The Back-and-Forth Intensifies: On Gender, Censorship, and Representations of Islam During Final Days of IsraDrama

December 10, 2011 – “Day #4 is a biggie!”  It begins with a morning symposium getting to see the works of four playwrights, from veteran to mid-career established, to young Fringe and emerging, to young superstar and bouncing about internationally. (Motti Lerner, Ilan Hatzor, Ido Bornstein, and Yael Ronen). But even this order rankles some — just look at it: Male, Male, Male, and finally Female! Have you noticed? In all the pictures thus far? Male artists being interviewed by a male facilitator! At the Khan Theatre (two nights earlier) before the performance of EATING, two supplementary lectures — one on the history of biblically-based theater (not a personal favorite subject, nor for TJ audiences) and then a longer disquisition on the history of Israeli drama — both by males. Very smart males. But my God, the gender politics in the Israeli theater are sometimes (like during the unfolding of this conference) downright paleolithic!

And everyone’s been commenting on it, in our delegation, all festival long, especially given that, for some, the conference started on Tuesday night, (December 6), with the male dominated, male-written Kochav Yair, followed by an all-male talk-back… Well, by end of the day Friday, after four days of panels and not one woman’s voice represented on stage in the artwork nor in the responding back, something had to give. And give it did Friday night, at the Al Midan Theatre, when finally we got to hear from director Ofira Henig after the performance of In Spitting Distance.

I needed to tell Ofira how wonderful it is to finally salute a woman who helped bring to life the two most penetrating productions we’ve experienced thus far during the festival (Ulysses On Bottles and In Spitting Distance). I kinda get that nostril-flaring, righteous-indignation-thing that I do going as I compliment Ofira but kinda berate the festival at the same time for keeping the female voice from us this long.  Gad Kaynar immediately begins to defend the festival saying that I’m mistaken — the festival hasn’t been going for 4 days; it’s really just 2 and a half days and that there are plenty of women coming — when I stop him and say he doesn’t need to defend, “just take the note,” as we say in the theater — just absorb the criticism and consider it. Well, Gad hears, and is gracious in hearing me out, and others are happy that something finally has gotten said in public. But mostly, we’re grateful for Ofira’s presence as an artist – her brave and sensitive work shepherding two very different projects forward.  And the painful part, in her referring over and over, to the fact that she’s an artist, and that she needs to do work that speaks to her and her vision as shared with other kindred spirits, is when she shares the news that she’d been recently let go of her position as artistic director of the Hertzliyah Theatre after four years; that people weren’t always coming enough to the work that she selected and that she was let go.  And this is painful for all of us to hear.  Yvonne Rock from the Swedish delegation, who knows something about the politics of producing Jewish theater in Stockhom, wants to hear more.  We all identify with Ofira’s position; her commitment to her art and balancing her vision against the need to put butts in the seats and continue to stay in the good graces of one’s leadership.

