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by Margaret Croyden


I have recently completed my tenth trip to Israel. And each time I return home, I feel re-energized, revitalized as if I had had a mystical transformation. Not that anything unusual actually happened in Israel, but maybe the unusual is really a felt experience than defies words. I always spend most of my time in Jerusalem, that magical city, with its gorgeous pale rocks and jagged forms. From my hotel, the Dan Pearl (so aptly named) I could see the Wall and the Tower of David and the panorama of endless lines of people going to the old city day and night.

In Jerusalem, there is a certain spirit, a certain comraderie, so different from New York. In New York, where I work as a theater critic and commentator, people in my profession have little time for real friendship or binding relationships. One speaks to friends and/or acquaintances on the telephone, sometimes hardly ever in person. People are too busy, it is said. So appointments are measured, sporadic, carefully weighted: a quick meal before the theater, a quick coffee after the theater. It is hard to make appointments in New York, there is always something to see, some theater to go to, some event to cover, and one can be busy every day and night. Some people find this invigorating, I find it enervating.

In Jerusalem friends are always ready to have a good conversation, over lunch, or dinner, or tea, or to give you a ride to some special place, or even invite you to their house. The pace is slower, more contemplative, less harried. Whatever the reason, Israelites seem open, acessable, informal, and giving, despite the tension and foreboding around them.

Especially is this true of theater people. It was simple to meet with directors and writers informally and discuss the state of the theater. Traditionally, Jerusalem has not been a theater town. Tel Aviv with it subsidized companies--the Cameri, the Habmiah, and the newly created Gesher theater--have been the theatrical hub. However an attempt has been made to change the situation.

The Society for the Advancement of Interdisciplinary Theater in Jerusalem, a non- profit organization, dedicated to the support and development of the performing arts, has been actively working to create permanent theater companies in Jerusalem. The society consists of five separate theater organizations. One of these is the School of Visual Theater, a school devoted to the avant-garde, according to its director, Dr. Atay Citron.

In a spirited conversation with Dr. Citron, he maintained that the main difficulty in theater today is its lack of a new style. For him, the 60'avant-garde style is moribund, and even artists like Peter Brook are no longer relevant, he said. Dr. Citron, aware that the world of technology has moved forward, is distressed that the theater is still where it has always been: depending on a linear script. His main thesis is that for the next millennium theater will utilize all the interdisciplinary techniques of performance: installation, object theater, puppet theater, ritual performance, dance theater, multimedia, theater of images, and performance art. While Dr Citron's ideas are not really new, what is new is that an institution has been established that directly confronts these aspects of theater.

Although the School of Visual theater is small, it is heavily subsidized and its students and teachers have developed ideas of their own. One such faculty member is a young woman Aliza Elion Israeli, a playwright. Aside from her teaching and writing schedule, she is one of the founders of the Theater Collective of Jerusalem, a group composed entirely of women who base their work on ancient Hebrew and Aramaic Jewish texts that they fuse into contemporary theatrical forms. Relying on the Jewish oral tradition of the Talmud, biblical commentary from the sacred texts, and ancient Midrashic documents, the company performs in Hebrew and English. They have staged fifteen original works and won numerous prestigious awards at home and abroad.

For Aliza Elion Israeli, traditional texts are brought to life when integrated with modern contemporary techniques. It is only logical for Israeli actors, she says to deal with their own history and their own myths rather than rely on Western sources as most artists have tended to do. She feels the Hebrew language is too complicated, too nuanced to lend itself to classical English plays--not even to Shakespeare. Although her view seems parochial, her commitment to the company's esthetic is admirable.

The average contemporary theater director or producer simply stages any play he or shes finds appealing without any commitment to any esthetic; no specific signature defines a production. Getting the play on is the important goal, nothing more. For companies like the Collective, the aesthetic is the most important quality. It is what identifies the Group and makes them unique. With their own Jewish historical, cultural, and religious references as their source, they have many possibilities to chose from: Ester, Sara, Abraham and Isaac, for example, and numerous Talmudic tales. <

Clearly they have made an unusual contribution to Israeli theater, and as a result of their success, they have designed workshops at various institutions where their techniques have attracted many students who have become aware of the Jewish people's history. As one critic has said, "they have reached young men and women who have not had any relationship to the Talmud or to Jewish texts and proved how relevant, contemporary, and personally meaningful that such an art can be."

At the opposite end of the rainbow is The Khan Theater of Jerusalem, the only theater that has operated in Jerusalem for decades. The Khan is unique in that it was built on the archaeological remains of a Crusader structure. The exterior still shows the remains of the early 19th century Ottoman times when it served as a hostelry catering to caravan travelers. Now it is equipped with all the modern theatrical accoutrements including a new computerized lighting and sound systems. The Khan, as the sole repertory theater in Jerusalem, employs an ensemble of 18-22 actors, each a participant and active partner in the process of creation. The theater produces 4-5 plays each season; its annual budget is approximately $3 million. The repertory of the company is eclectic, ranging from modern Israeli writers to Shakespeare and Ibsen, to the successful French playwright Yasmina Reza.

The Khan may be considered a popular traditional theater, based primarily on the written word--the play. According to the to the company's ruling principle, a play is selected which bears a direct social message, or a relevant analogy, or at least asks a pertinent question that will stimulate the audience's interest.

Although different from each other, whether traditional or avant-garde--what these theaters have in common is a national subsidy from the Municipality of Jerusalem, the Ministry of Education and Culture, and the Jerusalem Foundation, the principle organs that support these theaters. It is quite remarkable that a country this young and this small is determined to back the arts, not only in words but in deeds-- certainly a refreshing contrast from artistic life in America. [Croyden]

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