Been There: Costumes take center stage

An exhibition at the Jerusalem Theater allows the viewer to be in the spotlight and behind the scenes at the same time.

If, as Shakespeare wrote, "clothes make the man," then there is no question that at the Jerusalem Theater's new exhibition "Stage Fashion," clothes make the mannequin. Spanning more than 80 years of costume design and craftsmanship, the exhibition displays over 120 costumes by 43 designers, culled from Israeli Hebrew theater productions since 1922. The exhibition covers three floors of the theater's lobby and interior, totaling 2,500 square meters of display area. The exhibition is the result of a full year of cooperative effort of the Jerusalem Theater and all the Hebrew-language theater companies in the country. Sasha Lishanski, stage designer of the Gesher theater, designed the exhibition. "We wanted to do something special and original to honor Israeli theater for the country's 60th anniversary," explains Jerusalem Theater director-general Yifat Zahi Kirel. But, she admits, they had no idea what a monumental task it would be to execute such a project. The deeper they got involved in the project, the more overwhelming it became. The 60 plays represented in the exhibition range from Habimah's 1922 production of The Dybbuk to the Cameri's 2006 rendition of King Lear. The selections were made to show the diversity of periods and themes Israeli theater has presented over the decades. Thus costumes from such plays as Guys and Dolls; The American Princess; Dreaming Child; Mary Stewart; Aunt Lisa; and Tartuffe rub elbows with garments from Antigone; Macbeth; Queen Esther; Jacob and Rachel; The Witch; Marriage; and He Walked through the Fields. To show the costumes to their best advantage, they are not enclosed in glass cases but are out in the open. "That way, viewers can look at them up close to appreciate the sheer artistry that has gone into handcrafting each garment in this magical exhibition," says Kirel. However, she stresses, visitors are urged not to touch them. As for the mannequins, the Castro fashion chain lent the theater 70, as well as the Israel Museum and other resources. Some more unusual forms, such as witches and whimsical creatures, were made especially for the exhibit from sponge or plaster. Next to each costume are the original sketches the designer drew or painted for the piece. In the early years of Israeli theater, explains Kirel, set and costume design was not a profession in itself, so the theatrical work was done by some of the best-known artists in the country. Among the more than 500 framed sketches - each a work of art on its own - are drawings by leading artists such as Reuven Rubin, Natan Altman, Nachum Gutman, Arye Navon and David Shirr. Explanatory information in English and Hebrew accompanies each costume as well, guiding the visitor through the history of Israeli theater. As a vehicle by which to convey the history of the theater, costumes were a natural choice. "In a play, the costume is the thing you see first and the one that leaves a lasting impression," says Noga Arad Ayalon, curator of the Jerusalem Theater. Making costumes involves teamwork, she explains. Each costume is an interplay of the author's vision, the designer's creativity and the actor's persona. "The designer makes a costume for a specific actor," she says, "so he must take into account the actor's voice, presence, how he moves." A costume can make an actor look bigger or smaller, powerful or meek, wealthy or impoverished, beautiful or ugly. "The costume puts the actor in the forefront," says Ayalon. Ori Goldstein, strategic development manager of the Jerusalem Theater and head of the project, cites an example of how a costume made a lasting impact on the country. In Moshe Shani's play He Walked through the Fields, performed by the Cameri Theater in 1948, actress Chana Meron was dressed in the now classic kibbutz shorts and blouse designed by Arye Navon. That outfit fixed the sartorial image of the Sabra forever. One of the challenges of mounting the exhibition was the issue of how to bring the energy of the costume to life on a mannequin. "We want people to feel that they are on stage and behind the scenes at the same time," says Ayalon. To accomplish that paradoxical scenario, the exhibition is set up like a stage, with dramatic lighting effects that make the visitor feel as if he has stepped into a scene. Yet the proximity and accessibility of the costumes also makes him feel as if he were backstage. "As an audience member, you never get to see a costume at such close range, Ayalon points out. But by far the greatest challenge facing the exhibition organizers was finding the costumes in the first place. The project became a year-long treasure hunt, searching through museums, archives, storage rooms, basements and boidems for the elusive theatrical garb. While some costumes were obtained from the country's theater companies, kibbutzim, museums, designers, actors and private collectors, it became evident that many of the costumes had been lost or destroyed over the years. Thus began a massive restoration operation. Based on the decades-old but well-preserved sketches that the original designers kept, half the costumes selected for the exhibition were hand sewn by dozens of local tailors and seamstresses. Many of the designers, some of them now over 80 years old, remember what they did and what they made. They were an invaluable resource, helping to select the fabric for the costumes and working closely with the sewers, says Goldstein. Designer Adina Reich, for example, kept a book that itemized every piece of cloth and every costume size for each play she worked on. After the exhibition ends, the costumes that do not have to be returned to their original sources will be stored at the Jerusalem Theater, asserts Kirel. "That way, we won't have to go looking for them again. It is so important to do everything we can to honor our history and preserve our culture," she says. Stage Fashion will be on exhibit at the Jerusalem Theater until December 31. Tickets cost NIS 12-18. For the comfort of the viewing public, only 450 people will be allowed in at a time. For further information or to reserve tickets and time slots, call 560-5755 or visit