With the 24th annual International Haifa Children’s Theater Festival kicking off next week, there is a new hand on the tiller.Norman Issa is the event’s artistic director this year, and the 47-year-old award-winning director, actor and theater owner brings a wealth of professional and life experience to the job.Issa has lined up an abundance of tantalizing works for the festival – which runs from April 16 to 18 – with the aim of drawing in the crowds and entertaining children from 18 months to 10 years old, as well as their moms, dads and grandparents.Issa is the perfect man for the job. For starters, he hails from Haifa, and he now owns and runs the Jaffa Port area’s Elmina Theater for children, together with his wife, playwright Gidona Raz.A Christian Arab, he takes an all-embracing approach to life, and to his art form.“I am not in favor of the term ‘coexistence,’” he states. “To my mind, that is a bit of a racist term. That implies that there are only two parties which need to get on and live with each other. But there are many more ethnic communities, and people, who live in this part of the world. There are Circassians, Armenians and lots of other groups. Shouldn’t we relate to them, too? We prefer to talk about existence or cultural multi-existence. There are lots of different kinds of people, with all sorts of shades, all kinds of spices. Take all the seasoning and put it in the same box. I promise you, you’ll get something really tasty out of all that,” he says with a smile.Sooner or later, most things in the Middle East take a gastronomic line, and he continues the metaphor: “If you say one spice is better than the other, you mess up the whole dish. Every spice has its own taste. You don’t have to like the taste – they say you shouldn’t argue over taste or smell – but you have to accept that it exists.” That is an ethos that he and Raz put into practice at Elmina.For Issa, the whole point behind art in general and theater in particular is to offer the public something off the beaten track, to open their eyes and ears to previously unexplored areas of life and culture. “The audience should come to the theater and see something it doesn’t necessarily recognize, that it isn’t used to seeing. The work should be the result of the artist’s creative efforts, and should be presented in an intriguing way. You get what it is that he is trying to convey to you, and you appreciate his way of working, his way of producing art.”The artistic director says his line of work is challenging, for all sorts of reasons. Naturally there is the trying business of creating something from nothing, as all artists struggle to do when giving their ideas corporeal form. Exacerbating that struggle is the problem of getting one’s audience on board. In this day and age, that can be far easier said than done. While the range of cultural events around the world continues to expand, there is also a pervading tendency among consumers to stick to the tried and tested, or to something that does not overtax the imagination and provides cheap thrills.Issa is aware of the street-level- popularity pitfalls.“People like light things, things that are not dangerous or complicated, that don’t challenge them to think too much,” he notes wryly. “It’s like cycling – people either take the car, or use a battery-powered bicycle. They don’t want to work too hard.”He says that he and his professional counterparts have a duty to ensure that the theatergoers of tomorrow are well primed to take on challenges, and to cultivate a natural curiosity for new intellectual, aesthetic and artistic vistas. That responsibility, he says, also rests with parents.“You know, children are naturally curious.That is something we must take pains to nurture, rather than repressing it. That’s what we do at Elmina. We put on shows that engage children, regardless of their ethnicity, socioeconomic standing or cultural baggage.” A recent incident placed that approach in sharp relief.“I saw a mother with her son outside the theater one day,” he recalls. “The child wanted to come inside to see the show, but the mother kept telling him that it wasn’t for him. But the child didn’t give up.I went up to her and suggested they come inside, and I told her that if her son didn’t like the show, she wouldn’t have to pay for a ticket.”That did the trick. “They came in, and her son had a great time. After the show, the woman came to me to pay for the ticket, and she thanked me for insisting, and said she was delighted they had come into the theater.Sometimes you have to work hard to overcome people’s resistance to trying new things out, but it is worth it in the end.”That small victory was encouraging for Issa, but he says there is much work yet to do.“The general level of culture in Israel is not very high,” he declares. “You don’t have the degree of investment you get, for instance, in Europe. I think the state here invests something like 0.3 percent of the national budget in culture. That is pitiable.”And things are not getting any better. “Every year more and more actors, and more theaters, join the cultural sector, but the total budget doesn’t grow. So you have to divide up the pie into more and thinner slices.”As such, life is not getting any easier for him.“Gidona and I opened Elmina two-and-a-half years ago, and we have both been working on a voluntary basis since the beginning. I am an actor with the Haifa Theater, which I love, but it is very hard to keep Elmina going. Here, we want to offer quality entertainment to Arab and Jewish and other children. We keep going because we want to offer theater for everyone.”He says the theater does not tailor shows to specific audiences.