IT’S CURTAINS for the Herzliya Theater

General manager Oded Kotler accuses the mayor of making a political decision in election year as the 12-year-old institution closes this week.

The Herzliya Ensemble Theater 370 (photo credit: Gadi Dagon)
The Herzliya Ensemble Theater 370
(photo credit: Gadi Dagon)
Oded Kotler was none too pleased when we met up at a Jerusalem café last week, and understandably so. This week, the Herzliya Ensemble Theater – of which Kotler was both artistic director and general manager – closed its doors for the last time, following last month’s decision by Herzliya Mayor Yehonatan Yasur that the theater’s financial difficulties were too great a burden for the municipality.
The theater was founded in 2001 by a group of leading actors and literary figures, including Hanna Maron, Liora Rivlin, Gedalia Besser and Yehoshua Sobol, and performed a string of quality productions, including Pima, based on Amos Oz’s book The Third Condition, starring Dovale Glickman; Tzarim, directed by Kotler; and Marsha Norman’s ’Night Mother, in collaboration with the Haifa Theater.
The 76-year-old Kotler, who took over the reins of the theater in October 2011, was understandably distraught at the mayor’s decision. We met shortly after he attended a special session of the Knesset Education, Culture and Sport Committee, which convened on the Knesset’s first day back at work after the elections, to discuss the closure of the theater. Kotler says he came out of the committee meeting greatly encouraged by chairman Amram Mitzna’s words.
“After all the testimony Mitzna heard from all sorts of people, he said that the decision by [the] Herzliya [Municipality] was a ‘wretched’ decision. This looks like a political decision made in an election year. It appears that the mayor believes that if he closes a theater he will get more votes. That’s what the committee chairman said.”
Kotler says he is not convinced by Yasur’s argument that the theater was closed due to its lack of financial viability. “At the same time as closing the theater down, which was supposedly based on financial grounds, he [Yasur] starts up park concerts, free of charge, which do not bring in a penny. How come he has hundreds of thousands [of shekels] for that, but nothing for the Herzliya Theater? And all this is happening during the run-up to the [municipal] elections.”
Kotler also claims that Yasur has made a politically based about-face. The veteran actor notes that Yasur, who became mayor this January following Yael German’s appointment as MK and health minister as a member of Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party, was all in favor of the theater while German was at the helm of the municipality. “At the time he defended the theater. But now, when he’s running for election, and he’s not certain of success, he is doing two things. He is aiming to neutralize the opposition; he will tell the public he is not just the mayor of one side. Meanwhile, he will use the funds [he saves on the theater] for free events, and in doing so he will generate populism. It is glaringly obvious – too obvious to be wise.”
Kotler says the theater was gaining momentum before the closure. “We have been getting audiences of 110 to 120 every evening. We started out with 10 people at shows. We are growing. We have been painstakingly careful about the budget. We started a rehabilitation program in January. The income was not great in the first three months [of the program], but we are just at the start. Mitzna also said all these things. The Culture and Sport Ministry, which does not understand or accept the move, also noted all this.”
Indeed, it appears that the ministry was not even kept in the loop. “Unfortunately, we were not consulted before the closure decision [was made],” said ministry director-general Orly Fruman. “We heard about the closure of the theater from the papers.”
Kotler believes that the mayoral ruling was unprofessional. “I had not been at the theater for a year before we started a rehabilitation and efficiency improvement program,” he says. “Is it reasonable for a mayor to decide to close a theater without any discussion with the professionals? They didn’t give us a chance. This is simply a political decision in an election year. There is no other way to call this. The mayor holds the title of chairman of the theater but he never came to see a show. When he was asked why he said that it didn’t interest him.”
For her part, Herzliya municipal spokeswoman Dorit Basman Kobel noted that “throughout the 12 years of its existence, the Herzliya Municipality has supported the Herzliya Ensemble Theater, with funding of in excess of NIS 35 million, with a dedicated budget of NIS 3- 3.5m. each year.
“In 2010, the municipality allocated an additional budget of NIS 1m., on top of the regular budget, for the implementation of a rehabilitation program for the theater. When this failed, a further NIS 1.5m. was provided in 2012, in addition to the regular budget, to cover the theater’s deficit,” she adds.
“Despite the rehabilitation efforts the theater’s cumulative deficit now totals around NIS 1m. The Herzliya Municipality announced it would address the theater’s debts, and reimburse the subscribers. The municipality intends to continue to operate the theater auditorium, Beit Ha’ezrah, for a range of cultural productions and shows, with artists and theater companies from all over the country. In addition, Mayor Yehonatan Yasur, together with the Culture Ministry, has set up a team that will examine the operation of the auditorium based on the format of a hostel for advancing young artists from Herzliya and turning it into a creative cultural consumer community house.”
Kotler is not buying that the municipality cannot afford to support the theater. “There are funds [at the municipality]. The [former] mayor herself told me. She said: ‘Oded, we are drowning in money. We have enormous budgetary surfeits. Millions!’ He [Yasur] also says, ‘We are rich.’” So, how does Kotler explain the closure? “[Yasur] doesn’t want theater. He thinks 12 years is enough. He wanted bigger audiences and revenue. We’ll see whether it was a good move at the November elections.”
Kotler pauses for a moment to shake the hand of a well-wisher who recognizes the well-known actor and director and offers some words of support for the theater.
“If Yasur is elected that will be terrible, because that means this is the way our country is.”
Despite Mitzna’s expression of support for the theater, and sharp censure of Yasur and the closure, Kotler did not leave the Knesset a happy man. “Mitzna was very critical of the decision, but he has no power to change it. The theater’s budget is NIS 5.5m. The Khan Theater [in Jerusalem], which has a similar volume of productions, has a budget of NIS 17m.
“Our theater was one of the flowers of the city. It has been run over.”