Puppets lead the way

Khoury and Ariel had chemistry from the word go. They shared a love of the arts and a propensity for making good use of them for youthful enlightenment.

A bilingual puppet-theater festival in the north. (photo credit: ERIK SAHLIN)
A bilingual puppet-theater festival in the north.
(photo credit: ERIK SAHLIN)
The notion of utilizing music as a “universal language” to help bridge cultural, ethnic and possibly even political divides is not a new one. That does not make it any less relevant, but Pablo Ariel prefers a different artistic tack in his cohesion-oriented endeavor.
Argentinean-born Ariel has been in the business of theater and, specifically, theater with social benefit for quite some time. As artistic director and founder of the Galilee Multicultural Theater – a.k.a. Zikit – based near Tefen in the Galilee, Ariel is a staunch believer in the power of theater productions, particularly of a largely non-verbal ilk, to entertain people of all ages and backdrops. He has practiced what he preaches all over the globe, taking in Australia, Singapore, North and South America and Europe.
That is part of the thinking behind “Puppets in the North,” a new bilingual puppet theater festival, the first of its kind in the country, which will take place at Haifa Theater on August 20 and 21, and at Zikit’s home base in Tefen on August 25 and 26.
The kernel of the festival emerged last Passover when Ariel and Zikit performed a show called Voices, a cooperative production with the Tarshiha Classical Arab Orchestra, at the Haifa International Children’s Theater Festival. The story line tells of a queen who lives in a faraway land who has a passion for different sounds and suddenly discovers music. As she explores the new sounds, she – and the audience – hear notes played by classical Arab and Western instruments. That is, of course, a lovely user-friendly way to introduce people to means of music making with which they may not be entirely familiar.
The Haifa venue was packed for the show, which of course pleased Ariel and his cohorts no end, but they were even happier with the demographics of the patrons.
“I was certain that 90% of the audience would be Arabs, and there’d be a handful of Jews who would come to check out what Voices is all about. It was half and half – half Arabs and half Jews. I was really happy about that.”
And so the idea of “Puppets in the North” was born.
“We need people to meet. We need people to come together. We need children to come together and share experiences,” says Ariel, adding that can have a long-lasting positive effect.
“If children come to shows like this, they will have shared childhood memories later in life. Culture is part of the memories you share with other people. This is something that can give them another morsel of togetherness, and that can help to narrow gaps.”
When Zikit sprang to life a decade ago, Ariel oriented the company’s output to bilingual fare that could be enjoyed by Arabic- and Hebrew-speakers alike. In actual fact, anyone, regardless of mother tongue and linguistic skills, could appreciate the vast majority of Zikit’s shows, because they are predominantly visually striking, with very little in the way of dialogue. Any texts that are spoken on stage, in either Arabic or Hebrew, are always translated into the other language, too.
That certainly goes for Voices, one of three staged productions that make up the “Puppets in the North” program. The others are Four Seasons and One Vivaldi, and Guli. Betwixt the shows, there will be all kinds of similarly spirited workshops and activities, involving a variety of theatrical and musical fare.
Voices, as the story line and title suggest, has significant musical content, which is overseen by Rosan Khoury, who also sings and plays the cello in the show, and is a member of the Tarshiha Classical Arab Orchestra.
“Pablo and I met a while ago and discussed the possibility of doing Voices, and then we applied for the festival in Haifa. Thankfully, they accepted our proposal.” Judging by the ticket sales last Passover, the production was a winner all around.
Khoury admits to having an “ulterior motive” for the production.
“It is very important to unite people,” she notes, “and this is one way of doing that. That’s the power of music and the arts. This medium allows you to achieve all kinds of things that you couldn’t otherwise do.”
The Khoury-Ariel project is essentially aimed at the five- to 10-year-old bracket, although grownups are welcome to join in the fun, too.
“This age group is a formative time in a person’s life, and they take the things they are exposed to from that time with them through their entire life,” Khoury observes. “This is the age when you can change things. It was great to see how the parents reacted [in Haifa], and it was moving to see people from both populations [Arabs and Jews] in the audience. Normally, you don’t find shows that are suited to both populations.”
The educational element, for Khoury, is invaluable.
“The music, for instance, in Voices offers children an opportunity to get to know different musical styles and cultures, which brings them closer together. They learn about each other’s cultures and get to love it. That bridges gaps.”
Children take information on board without too much of a handicap in the way of political prejudice or other judgmental baggage. Jewish children with an Ashkenazi upbringing won’t, as I did when I first came to this country, turn their noses up at Arab music because of the absence of harmony. It will be just something interesting to wrap their young head around. The same goes for Arab children hearing, for example, a Beethoven symphony for the first time.
“They engage in active listening,” notes Khoury, adding that she ups the learning ante with some hands-on stuff too. “We get the children to sing. Toward the end of the show we teach them part of the score, and they all sing it together, and learn the rhythms. It is wonderful to see.”
Khoury and Ariel had chemistry from the word go. They shared a love of the arts and a propensity for making good use of them for youthful enlightenment.
“We worked out the story [of Voices] together, and then we started looking for musical works that would suit the storyline,” Khoury explains. “We went for works by all sorts of composers, such as by [famed Egyptian composer] Mohammed Abd el-Wahab, and also songs sung by the Lebanese singer Fairuz.”
The plot seems tailor-made for leading the kids up the musical garden path.
“The queen in the story doesn’t know there is something called music, and she discovers new instruments one at a time,” says Khoury. It doesn’t take a PhD to work out where this leads, introducing the members of the audience to instruments such as the ney, Arab or Persian flute, or the lute-like oud, as well as instruments, such as the cello and violin, that are used both in Western and Eastern music.
Guli also takes the audience members on a magical mystery tour of discovery as an initially disgruntled infant, left in the care of his verbal communication-challenged granddad, eventually gets to explore all kinds of worlds together with his senior-citizen babysitter.
Basing a theater production with puppets, all kinds of other objects and shadow play on Vivaldi’s ever-popular Four Seasons has got to be a winner, especially if it also incorporates the little- known story on which the Italian Baroque composer based his score.
“Vivaldi the boy’s room changes according to the seasons,” Ariel explains. “There is not a lot of text in our productions,” he adds. “There are inputs that get the child itself to tell the story. It is not like sitting in front of the TV and getting everything ready made. It nourishes the child – regardless of cultural background – and fuels their imagination.” The same might be said of the grownups.
Ariel is excited about the forthcoming two-venue inaugural festival and hopes to see more of the same spread around the country.
“I’d like to get other people interested doing bilingual festivals in places like Lod, Ramle and Jaffa. This is good for all of us.”