Stage Animal / Playing it safe
It's hard to be the artistic director of a theater, and 'nurturing' young playwrights can be a relatively safe way out - even if the play proves a flop Had I seen the play "Hamisha Kilo Sucar" ("Five Kilos of Sugar") in one of the fringe auditoriums in Tel Aviv, it would not have been worthy of anything beyond a short critique, as a tribute to the goodwill and activity of its enthusiastic beginners.
But it was staged in the holy of holies of quality theater in Israel, the Gesher Theater (and I really mean this with a great deal of respect), and directed by Yevgeny Arye, its highly reputed artistic director. And that puts it in a different light.
Actually, the Gesher Theater also wants it put in a different light: It's not really Gesher, but something described as a "start-up" at Gesher's Hangar theater.
This framework is presented in the playbill as a project that enables young theater people to initiate and develop projects, or to suggest plays that Arye will take over at a certain point, when part of the work has already been done, polish with his artistic and professional touch (and his name as director) and include in the theater's official repertory.
Gur Koren is a young actor-playwright who stages a personal story (he is the actor, whose name, he tells us, is Gur Koren, and he tells what really happened to him). The main part of the personal story is his relationship with his grandfather, who is already dead. The grandfather fled to Russia during World War II and later arrived in Palestine. He appears to Koren at unexpected moments, inside the bodies of a large number of characters of both sexes, demanding that his grandson exert influence over what will appear in the book being written by the grandson of one of his grandfather's former colleagues.
What's the gimmick? That Koren - the playwright, the character and the actor - speaks to the audience unremittingly, promises that it's all true, apologizes for the boring parts, etc. Four actors - Yuval Yanai, Noa Koller, Ronit Beckerman and Zion Ashkenazi - play the roles of colorful Tel Aviv characters in a wealth of costumes and accents (a fortune teller, a school principal, a wayward student, a spoiled young woman, a homeless person, a waitress, a prostitute, a taxi driver, an unemployed actor, a gay historian who is the other grandson). And as each scene with them progresses, they suddenly and unexpectedly begin to speak in the grandfather's voice, in a Yiddish accent.
Beneath this hides the relationship between the grandson and his grandfather, which is reflected in enlarged photos on rotating coulisses (Slava Maltzev designed the set). These apparently arouse a degree of excitement in the playwright-actor-character Gur Koren.
The sum total is a very tiresome 90 minutes. The fear of emotion is so strong that it is camouflaged with tons of predictable banality. But the fact that this of all plays was chosen for the new framework reflects a greater problem, which exists not only in Gesher, but in all theaters.
It's a hard, sad, thankless task to be the artistic director of a theater. Not only must a director steal time and protect himself from the daily routine in order to do his own work, but he (or she) is under considerable emotional pressure every moment of the day from playwrights, directors and actors, all of whom have big egos alongside their talent, and to all of whom he (or she) has already promised something and failed to keep the promise. Yet they have to be kept relatively satisfied, because their personalities are the raw material of theater.
And there are auditoriums to fill every evening, because you have to meet the budget, and therefore, even if you want to dare, it's not really possible, because there is also a board of trustees, and a fickle audience, not to mention critics of refined taste who have only complaints. And every decision on a play, especially a new one, or on signing a director, casting or choosing a set designer, is a gamble. Who knows whether a play that looks promising upon reading will fulfill its promise? And the director cannot really exert any influence once a colleague of his is already in rehearsals.
That is why in every theatrical framework, the director finds what one could call a "relatively safe bet." Call it "a young people's troupe" (almost every self-respecting theater is nurturing one), or a project that is already half-baked and whose participants have already sold their souls to this devil, and all the director has to do is come and decide when the game is already in the final stages, the cards are already on the table and the risk is relatively small.
Usually these are young artists, calves who are more eager to suckle than the cow is eager to nurse them. At least they arouse empathy, among the audience as well. The director is portrayed as being open to the younger generation and encouraging it to spread its wings independently. He or she definitely feels like a mentor and contributes what he has, but the rules of the game are clear: If it's a success with the audience, the critics, or both, it's the success of the artists, but also of the director who took a gamble on them. If it's not such a success, then what could the director have done? That's what there was. It's not that he really committed himself here: He simply didn't interfere. He has the best of both worlds.
In an ideal world, an artistic director of a theater would be a person with a clear theatrical vision, a troupe of actors with whom he wants to work and whom he wants to nurture, and an idea about quality and repertory that he wants to present because he has something to say - about himself, about the world, about the plays he stages, or about the audience that will come to the theater and leave it after the play. The real world is one of pressures, anxieties, flattery, compromises, concessions, awareness of constraints and an attempt to see the half-full cup.
And apparently, we also have to admit that you need a lot of bad and mediocre theater to enable something unique to emerge from all that. We don't remember that when we encounter a classic and are excited by it: We don't encounter the dozens of its contemporaries that were rejected at the time by pressured theater directors, or were performed and forgotten, and rightly so.
The theater is divided into two parts: the rows of seats for the passive audience, and the world onstage, usually higher, historically separated from the audience by a curtain when the play is not being performed. But many years have passed since that was the norm: Today, a lot of plays don't use a curtain. In many plays, actors come down from the stage into the audience during the play, creating direct and somewhat deceptive contact with the spectators. There are also plays in which spectators are encouraged to get onstage. Many artists examine this elusive boundary between theater and reality, between actor and spectator.
I am not talking here about productions in which the actors walk among and around the audience, but about "black box" spaces in which the audiences sits on three sides on a platform the height of the first row.
You enter the theater, and see that your seat is in the first row, on the other side of the area with the scenery. Perhaps there are even actors there already. What should you do? Should you walk along the first rows, close to them, until you reach your seat, or should you cut across via the acting platform, which by consensus is ostensibly outside the boundary?
Most spectators in Israel cross the acting platform without any problem. As far as they are concerned, the play has not yet begun, and this area is no-man's land until it begins. Sometimes they move a piece of furniture or a prop. Yet anyone who crosses this consensual stage-curtain boundary is, in the eyes of many theater people, an aesthetic criminal.
Groups of teenagers had been brought to "Five Kilos of Sugar," as they are to many plays, on the basis of available seats. During the minutes before the play began, two girls who had planned to sit on the steps on the left side of the theater instead of making do with their seats in the back rows suddenly needed to find seats, in order not to block the stairs. So they sat down, without any problem, on the low stage. The Gesher Theater's auditorium manager, a charming woman, assumed a spectator should know that the auditorium is an auditorium and the stage is a stage.
She approached and said in a tone that brooked no refusal, "You can't sit on the stage." The dark one turned to her blond friend in a show of protest: "Oof, why is everyone here on my case?" With an exaggerated show of insult, she walked to the other side of the auditorium, where the determined usher showed her that there were additional seats.
A good friend who happened to be in New York in 1980 managed to acquire a pair of tickets to the play "Amadeus" by Peter Shaffer, with Salieri played by Ian McKellen. The seats were in the first row.
Because the fairly low stage was very close to the first row, my friend stretched out his legs and leaned them on the edge of the stage, with his soles protruding somewhat above the height of the stage. He was shocked when Ian McKellen, when he first came onstage, approached the edge of the stage and told him: "Get your feet off my stage."