Making the desert bloom

When new immigrants Daniella Roman and Grant Crankshaw saw a vacuum on the English-language professional scene, they decided to act on it

The cast of Broadways Babes by Desert Rose Productions (photo credit: Lior Linevitz)
The cast of Broadways Babes by Desert Rose Productions
(photo credit: Lior Linevitz)
Every year, thousands of Israelis travel to London and New York for a vacation or to visit family.
While there, like other tourists, they often go to the West End or Broadway to catch one of the many top-class musicals on offer.
But according to Daniella Roman, native Israelis and English-speaking olim don’t have to leave the country to satisfy their cravings for high-quality, original musical theater in English; they have some right here on their doorstep. Desert Rose Productions, the company she founded with her husband Grant Crankshaw, aims to provide exactly that: professional English-speaking theater in Israel.
Roman and Crankshaw, both professional actors, have been involved in the English-speaking theater scene in Israel since making aliya from South Africa in 1997. Having studied drama at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, they were disappointed to find that English-language theater in Israel consisted mainly of community theater groups.
“As professional actors, we were always on the lookout for a more professional environment in which we could practice what were trained to do and what we are passionate about,” explains Roman.
As soon as she and Crankshaw arrived in the country, they were itching to make plays. While most other olim spend their first few months navigating bureaucracy and learning Hebrew, the two actors wasted no time researching the English-speaking theater scene, constantly asking whom they could contact to get involved.
Crankshaw was impressed with the support they received, and looks back nostalgically at some of the theater companies they joined. They started with the Sharon Players, a community theater, and later moved on to the Tel Aviv Community Theater (TACT).
They were also involved with The Guild, which is now officially the English-speaking theater of Ra’anana, run by professional actors Robert and Jodi Schenck.
Still, Roman and Crankshaw were not fully satisfied.
“A lot of English-speaking theater groups [in Israel] aspire to put on professional shows, but they still use non-professional actors,” Roman says. Desert Rose, in contrast, makes a point of using actors who have been professionally trained, be it in Israel or abroad.
The couple founded Desert Rose to gain a level of independence and differentiate themselves from community theater.
“A lot of people go to English-speaking community theater in Israel, and they know what they are going to get,” Crankshaw explains. “Those kind of shows take a lot of work, and we were tired of them.”
Roman stresses that she appreciates the high standards English-language community theaters achieve without much funding or resources, but admits there is room for improvement.
“We are hoping to up the level,” she says.
According to her, professional actors who made aliya from English- speaking countries should have the opportunity to earn a living from their profession.
“Everyone should be able to work in what they trained to do. If you studied law, you should be able to become a lawyer; if you studied engineering, you should be able to become an engineer,” she says. “The same is true with actors who studied drama.”
She understands, however, that it’s much harder for English-speakers here because of the language barrier.
When not realizing their dream of working full-time in the world of theater, Roman and Crankshaw work as marketing consultants at their own company.
“The dream is that Desert Rose becomes a full time job,” Roman says. “We’ve decided that we are in that stage of our lives where we need to live out our passion.”
The company’s name, which was inspired by the famous Sting song, holds a lot of meaning for the couple.
“Desert” represents Israel, as one might expect, and the couple has various family members with the name Rose or variations o f it. The two words together represent bringing somet h i n g beautiful to a place where it doesn’t exist at the moment, explains Crankshaw.
With a lot of enthusiasm and a little bit of blind faith, the couple launched the company this past spring, and their first official production, Broadway Babes, set off on a nationwide tour during July. The show, which Roman and Crankshaw wrote, is an original musical revue that showcases some of the most popular and wellknown women’s songs on Broadway.
The show revolves around an audition for a Broadway production and tells the story of six women who compete and interact with each other and the director, leading to humorous and sometimes catty situations. In true Israeli style, the cast of Broadway Babes is a melange of nationalities, bringing together talents from Canada, the US, England, South Africa and Israel.
It first played to full houses in Ra’anana in 2011, when it ran under the auspices of The Guild.
It was the response to the Ra’anana performances that inspired Roman and her husband to rewrite the script and take the show on a tour of the country to expose it to different audiences. For them, it’s important to try to reach as many people as possible.
“It’s obvious that there is an English-speaking audience out there, and we want to go to them even if they can’t come to us,” she says.
While the show struck a chord with many of the local Anglos, she was surprised by the level of interest that native Israelis showed.
“They love the songs,” she says. “It’s not important if they don’t understand English – it’s the songs that they know.”
The couple has been overwhelmed by the ease with which they have been able to tap into the Hebrew-speaking audience.
“Even though we say that the show is in English, it doesn’t scare them away,” Crankshaw says. “A lot of the people who call up for tickets speak in Hebrew.”
Desert Rose is cautious not to alienate the Hebrew-speaking community at large, and Roman explains that it’s important to diversify and not keep it strictly as English-speaking theater. In the future, there are plans to present the acting parts of the show in Hebrew as a way to cross over and appeal to a wider audience.
IT’S NOT all about jazz hands and glitzy costumes at Desert Rose, either. Even those wearing the not-so-glamorous uniforms of the IDF are encouraged to attend, and to make this happen, the company has started a fund-raising initiative through the Jewcer online crowdfunding platform to send lone soldiers to see their shows. The project aims to let people contribute to the well-being of lone soldiers and help them relax in their spare time.
“My brother, who came to Israel when he was 17, served in the IDF as a lone soldier in an elite unit, and I was made aware of the difficulties and the challenges that he faced without having the support network of a family,” explains Roman. “Combining my passion for theater with a cause, such as the IDF, that is near to my heart is a dream come true for me.”
Crankshaw is no stranger to helping lone soldiers, either. He has been volunteering for three years at Habayit Shel Benji, a home for lone combat soldiers funded by the Ra’anana-based Benji Hillman Foundation.
What started out as a one-off campaign has turned into a permanent commitment, one about which the couple is passionate.
For some time, Roman has been a supporter of the Friends of the IDF and a regular donor to the cause.
“This project with the theater is our way to really combine what we love doing with something that is really important to us,” she explains. “We want to reach out to these kids and give them a good time.”
Her motives for the project run deeper than simply helping people who are away from home.
“There is an idealism and a Zionism within me that says this little gesture will help their experience and make things that little bit easier for them,” she says. “Our son is in the army and he has the support, and we know it’s not easy for those who don’t.”