“Small children have a natural ability to understand performances, regardless of whether they understand the language that is being used by the actors. We adults can also do that. If you go to a country whose language you don’t speak or understand, you will get by. We can use our eyes, our hands, facial expressions. We have an obligation to help our children to remain open and accepting and accommodating. We must not close them, or ourselves, off from things with which we are not familiar. There is a whole world out there, with all kinds of ideas, colors and spirit. Let’s enjoy that rather than rejecting it.”He put his extralingual approach to successful use a few years ago when, along with actor-director-playwright Yoav Bar- Lev, he created a children’s show with the intentionally nonsensical name of Ach Ach Boom Trach. The play was written in Aramaic.They chose Aramaic, Issa explains, because as a Semitic language, it bears a strong resemblance to both Arabic and Hebrew.“As a Jew, you’ll think the play is in Hebrew, and an Arab will get the sense it is in Arabic – even though it’s neither. I wrote the play in Arabic, which we then translated into Hebrew, after which an Armenian monk translated it into Aramaic.”The venture went well around the world, but unfortunately was not well received here.“We put the play on in places like Barcelona, Uzbekistan, Hong Kong, Vienna and Japan, and the audiences really loved it. Here the theater production buyers decided the play was too sophisticated for Israeli audiences.That is a ridiculous idea. How can the buyers decide what is too sophisticated for our children? Children are intelligent and can understand all kinds of things. We have to challenge them. We have to keep them curious and open up new worlds to them. That is the responsibility of anyone in children’s theater.”Of course, he hasn’t always been in the junior sector of the theater world; he says he was drawn to it when he realized the simple fact that the younger theatergoers of today are the adult theater patrons of tomorrow.“If we don’t invest in children today, we won’t have an audience in the future – an audience that is level- headed and open. I don’t care if the children are Arab, Jewish, Ethiopian or Russian. When a small child plays with another small child, he doesn’t care about the other’s ethnicity. If he is white and he sees a child who is darkskinned, he will be intrigued, but he won’t look at him in a racist way.Our shows at Elmina are in Arabic, in Hebrew, wordless or presented in a dance format. I will use any way I can to reach the audience without making too much fuss about the specific format. I want to offer them quality theater. That’s what interests me.”He has certainly lined up plenty of that for his debut at the helm of the Haifa Children’s Theater Festival.The three-day program kicks off with Hanoch Levin’s acclaimed rhyme-based Uncle Max’s Journey, and as it does every year, it includes a competition category in which half a dozen works will vie for a prize.The six shows include Hamutal Ben-Ze’ev’s Fox Tale, which offers educational value along with entertainment.It tells the story of a fox who is banished from the forest by the queen, who wants to cut down the trees and replace them with an amusement park. She endeavors to get her subjects on board for the dastardly anti-environmental venture by promising them luxury housing complete with labor-saving mod cons.However, Shauli the fox vehemently opposes the destructive concept.Another competition entry, Ofer Shafrir’s Barking at the Moon, centers on a cast of canine creatures, each with his or her own dreams and ideas about how to get through life. The dogs in the neighborhood are relatively set in their ways until a new pooch arrives on the block and gets them to sit up and take stock of what is right and wrong. Thankfully love eventually wins out.Both shows are tailored to the four-to-10 age group, and each will be performed four times daily on April 16 and 17.Issa says he and the other festival jurors had their work cut out for them. “We received 144 entries to the competition, and we had to whittle them down to only six. There are so many talented writers and theater people in this country. I wish they all had an opportunity to present their work to the public, and to make a decent living from their work. It is tough going for all of us.”In addition to the competition slots, the festival features some scintillating street theater shows from here and abroad, including Le reve d’Erica (Erica’s Dream) by the Bivouac Cie troupe from France, Hotel Crab by the Spanish Turkitrek ensemble, Giraffe by Teatro Pavana of Holland, and Les oiseaux de lux from the English NWSI group. The Israeli side of the free outdoor entertainment offerings includes the Armchair live sculpture effort by Familia Fantastic, Everything Can Happen by Jerome Arous, Odyssey to the Magic Sound by Dream Theater and Bath Queen by Odelia Liberman.Meanwhile, Ranana Raz’s YouMake ReMake multidisciplinary production for three-to-10-year-olds features intriguing interplay among actors, dancers and You Tube clips, while Itamar Meets a Rabbit, based on a story by David Grossman, is a children’s operatic work written by Yoni Rechter and performed by the Israeli Vocal Ensemble. ■ For tickets and more information about the festival: (04) 860-0500 or www.haifakids.com.