The conversation returns to In Spitting Distance,  which was performed at the 2007 IsraDrama Festival in Tel Aviv at the Cameri, but the experience then (at least for me) was much less captivating. Firstly, my memory of the project then was that it was performed in Hebrew. Maybe it wasn’t (Ofira maintains that the play–developed independently with Palestinian-Israeli partners outside of the official Israeli institutional theater scene–performed only once or twice in Hebrew before they made the decision to only perform it in Arabic.) Well, that 2007 Tel Aviv performance of In Spitting Distance sure felt like it was performed in Hebrew because the context of it was entirely un-Arabic. And the extraordinary feeling at the Al Midan Theatre on Friday night (and of course, it bears mentioning that Al Midan is Israel’s foremost Arabic theater and, hence, is open and performs on Friday night) was one of Taher Najib’s play playing powerfully and with full-bodied humor to an audience mixed evenly between Arabs and non-Arabs (which, upon reflection, is a pretty remarkable experience in and of itself).   The context of recognition on the part of the audience, identifying with the material and its expression — the laughter mounting as the character (of Taher) finds himself detained; finds himself the object of intense fear and suspicion when entering a Jerusalem cafe — this was the precise way to experience the piece — in its native tongue, with its particular tones, with an extraordinary actor singing and feeling the language with passion and pain and impish self-effacement, and then the powerful music and motion orchestrated by the director; this all became a kind of revelation to me:  That a piece I thought I knew and dismissed once in 2007, and then, upon re-reading it in English 4 years later, programmed it for an English language presentation last month in our Peace Cafe that went well but also played, well, shall we say, a little dated with its Oslo-inspired irony and its immediate reliance on post-9/11 tensions, predating Gaza and predating a whole lot of other developments in the Palestinian world — I thought I knew In Spitting Distance, but the Al Midan performance told me that I did not!  I was experiencing its artistry, really, for the first time. And I could only applaud the artists’ determination to keep the piece alive — after not performing it for two years while the team was dispersed, doing other projects — even with that passage of time, the play and its artists were insisting on its relevance for reasons deeper than any immediate topicality; its circumstances remained essential and resonant a decade after its setting. So I was moved and humbled to receive the play. And so were many others.  And the idea of having actor Khalifa Natour performing both in Ulysses on Bottles and In Spitting Distance in a single tour, as we experienced him in back-to-back performances in Haifa on Friday… Well, that would be a Middle East Festival producer’s dream, now wouldn’t it?

So we bring that engaged energy with us to the morning playwrights symposium on Saturday at The Cameri. First up is Motti Lerner.  Motti’s no stranger to Theater J audiences.  And the good news to report is that he’s no stranger to Israeli audiences either, although more of his work continues to be produced abroad (the latest country is India, where Motti’s spent a good part of the early fall, and then a recent November production of Pangs of The Messiah in New York).  Pangs goes into rehearsal in Hertzliyah for its first major revival in Israel since it was revised for Theater J, and our great friend Sinai Peter is directing the production which begins rehearsing in February and opens in June (3 months of rehearsals — in DC, we had 4 weeks!).   

A video compilation of scenes from the Theater J production of Pangs is shared, followed by an operatic selection from The Murder of Isaac, Motti’s bracing allegory, set in the mental health unit of an Israeli veteran’s hospital, which retells the tragic story of the assassination of the Israeli prime minister.  The play has never been performed in Israel (though it premiered in Heilbronn, Germany and then received its American premiere at Baltimore’s Center Stage).  As the half-hour spotlight on Motti’s work comes to a close, a question is asked from the audience.  It references the controversial charges made at the end of November in The New York Times by playwright Sarah Schulman that an official Israeli “branding initiative” to focus attention away from the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and instead promote Israel’s excellent recent record on ensuring gay rights, both within the military and in civil society, was actually a case of “Pink-Washing” (a spin on the phrase “White-Washing”), “a deliberate strategy to conceal the continuing violations of Palestinians’ human rights behind an image of modernity signified by Israeli gay life.”  The questioner  asks whether Israeli theater is being used in the same way, as a “public relations tool?”

“Of course not,” comes the immediate response from the house.  “Look at all we’ve seen!  The programming in Haifa yesterday!  Israeli theater is the last place where one would accuse Israel of orchestrating an avoidance of The Conflict; an avoidance of the suffering, even the abuses, experienced by Palestinians.”

“Please, let us not get into a conversation about ‘Pink-Washing,'” I think to myself, as I remember how it spiraled into something quite toxic on Facebook walls and in the Comments section of The Times — and then of course, there is this weekend’s (post-IsraDrama) follow-up response from the Israeli government itself berating The New York Times for publishing that Op-Ed piece, among many others.   Fortunately, no one else in the rehearsal hall speaks up on the “Pink-Washing” phrase, or the controversy — let that controversy be on someone else’s plate — when a follow-up question is asked from the crowd:

“So is there censorship in the Israeli theater?”

