Haifa English Theater at 35

‘It is miraculous we have survived 35 years’: (from left) Dana Lynn Weil, Kim Spinner, Gillian Braunold and Maury Schneider at rehearsal for ‘Fools.’ (photo credit: CLIVE NOBLE)
‘It is miraculous we have survived 35 years’: (from left) Dana Lynn Weil, Kim Spinner, Gillian Braunold and Maury Schneider at rehearsal for ‘Fools.’
(photo credit: CLIVE NOBLE)
When the late Ed Cogan and his wife, Rose, visited fellow American immigrants Sandy and Isaac Aaron in Haifa in 1981, they discussed (as we all do) the things they missed most from “the old country.” At the top of the list was English-language theater.
When Cogan said that he had headed a small amateur theater group in the US and appeared professionally on TV and in army shows, Sandy persuaded him to help her set up an amateur theater group in Haifa.
And so was born the Haifa English Theatre. With the initial support of the Haifa AACI, the group put on its first play, Joseph Kesselring’s Arsenic and Old Lace. To this day, veteran theater patrons remember the sparkling performances of Susan Rosenberg and Valerie Herbert as the two elderly ladies.
In June, HET celebrated its 35th anniversary with five performances of Neil Simon’s comedy Fools, a story of life, love and a curse in a small village in Ukraine in the late 19th century.
After using the Haifa Cinematheque for its initial performances, the group was directed to the auditorium of the Haifa Museum. For the next 20 years, that was the venue for an eclectic selection of plays, varying from comedies by Peter Shaffer, Neil Simon and Alan Ayckbourn to classics and mysteries by Tennessee Williams, Oscar Wilde, Dylan Thomas and J.B. Priestley and more thought-provoking plays such as The Miracle Worker by William Gibson, The Dresser by Ronald Harwood and Doubt by John Patrick Shanley.
There is a lot of musical talent in HET as well. With Clive Noble as the musical director, the group managed to produce on that tiny stage a full production of My Fair Lady and Fiddler on the Roof. However, there was a problem with storing sets and costumes, and the stage was very small for large productions. The subsequent move to Beit Hagefen, the Jewish/Arab Cultural Centre, proved very successful with its more spacious stage and off-stage facilities.
HET chairperson Betsy Lewis-Yizraeli and vice-chairperson Bertha Cafrey confirm that the move to Beit Hagefen was a turning point in the growth of the theatrical group.
“The CEO of Beit Hagefen, Asaf Ron, is always there to help,” says Lewis-Yizraeli, “and their lighting technician, Anan Abu Hattum, solves a lot of the technical problems. Now we use very minimalistic sets. That is the trend in modern theater, and it means that we can store material at the theater.”
In recent years, HET has hosted guest performances to packed houses, such as the Laugh in Peace Comedy Tour directed by Bob Alper and Woody Sez: The Life and Music of Woody Guthrie directed by Nick Corley. The latter was followed by an open mic organized by Noble, with local talent performing their art.
“Artists know about us now and come to us to give them a stage to perform. We split the profits and get packed houses, so it benefits us all,” says Lewis-Yizraeli.
“It is miraculous that we have survived 35 years,” she marvels. “We were the first amateur English theater group in Israel.”
Funding is an ongoing challenge.
There is no support from the Haifa Municipality, and the group is financed solely by ticket sales.
“A good show with a full house covers the less popular ones,” says the HET chairperson.
The theater group is therefore totally dependent on voluntary effort in organizational and stage work, with a lot of multitasking. In the latest production of Fools, there were 10 actors and 15 production crew. Over the years, a steady group of skilled members has built stage sets, sewed costumes and organized tickets sales and administration.
The British-born Cafrey directed the latest production and designed the stage set. But she also has star quality that shines on stage. When she played the leading role in Peter Shaffer’s comedy Lettice and Lovage, the audience agreed that she was more like Maggie Smith than Maggie Smith herself.
Surprisingly, Cafrey had no stage experience, had never acted in school plays or amateur drama groups in England, where she worked as a medical researcher. By chance, a friend brought her to an audition of HET. Since then, she has performed in most of the group’s major productions.
Lewis-Yizraeli, an English teacher at the University of Haifa, was introduced to HET in 1988 through her eight-year-old son, Daniel, who was asked by Cogan if he would like to act on the stage. Lewis-Yizraeli stood backstage while her son performed, and she has never left.
A popular activity for HET that is suitable for members who cannot commit to rehearsal time is the workshop format. A recent series of improvisation training workshops, led by visiting actor and director Sheila Silver, involved a number of talented actors and recruited a cast for future productions.
Over the years, HET has attracted not only amateur actors but also those who have taught drama or worked in professional theater companies overseas. Very few English-speaking actors have found work in professional theater groups or on TV in Israel, and they have contributed their skills to HET.
Some of the founding members have died or are aging or infirm, but their legacy has been passed on to a new generation of enthusiastic and talented actors and directors. Sofie Blaugrund Goldmeier, who played the heroine in Fools, is the granddaughter of John Dicks, one of the veteran board members who acted in and directed many of HET’s plays. While unable to continue his activities in HET, he will be proud to be in the audience on opening night.
Cafrey and Lewis-Yizraeli talk about the social networking created by the Haifa English Theatre Group.
“We want to give back to the community. We have held readings and productions for the benefit of the Women’s Shelter and Beit Hahayal. A workshop in English for soldiers was designed to help them through personal issues, and for that Beit Hagefen donated the hall,” says Cafrey.
She adds that HET gives a warm welcome to new immigrants. In addition to joining the acting family, audience participation, enjoying a play in one’s native language and sharing coffee during intermission is a social experience that gives olim an opportunity to meet each other.
And indeed, looking at the cast of Fools, it was evident that auditions are open to a multicultural roster of acting talent. Three of the cast work for the Bahai World Centre in Haifa, one is a postdoc researcher at the Technion from Kolkata, India, and another is from Sweden. There was a lot of laughter from the audience during the performances of the play, one of Neil Simon’s more unusual and interesting works.
When a schoolteacher played by actress Maeve Elizabeth Pinto takes up a job in the village, she first meets the shepherd who lost his sheep (Maury Schneider), the town crier (Laurie Rubin, who also plays the magistrate) and other villagers played by Dana Lynn Weil, Kim Spinner and Gillian Braunold. Based on these experiences, she is thus not surprised to find that the town doctor, Zubritisky (played by Dwaipayan Mukherjee) has no medical knowledge. From the doctor’s mother (Betsy Lewis Yisraeli) the teacher learns that a curse of stupidity has been placed on the village, only to be lifted if her granddaughter Sophia (Blaugrund Goldmeier) marries the creepy Count Gregor (Juampa Ruiz), descendant of the original lord of the manor who placed the curse.
The teacher falls in love with the dumb hero, and their love and the knowledge he gives her breaks the curse. Needless to say, not everyone is happy with the result. The butcher who buys four stores, in a town that already has several butchers, says: “When the curse of stupidity is lifted, maybe we’ll find we are dumb anyway.”
In any case, at HET, “Whatever one’s religious or cultural background, everyone is welcome,” says Cafrey.
She and Lewis-Yizraeli agree that there is a lot of fun and satisfaction in running an amateur theater group.
For more information: www.h-e-t.org.