Staging Israel

The showcase organizers have cast their theatrical and thematic nets far and wide, and the visitors from abroad.

‘Schreber,’ written and directed by Ran Bechor, tells the  chilling story of a 19th-century German judge who  admitted himself to a hospital for the mentally deranged (photo credit: MAYA ILTUS)
‘Schreber,’ written and directed by Ran Bechor, tells the chilling story of a 19th-century German judge who admitted himself to a hospital for the mentally deranged
(photo credit: MAYA ILTUS)
 We know our musicians – particularly our jazz artists and the ever-popular IPO – are lauded around the world. But what of our theater professionals? Where do they stand in the global pecking order of theatrical excellence? And what do we have to offer the world? 
The answers to all the above will, no doubt, be a little clearer by November 26, when the 2017 International Exposure of Israeli Theater closes after five days of presentations, performances and panel discussions. All the above is being held, under the auspices of the Hanoch Levin Institute of Israeli Drama, for the enlightenment and, hopefully, enticement of 50 artistic directors of theaters and festivals, directors of cultural institutions, dramaturges and decision-makers in the theatrical arena, who are coming here from all corners of the Earth.
The entertainment side of the program takes in 15 productions, all in English or with English subtitles, starting with a version of Jonathan Swift’s classic Gulliver (November 22, 9 p.m.), at Habait Theater in Jaffa, adapted and directed by Zvi Sahar of the Jerusalem-based Hazira Theater.
Over the five days, the general public and the professionals from abroad will be able to catch some top-class theatrical works at various venues in and around Tel Aviv. Next up, at Tzavta 3, is Release Day written by Shai Goldstein and directed by Daniel Botzer (November 23, 1 p.m.), with the showcase focus then reverting to Habait Theater for a 3 p.m. airing of Under Construction, created and performed by Vitaly Azarin, Lyosha Gavrielov and Fyodor Makarov of the Davai Group.
The international literary arena was all abuzz with David Grossman’s latest novel, A Horse Walks into a Bar, which originally came out in Hebrew in 2014, but brought Grossman right back into the global limelight when the English translation – by Jessica Cohen – won this year’s prestigious Man Booker International Prize. The staged adaptation by Micah Lewensohn, Avner Ben-Amos and Dror Keren, and directed by the latter, will be presented for the artistic directors’ consideration and, hopefully, entertainment at the Cameri Theater on November 23 (9 p.m.). The show will be preceded by a session with the author.
And that is just a morsel of what the illustrious visitors will get here, besides some intriguing discussion and lecture sessions and, presumably, some intriguing get-togethers with some of our theatrical leading lights.
Moshe Perlstein, head of this year’s team of jurors who whittled down a long list of artists to next week’s shortlist, says he and his colleagues are aiming to proffer the best of what we have here and thereby get them out there strutting their stuff across the boards. “Judging by past years, we see that productions and plays are invited [overseas], and sometimes directors are asked to work somewhere and to create something new, or someone lands a residency somewhere. Overall, the showcase is a pretty successful vehicle.”
Perlstein and his cohorts not only aim to set the bar as high as possible, they also want to make the source material as accessible and communicative as possible. At the end of the day, there’s no point in putting out quality works if the target audience has no idea what they are being shown. That necessarily involves spreading the proffered wares across as wide a genre and cultural spectrum as possible.
“We endeavor to include a wide range of productions, with different theatrical languages and different content,” explains Perlstein. “From experience we know that people from different countries, from different cultures, look for different things. Some come here and look for the most avant-garde, most innovative theater, while others prefer a good story line, a well-organized stage set and a well-made production. So we consider, ahead of time, what will appeal to most tastes.”
That is a tough ask. How do you make your product as appealing as possible, to as many people as possible, while rendering something unique? After all, there is no point in showing, say, someone from New York or Copenhagen something they can just as easily get from an American or Danish troupe. How do you keep people from abroad both engaged in something they can easily connect with, while drawing them into a creation that feeds off our own cultural baggage? It is a taxing conundrum.
“There’s not much you can do about it,” Perlstein notes. “Some will enjoy a certain work more, while others might go for something more familiar to them. On the one hand, people look for things they have already seen, something with a universal dimension. On the other hand, the interest element is generated by something local, something Israeli.”
At the end of the day, the latter is the bigger draw. “It is rare for someone to come to this country to look for yet another production of Shakespeare. We note that people come here looking for something with Israeli roots, but with a theatrical language that resonates with universal idioms that communicate with the world in general.”
We probably have a head start on most societies, and certainly in comparison with other relatively newly created countries. We have our deep roots in this part of the world, and Jewish and other traditions, augmented by the expansive spread of cultural baggage brought here by immigrants from around the globe over the past century or so. That, naturally, feeds and enriches our artistic output.
Perlstein also feels we have made good progress in breaking out of our own shell and, today, the members of our theater community feel sure enough of their abilities and artistic substratum to consider what the world may have to give us. “We are seeing that Israeli creators are increasingly influenced by their counterparts around the world. Our actors, writers and directors travel to other places, delve into what they see and bring it back here. That means that communication is more open, and that our productions meet international standards.”
Achieving maturity generally also means one can let out the leash a mite and venture further out of one’s comfort zone. Perlstein sees that happening more away from the mainstream line of work. “The quest to find new theatrical departures mostly happens in the fringes.
So it is no surprise that fringe theater makes a substantial contribution to the showcase. That’s not something preconceived. We just looked at what’s on offer, and that’s what came out. The more mainstream productions struggled to get into the showcase. The productions that push the boundaries of theater generally come from the fringe; they got into the showcase.”
Mind you, it’s not quite that clear cut.
“Habima currently has a production of [The Picture of] Dorian Gray, which uses a very dance-oriented language and is very well crafted in aesthetic terms. It is also in the showcase,” continues Perlstein. “And plays based on works by David Grossman – like A Horse Walks into a Bar – are also in there.”
The showcase organizers have cast their theatrical and thematic nets far and wide, and the visitors from abroad, as well as our own theatergoing public, should be kept suitably engrossed over the five days. In addition to the full-length performances, there will be a number of presentations, based on defined topics, that will incorporate excerpts of works that pertain to the central subject matter.
As more and more sexual misdemeanors by celebrities come to light, it somehow, sadly, seems appropriate to have a session titled “Sexual Trauma as a Creative Force” in the showcase lineup.
In 2017 six fringe productions addressed the subject of sexual assault. They include Living Pathological Museum by Adili Liberman, Daphna Silberg’s Demonstrate, My Life – The Musical Version by Amir Gur, and Sweetie, You Ain’t Guilty, written by Gony Paz.
That is a surprisingly large number of works on the pressing topic, which prompts a batch of constructive posers, such as how to go about conceiving an appropriate artistic language for dealing with such sensitive issues. Is there a relationship between therapy, post-traumatic stress and theater?  How should one represent themes of one’s own voice, the matter of power and control, trauma and healing? 
The session, which will take place on Thursday (4:30 p.m.) at Jaffa Theater, will look at the many facets of sexual trauma, and will include excerpts from the poignant performances that deal with sexuality, sexual assault and the ensuing public scandals.
Another presentation slot, moderated by actress, writer and translator Natalie Fainstein, goes by the name of “New Trends in Drama.” The panel team will include actors Yoav Bartel and Mickey Yonas and choreographer, and CEO of the Suzanne Dellal Center for Dance and Theatre, Yair Vardi, who will examine how freelancer thespians go about their business.
Taking a lead from the Bard’s perceptive observation, theater, indeed, is a mirror for street-level life, and it seems our professionals are particularly adept at conveying that. Hopefully, the incoming professionals will get that.