From 'The Dybbuk' to the deviant

Even more impressive than the creative energy of the theater in Israel is the frenetic pace of its development.

dibbuk 88 2908 (photo credit: MEREDITH PRICE)
dibbuk 88 2908
(photo credit: MEREDITH PRICE)
Even more impressive than the creative energy of the theater in Israel is the frenetic pace of its development. Just three-quarters of a century old, the Hebrew theater got a late start, especially compared to its predecessors in West European Theater and Greek drama. Most experts trace its sluggish beginnings back to religion. Observant Jews traditionally avoided the theater, forbidden as it was because of its immoral, irreligious and anti-educational properties. Talmudic sages advised Jews to endeavor in the holy occupation of Torah study instead, and warned against the dangers of idol worship that theater engendered. In one prayer, the Lord is thanked for making Jews "frequenters of yeshivot and synagogues" rather than "theaters and circuses; for I labor and they labor - I, to inherit the Garden of Eden and they, the pit of destruction" (Berachot, 4b, Jerusalem Talmud). With such a strongly ingrained correlation between theater and moral corruption, it wasn't until the Enlightenment at the end of the 19th century that Jews started to seek their place in world drama. And nearly another quarter century passed before the first professional Hebrew production, The Dybbuk - based on the ethnographic work of An-ski that explores the relationship between the living and the dead - appeared on stage. Produced in Moscow in 1918 under the sponsorship of the Moscow Arts Theatre, the Zionist group Habima (literally translated as "the stage"), directed by Yevgeny Vakhtangov, was the first to perform in Hebrew. According to Prof. Shimon Levy, the chair of the Tel Aviv University theater department, a strong link between Israeli reality and universal theatricality exists. In an article about the origins of Hebrew theater, he writes, "the rapid development of Hebrew theater is peculiarly linked with the secularization of the Jewish people, with the rise of practical Zionism and immigration to Palestine, and, concomitantly, with the revival of the Hebrew language in the last 100 years." Yet, while the rootless Hebrew theater of the past had to rely strongly on international repertoires and strictly adhered to established rules, much contemporary theater speaks a language completely of its own making. In experimental theater, the audience is no longer allowed to just sit, watch and laugh; they are forced to participate. Yaron Goshen, for example, uses the shock value of his own blood to make a statement about the current political situation: By taking the needles from his arms, the theater-goers are also made aware that even their inactivity and lethargy has consequences, even if they don't always see them first-hand. "Anything that doesn't work according to a given formula and involves the search for new modes of expression could be considered experimental or fringe," says Ati Citron, the chair of the department of theater at the University of Haifa. Citron, one of the artistic directors of the Acre Theater Festival and the director of the school of visual theater in Jerusalem for many years, says the will to experiment actually started in Israel around the 1950s with the first performance of Waiting for Godot in a small Tel Aviv theater. In 1980, through the initiative of Oded Kotler, the Acre Theater Festival was born, giving Fringe Theater a more permanent home in Israel. With the specific goal of enabling new, original and alternative languages of expression in theater, the Acre Theater Festival challenges young artists to test the limits of theatrical approaches. Using new concepts of space, audience-performer relationships, genre, directing, lighting and production, the world of experimental theater tries to bring new revelations to the art of performance.