Stage Animal / For sale: A theater in pretty good shape
If we want more commercial productions, maybe one of the major public theaters should be made private. The last public debate on the structural issues facing Israeli theater was conducted at the close of the 1970s going into the '80s. One conclusion was that there was not enough fringe theater in the country, which because it is not constrained by any preconceptions has the potential to blaze new trails. The upshot of this determination was the founding of the Acre Festival for Alternative Theater. Those who should be credited with its establishment include Leah Porath, at the time the director of the culture department at the Ministry of Education, who approved and supported it; Oded Kotler, who pushed, initiated and gave the process the energy it needed; and Yossi Frost, then director of Omanut Laam (Art for the People), who set up the festival in cooperation with the Acre municipality.
The result of these undertakings is that a festival exists today, even if its artistic crop is not of uniform quality. The decision to establish the festival sometimes leads to unpolished work being presented, but on the other hand it has led to frameworks that consistently produce and host their own fringe productions (such as Tmuna, Hasimta, Tzavta and a few other venues). Today's theatergoer in Israel cannot complain of a dearth of entertainment outside of the mainstream, while artists working in this field cannot complain of a dearth of theater venues or public interest in what they do.
The second conclusion of that lengthy debate several decades ago was that it was necessary to regularize the support given to the existing public theaters in accordance with open and explicit criteria, which can then be compared and evaluated. Until that time, five public theaters had been in operation (Habimah, the Cameri, the Haifa Theater, the Be'er Sheva Theater and the Jerusalem Khan), all of which received state and/or municipal support. Each time a deficit developed - and in repertory theater this is a constant danger - they would turn to their supporters and plead for help.
The operative outcome of this second finding was the establishment of two committees, known by the names of their chairs: Akiva Levinsky and Hezi Shelah. The Levinsky committee determined that a publicly supported repertory theater must bring in 40 percent of its budget from its own earnings, with the state funding the rest. At that time, I argued that this was a recipe for subsidized commercial theater - and unfortunately I was right. The theaters received their share from the state and tried very hard to provide the remaining 40 percent - to the point that they succeeded beyond all expectations through the tried and true means of a repertoire that does not take any risks and sells well.
When eventually the public funding for theater did not increase and there became a growing need to stop the erosion, the percentage of the theater's budget that came from ticket sales gradually increased. To halt this process, the Hezi Shelah committee came along and determined "an appropriate budget" for each theater; they then derived from this budget and from the reality the amount of state (and municipal) support that each theater would receive.
At that time, the 1990s, the ratio between subsidies and box office sales was, at least at the large theaters (Habimah and Cameri), the other way around - with 60 percent coming from the box office and 40 percent from public funds.
The next phase, achieved thanks to pressure from theaters and artists who wanted public support, was the formulation of the criteria to recieve support. These guidelines do not detail matters of content and quality (which nevertheless do have some connection to theater). Instead, they concentrate on bringing the theater which is receiving support to outlying parts of the country (that is to say, giving performances outside the home theater); producing original Hebrew plays; and logistical issues, such as the number of actors per play and the number of theater employees.
This has led to two results: first, the insane competition between the theaters for ticket sales and the number of productions put on; second, the complete absence of commercial theater, like that seen in London's West End or on Broadway in New York. The West End and Broadway theaters do not receive any public funding - these are theaters that put on comedies and contemporary American and English plays. Sometimes they produce classical plays, using a famous actor or actress to attract an audience, with the producer finding the money to pay the star's high salary in the well-founded hope that the box office will eventually solve all of their problems.
In Israel, this repertoire is covered by the supported public theater. The more commercial parts are handed out with the excuse that the theater must bring in an audience, and this is what the audience wants. This also explains the hundreds of dollars certain actors are paid for each performance, along with a minimum number of performances promised per month. The Cameri does this, because Beit Lessin does it, because Habimah does it. And all in all, as the numbers indicate, the audience is satisfied.
In the present situation, whereby Israel lacks any commercial theater - because no one can compete with the public repertory theater in terms of supply and resources, and the public repertory satisfies the demand for commercial productions because there isn't anyone else satisfying it - I believe I have a solution. My proposal meshes with the economic trends of the Israel of 2010: privatize one of the three major public theaters - Beit Lessin, the Cameri or Habimah.
Don't reject this idea out of hand. It has the potential in a single act to create a professional framework with artistic standing, to release some of the public funding given to theater, and to remove from the other theaters the necessity (which is not to be despised) of putting on commercial productions in order to answer the demand.
Once we get past our natural repugnance of privatizating something we've become accustomed to having as a public good (and if welfare services are privatized, why not culture?), the question is which of the theaters should be privatized. Every potential purchaser - and it is to be hoped he will be a theater-lover, someone who knows there are people, though abroad, who have made tidy profits as commercial theater producers - must first conduct due diligence on the business he may buy. He will examine the state of the theater's assets, reputation, budget, cash flow and deficit.
While it can be said that all three theaters are equal with respect to reputation, they are not equal in terms of the state of their assets. The Habimah building has been undergoing extensive renovations and the status of that project's costs is not clear. The Cameri has busy halls in its home and a relatively new building, while Beit Lessin has a large theater space that is soon to be renovated. With respect to the property, the Cameri appears to be the best deal.
Another issue at hand is the "fat" within the existing theater establishment. In this respect, the Cameri is a problem as it has historic collective contracts and the cost of revoking them is liable to be quite high. The situation at Habimah is somewhat better because this theater has been in receivership for more than a decade, therefore solving the problem of collective contracts could be simpler. Beit Lessin, in this respect, seems to have a less of a problem as some of its main actors are in any case working on individual contracts.
Here we come to a non-trivial matter: the deficit. According to the figures in the 2008 Pilat report (a study conducted annually by Pilat - the Center for Information and Culture Studies), the Cameri and Habimah have balanced operating budgets and Beit Lessin, the most successful with respect to audience size that year, has an operating deficit of about NIS 1.6 million. This is not a large deficit relative to the budget size, and given that Beit Lessin receives less of a public subsidy than the other two. However, and this is significant, the Cameri has a cumulative deficit of about NIS 6 million; meanwhile Habimah, according to a 2007 report by Zipi Shohat in Haaretz (though for some reason this not mentioned in the Pilat report), had a deficit of about NIS 27 million as of that year - and this after the cancellation of NIS 10 million in a recovery agreement. That is, with the operating deficit, Beit Lessin is nevertheless the most successful deal.
Thus, it seems Beit Lessin would be the most worthwhile to privatize. It is also the closest in spirit to West End theaters. It is not too daring. (And again I stress: Putting on an original Hebrew play in Israel is not daring - it is a fairly certain recipe for success. Investing in material that has not been tested out yet and demands special effort is one of the basic requirements of the art of theater.) The production quality at Beit Lessin is reasonable, at minimum. It boasts quite a few artistic successes, which have also aroused interest in the audience.
The moment it officially becomes a commercial organization, Habimah and the Cameri (especially the Cameri) will no longer need to compete with Beit Lessin in the crazy race to fill seats. And then, perhaps, a bit of sanity will return to the world of theater.
To dispel any doubt, I hasten to note here: This is a satirical proposal aimed at casting light on the anomaly that is the Israeli public theater and the distorted criteria under which it must operate. Anyone who wants to draw operative conclusions from what has been said above will be personally responsible for doing so.