Memo From Akko Festival, Israel

from Theater J Council member, Stephen Stern

I write from Akko, the morning after closing ceremonies and awards were given at this ancient Mediterranean town’s annual Israel theater festival. Two days ago, we (Margaret, Ari and I) walked through an entryway off the old city’s seaside road.

from the window, as Stephen writes his blog from Akko

We climbed up to a dramatically converted house – which served as the multi-storied set (and festival home) for the PEACOCK OF SILWAN’S ensemble of Arabs and Jews – and we were transported to the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan as stories of harsh entanglement and life’s aspirations were revealed by sublime theat artists. And last night Margaret and I joined the “Peacock” company as we leapt to our feet in joy when great Theater J friend Sinai Peter (and estimable co-director Chen Alon) were given the Festival Best Director award. Followed by delirium when Samira Saraya was named Festival Best Actress for her portrayal of Iman – proprietor of the Peacock Beauty Salon and older sister in the Palestinian home “shared” with an Israeli settler.

Director Sinai Peter on site in Akko with members of the cast

But (back to Peacock shortly) this sketch is of a full week in Middle East theater, which began in pre-production phase in North Carolina – in the script development workshop and staged reading of Theater J’s upcoming January mainstage show, BOGED (Traitor): AN ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE. There I pitched in for two days with Ari, our production’s director Joseph Megel (UNC faculty), his local cast, and another great Israeli colleague and friend, the playwright Boaz Goan. Boaz and Sinai were the team that brought us the Cameri’s production of RETURN TO HAIFA last year. Boaz returns to adapt his Israeli script of BOGED into an English language premiere. This is a hard-hitting adaptation of Ibsen, transformed to an Israeli desert town, with a burgeoning industrial estate providing employment and growth and in the midst of a pollution meltdown that threatens to engulf the region’s water and air. Ibsen’s rival brothers become Tomer (Tommy) the ernest environmental scientist, and Shimon (Simon), the mayor whose re-election looms.

Israeli cast members of BOGED in performance at the Beer Sheva Theatre in 2011

They are at odds in trying to tamp down or expose the crisis, as are an array of family members, media, industrialists, and townsfolk. Boaz in response to hearing the ensemble’s work, and the comments of audience and creative partners is fine tuning and turning in draft after draft of changes. The inter-generational learnings and yearnings that led to last summer’s Israel social protest movement have become a factor, and our recurring need for a hero who will solve our dilemmas and the Samson-like destruction that often results are sharpening and deepening. Dear Readers, if you see this blog before October 8 you can have the pleasure of witnessing the latest version that Boaz, Joseph and Ari are shepherding toward a reading at Baltimore’s Center Stage with most of the cast of Theater J’s production. (Alas, Margaret and I will miss it, but we’ll have the consolation of being at dinner that night in Jerusalem with former Theater J Development Associate Gavi Young and her husband!)

Back to Silwan…I mean Akko. The play was in Hebrew and Arabic, and Margaret and I had only the benefit of a crude translation by Mr. Google to orient us. But it was the language of the theater (even if many of the actual words were beyond us) that began for us the moment we were dropped in teeming festival Akko about a mile from the depth of the Old City where we needed to be. We wandered lost through shuks and alleyways, shops and stalls harboring an array of Muslims, Christians, and Jews — stories of shoulder to shoulder living surrounding and propelling us — as we tried to find our hotel and theater meeting place. The audience of 30 was gathered and entered a passageway to the “Peacock House”, and were greeted and seated by the Russian-Israeli security guard (in the play) for a description of the archeological site in front of us, its Israeli principals explaining their side of the story (a tragedy had happened which we saw enacted later on).

The beauty parlor setting of “Peacock of Silwan”

Their Palestinian neighbors were seen from time and then audience was moved upstairs to a new site in which Jamil, the father told his story — and then into the Salon that dominated this house (one lucky audience member was given a treatment by Iman) as the lives and hopes and fears of its inhabitants played out with their Jewish “neighbors”. The performers were electric, direct address to the audience, moving to character intensity, humor, musical interludes and even rhythmic rap revelations.

The flow of it all was riveting, and a post-show discussion (held partially in English for our benefit) showed where intimately experienced art can lead in terms of further conversation. The situation in Silwan is dire, an entire neighborhood undergoing nearly unendurable pressure, in the face of a century-long conflict. An Israeli audience had lived these stories with these characters, and then discussed them in a probing dialogue of every human, identity, and political facet of what had been seen. The fervor of different viewpoints was expressed with direct eye to eye respect. Margaret and I returned between shows the next day (they performed 3 a day!) to hang with the company — and to take some pictures of the set. We arrived hearing the sound of endless applause and encountered an audience which didn’t want to leave, engaged in informal post-show intimate discussion with the company. Sinai told us later that this was the audience that seemed most diffident at the beginning, a strong coterie who were afraid that it would a finger-pointing diatribe, who through theater being committed (!) had been touched to the heart by a lens into Silwan and now the mind was engaged.

This play deserves a long active life in Israel (questions of future “environmental” stagings such as this one or how to adapt to a more traditional theater space will need to be faced). I couldn’t be prouder to be associated with such colleagues in Israel (and in the US) that Ari has brought into the Theater J family and into mine. (Actually Boaz in our DC house with our cat Xena as I write this). Spread the word, help make the shows, see them, talk the talk, walk the week. See you at OUR CLASS or before!

Actor George Iskandar (R.), playwright Alma Ganihar (above him) in discussion

And the big, happy Breaking News: Akko Festival Best Director Award goes to Sinai Peter and Chen Alon!!!

And happiest news of all, Samira Saraya wins Best Actress at Akko Festival, for her first professional acting role, after 20 years of being one of the leading Palestinian gay activists! Mabruk & Mazel tov!