistic director. Arik’s days are long and involve a lot of improvisation. “The best part of my day is definitely the artistic part; working with actors and with the show,” shares Arik.Though Arik really enjoys acting too, these days he finds himself directing theater most of the time.
Arik lives in Givat Hamivtar in Jerusalem, and has three daughters, who are all theatrical.“To relax I read a lot,” says Arik. “Science fiction and fantasy make for good escapism.”
“What would I do in another lifetime? Dance. I don’t generally find time but when there is music on, I take the chance and move a little. I love dancing.”
“Jerusalem is like no other city,” says Arik. “I see Jerusalem as a true representation of Israel – a really pluralistic place with a complex structure and diverse demographics and ideas. Though it’s less insulated and not as easy practically to create like in Tel Aviv, here it is far more challenging, rewarding and interesting.”
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