Life on the fringes

Experimental theater in Israel is thriving, against the odds.

comic conductor 88 298 (photo credit: MEREDITH PRICE)
comic conductor 88 298
(photo credit: MEREDITH PRICE)
When he takes on the persona of Luka the body artist, Yaron Goshen dresses up as a woman, speaks in falsetto, tells jokes and laughs with the audience until they're sufficently comfortable. Then, Goshen wraps an Israeli flag around one of his arms and a Palestinian flag around the other and climbs up on stage. He puts a needle in each of his arms and begins to draw blood, and then asks the audience to remove the needles for him and stop the blood. By any definition, Goshen is on the fringe. But apparently, that's where the audience is, too. If ticket sales and annual production numbers are any indication, then theater fans - especially those who like funky, experimental shows like Goshen's - can stop fretting. The rumors about warfare and economics destroying the arts have fallen on deaf ears in the fringe theater cosmos. In line with an increase of festivals, productions, workshops and educational programs, new modes of expression that rebel against the rules of classical theater are flourishing. In Tel Aviv alone, audiences now have a choice of more than 50 shows nearly every night, many of which provide unconventional and even eccentric theater. Idit Herman, the artistic director of the Klippa Theater, says her group's experimental theater is constantly searching for new ways to break ground, and although they have at last found a permanent home, the struggle is far from over. "For a long time, we were rebelling against classical theater, but one can only take that so far, and even this new, rebellious language must be renewed," says Herman. The seven members of the Klippa Theater - one of the few truly alternative theaters in Israel successful enough to survive for more than 10 years - come from various artistic backgrounds. They envision and create every aspect of the production process, from set design to costume-making, lighting, and choreography. "We all work on everything. It's a philosophical rule that also sets us apart from more conventional theater," Herman explains. In a recent adaptation of Rite of Spring created by Igor Stravinsky, the Klippa Theater combined modern dance, acrobatics and visual imagery with music from the philharmonic orchestra. The orchestra was placed on the stage with the dancers, giving the conductor, maestro Roni Porat, a pivotal role in directing both the musicians and the actors. Together, they narrated the story of a society that has brought destruction upon itself and lost its land. Wordlessly, they illustrated the primal opposition between earthly, grounding forces and man's desire to connect with the sky. For the Klippa Theater, finding a new theatrical language involves physical performance art, and breaking conventional rules about the relationship between the audience and the performers lends new semantics to their productions. "We believe that people come to the theater to see a piece of life, and by involving the audience in the production itself, we give them an opportunity to move through the space with the actors," maintains Herman. "They are no longer just sitting and watching. They are participants who help to build the story in their own minds." Herman cites the comic story of Gadina, a reptile, as an example of participation. The piece itself incited anarchy and the audience was so enthusiastic that the whole theater had to be repaired at the end of the show. At the opening of the Israel Festival in 2001, the group performed Deus Ex Machina, an alternative rock opera based on the Biblical creation story but told from the point of view of vagabonds nearing extinction. In the midst of a shimmering water mass, the actors portrayed dramatic events about the birth of the world while gigantic images were projected onto a massive wall of water behind them. They used new visual techniques and musical genres to rejuvenate an ancient story. FOR FYODOR MAKAROV, a native of Russia who immigrated to Israel in 1990, the art of experimentation has a comic goal. Makarov got his professional start after Slava Polunin (the renowned Russian clown who was recently in Israel collaborating with Terry Gilliam on Diablo) hired him to tour with Slava's Snow Show four years ago. For his 30th birthday, he decided to write, direct and produce his own one-man show, The Benefit of Don Vittorio. "In the sense that I mix genres - classical clowning with modern dance, pantomime, and stand-up - my work could be considered experimental," says Makarov. "But my audience is very important to me, which is not always the case with experimental theater." The Benefit of Don Vittorio opens with the professor's assistant frantically searching for the imminent Don Vittorio so an important scientific conference can begin. As the show progresses, the assistant mutates into over 11 different characters who sing, dance, duel, mime and gibber their way through the play, poking fun at science and reality and encouraging the audience to participate in the laughter. In recent years, Goshen, also known as Sancho, turned to clowning, and his experimentation centers on how audience participation can be successfully used to highlight underlying messages. He is searching for new methods to send the spectators a wake-up call. Being a clown, he explains, gives him a way to break down barriers between people, come into physical contact and interact on deeper levels. His work also emphasizes healing and he maintains that through laughter and touch, people can often enjoy the human connections so lacking in today's technological, distant world. But beyond comedy and healing, his goals also include political implications. He uses audience involvement and participation to give strength and physical momentum to his statements. In one of his works in progress, Red-Nosed Cabaret, Goshen and his partner, Nimrod Eisenberg, are looking for new ways to collapse the space between the audience and the actors. "We are trying everything from selling beer for a make-believe country called Bavaria to taking the audience hostage," Goshen says of the ongoing process. In his clown shows, he touches upon realistic themes by implementing suicide bombers, death, execution and terrorism into the plot. Clowning is more than just fun, and by touching upon deeper subjects, Goshen says he hopes to make a difference in people's lives. "Some things work better than others to get our point across, but when the experiments work, they are incredibly powerful," he attests. "People often cry or collapse, but they are almost always thankful that they got a chance to be moved in such an unexpected way." BUT EXPERIMENTAL theater is not always placed inside. It sometimes works with large, open spaces outdoors and plays with perceptions of space by creating unexpected dynamics between spectator and performer. Goshen's mentor, Dudy Ma'ayan, who has played a huge role in the Israeli experimental theater, often examines the connections between the past and the present with new techniques in movement. Famous for shocking his audiences, he has productions that physically transport the spectators or asks them to move themselves - crawling through uncomfortable spaces in one instance - in order to truly connect with his message. His seminal production, Work Makes You Free (1989), starts in a bus. After a short ride, the ticket holders arrive at a Holocaust Museum to take a tour given by a survivor of the Holocaust named Velma. A Jewish Racist, Velma presents history through her own narrow viewpoint. Within the artistic representation that made use of unconventional techniques, Ma'ayan compared the treatment of the Jews during the Holocaust to the current-day situation with the Palestinians, criticizing contemporary politics in Israel by showing the irony of Velma's position. You have become the very thing you hate, he seemed to whisper from the sidelines as the shock began to settle in the audience. In an international message in honor of World Theatre Day last month, Victor Hugo Rasc n Banda wrote that "the theater moves, illuminates, disquiets, disturbs, lifts the spirit, reveals, provokes and violates conventions. It is a conversation shared with society." For Herman and many others in the experimental world, the search for roots is at an end and the time to go beyond the surface has arrived. So if Banda is correct in his assessment that the art of theater can confront the realities of warfare, pain, bloodshed, death and loss so prevalent in today's society, then the dialogue between the Israeli audience and the experimental theater still has a lot to articulate.