Again, the immediate refutation.  “Of course not!  We have the most eclectic repertoire…” but this time there is brush-back, and it comes from the stage itself.  “Why hasn’t The Murder of Isaac been produced in Israel?”  This gets to the nub, and it’s something that was discussed at the Haifa theater session that turned spiky when Boaz Gaon and Gilad Evron were challenged by several audience members.  Is there a market-dictated censorship that renders the most provocative work unproduceable by virtue of its unprofitability?  Or to come back to Ofira Henig’s situation when she was heading the Hertzliyah Theatre; if political plays aren’t putting butts in the seats, why do them?

“Maybe The Murder of Isaac isn’t a very good play” comes the utterance, only after the panel session, in private conversation with an Israeli cultural insider.  “That’s what all the artistic directors are telling me.  It’s just not very good.”  Well, the raves in Baltimore and from The Washington Post tell a different story, but the back-biting is instructive and the fact that any staged theatricalizing of the assassination of Yitzchak Rabin remains unproduced on Israeli stages leaves us fully aware of just how the wrenching internal tensions within Israel impinge on any national consensus as to how to deal with certain supremely delicate subjects on stage–like the killing of a Jewish Prime Minister by another Jew.

The censorship questions gets put to bed in relatively short order, as we move onto conversations with Ilan Hatzor, the author of the widely-internationally produced Masked, and author of a series of mad-cap political comedies that are getting quickly produced within Israel — Comedy being the key for Hatzor; the spoonful of sugar that helps the castor oil go down.  We then hear from the young playwright, director, and ensemble theater producer, Ido Bornstein, who talks of making art on the Fringe, dwelling less on the gay perspective that he brings–he shares news of the family he’s raising with his partner, but just in passing–and spends more of the time talking about his Arab-Israeli production of Dogs which imagines, in very expressionistic terms, an all-male, Palestinian-Israeli production of Romeo and Juliet.  It’s a production we see excerpts from and then wind up going to see on Sunday night at the Tmuna Theatre.  It’s funny and kinetically staged and he represents a fresh new voice for us.  His company is called Theater Can (as in “trash can” meets “Yes We Can”) and he’s also the creator of Hunger, a work he’s just sent to me.  There’s much more to share about Ido’s work and the meaningful collaboration that’s unfolding with his partner in life and art, Shlomo Plessner.

And then we finally hear from the the Israeli director and devised-theater auteur, Yaeli Ronen.  We see clips of her productions, Guide To The Good Life and Plonter (which we almost produced in 2009 until the funding for 19 actors and creative team members from the Cameri Theatre fell through).   How we want to do this production!  How we want to work with Yael.  How terrific was her presentation!  But how exhausted I am now in doing this recap!  I must return to it — Poor blog reader, you must be exhausted reading all this.  Or maybe it’s just the impingements of other duties calling and demanding our attentions.  So more on Yael Ronen.  And the controversies unfolding in her work between Israelis, Palestinians and Germans, all of the Third Generation (3-G) reckoning with the Shoah and contemporary 21st Century life (can anybody say “Block That Moral Equivalency?”  “Shoah will never equal Naqba” and the mere positioning of Germans and Palestinians together within the context of a post-Holocaust reflection is offensive to many — and that’s why Yael’s latest collaboration, being co-sponsored by Habimah Theater, is still unrealized and deemed unworthy of international support.  I haven’t seen it.  Scares me!  (Not really.)  But I love the way Yael Ronen’s mind works theatrically.  We’re thinking perhaps of a way to update Plonter and do it more affordably, with American actors, after some kind of extensive workshoppping.  Stay tuned).

And yes, stay tuned for more… As we move onto the last reports from IsraDrama and one final (I promise, only one more) controversy before some very warm reflections on the festival… and then some days of travel outside of it… (with yes, more controversy + more important extended family bonding…)