Making it work

This year’s Magical Legend Festival at the Suzanne Dellal Center promises to be an eye-opener.

puppets 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
puppets 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The Yaron Yerushalmi Magical Legend Festival has been around for 20 years now, but it is hard to think of a more moving item in two decades of wonderful entertainment than this year’s production of The Wizard of Oz.
The three-day festival will take place at the Suzanne Dellal Center from August 23 to August 25, with all shows starting at 4:30 p.m. and 6:30 p.m.
The festival, which features dance and theater shows for children, is chock-full of perennial favorites such as Aladdin and his Magic Lamp, a new version of Leah Goldberg’s A Tale of Three Nuts by the Goshen Theater company, and a flamenco reworking of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid.
Naturally, with the junior patrons in mind, the entertainment will be largely on the visually arresting side – the latter production by Netta Sheizaf’s Flamenco Dance Theater company is a prime example. In the Spanish dance-oriented version, the eponymous heroine is taught to dance flamenco by her pal the dancer crab, when she gets herself a pair of legs. The display is planned as a ruse to generate some romantic feelings for the mermaid from a certain princely character.
Puppets feature front and center in several of the festival shows, including the Train Theater’s reading of The Princess and the Moon and a delightful portrayal of the Beatrix Potter favorite, Peter Rabbit.
Puppets also have a star turn in The Wizard of Oz slot, with some animated screened support from backstage, music courtesy of Rafi Weinstock. What makes Yossi Graber’s take on the L. Frank Baum classic so special is the fact that most of the puppeteers suffer from some degree or other of mental handicap.
Graber admits to having had some misgivings when he first considering the project.
“It was an incredible challenge, even without taking into account the limitations of people with special needs,” says Graber.
First the original Hebrew translation had to be made palatable for contemporary audiences.
“The Hebrew we started with was archaic and had to be modernized. Graber and his merry troupe envisaged investing three months in the rehearsal phase, but in the end, they spent four times longer getting the production shipshape.
“THERE WERE TIMES when I said I had no time or energy for the whole thing,” Graber recalls, “I’m not getting any younger myself. But I saw how these people with disabilities gradually grew in confidence.
“To begin with, I’d tell one of them to move to the left, and he’d go right. They had no coordination and, of course, that is a problem if you’re trying to operate a puppet, but they worked very hard and concentrated on the work.”
The 76-year-old director says he got as much out of the work as the disabled members of the company.
“I saw that if you set your mind to something, there’s literally nothing you can’t do. We’re not talking about little kids, who are probably easier to bring along. Many of these people are 30 years old, or more. They are, justly, proud of the work. It is very moving to see what they can do today compared with when we started working on Oz.”
Graber’s principal brother-in-arms on the show is South African-born Eric Smith, who came to Israel in 1969 and became involved in a wide range of groundbreaking productions here, including the popular early children’s TV show, Tamari’s Hut.
“Eric worked wonderfully well with all the puppeteers,” observes Graber, “professionals and amateurs alike.”
In fact the current production of Oz was a long time coming. “Tami Vanunu from SHILAT [a Beersheba-based NPO which promotes theater, culture and excellence in the Negev as a vehicle for gaining acceptance for people with special needs] had been after me to do the show for a while,” says Graber. The SHILAT credo says that “conveying messages via performance arts allows participants to connect with their strengths by enabling the artistic expression of the abilities and skills of people whom society tends to view in terms of their limitations.”
To that end, SHILAT puts on theater and dance productions with adults with different special needs.
As a certain Sir Humphrey – of the acclaimed Yes, Minister television comedy series – would, no doubt, have put it, things happen “in the fullness of time.” Graber and Smith eventually got down to brass tacks and now the The Wizard of Oz is up and running, and combines animated action on a screen with the puppeteers working their live magic in full synchronicity with the projected developments.
“Marrying the two would have been a tricky business even without using people with special needs,” says Graber. “It was Eric’s idea to combine the animation with actual puppet operation. It is complicated but it works beautifully. “Eric never treated anyone as disabled, and they went with what he wanted them to do. He has worked with people with special needs before. It was a real eye-opener for me.”
Graber also says the choice of material was no accident either, and believes the storyline has great significance both for the puppeteers and for the young audience.
“Look at some of the main characters in the story. There’s the tin man with no heart, a lion with no courage – those are disabilities too, serious disabilities. But they realized their dreams through belief and sticking to their guns.
“People with special needs, children and adults all get that message loud and clear. Also, think about what Dorothy was looking for. All she wanted was to go home. And I think everyone can identify with the idea that there’s no place like home. These are universal and timeless messages.”
MORE THAN anything, Graber says, he is delighted that audiences are so moved by the show, and appreciate the artistry of the handicapped puppeteers.
“I am sure the people who see the show leave the auditorium more open to people with special needs, and more accepting of them. We all have different fingerprints, and we must never write people off for being different from ourselves.” That message is getting out there across the board.
“We opened the International Puppet Festival in Holon in July, and it was a hit. And we’ve had an offer to do the show in Italy, but we weren’t ready for that at the time,” says Graber. “But I can see us going on the road outside Israel, too. This is an excellent show which I’m sure will move audiences anywhere in the world.
“I have seen people in the audience with tears in their eyes during shows – and that includes me.”
Just in case the onstage entertainment isn’t quite enough to draw audiences of all ages into the enchanted worlds of fairytales and legends, the Suzanne Dellal Center compound will be decked out with all manner of characters from well-known children’s stories, and kiddies’ activities will be laid on in the compound before shows.