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Which theater here draws the most people? Them's fighting words The editor of the Guinness Book of World Records rubbed his forehead in confusion. Before him was a thick document, "The Public Theaters in Israel 2008 Report," prepared by the Center for Information and Culture Studies, which was set up and is financed by the Ministry of Culture "to document and analyze cultural endeavor in Israel." More precisely, he was facing the findings Zipi Shohat wrote about in Haaretz on February 15. Confusing.

The reports says: "Beit Lessin leads in the number of theatergoers in Israel": 875,452 viewers, who saw 1,538 performances. That seems clear-cut. A record is a record is a record. However, the difference in the number of theatergoers for second place, the Cameri Theater, was very small, just 13,128 viewers (Cameri shows were seen by 862,424 viewers), but it performed 1,798 times.

So there's no problem, said the editor's deputy. The Cameri holds the record for the largest number of performances, whereas Beit Lessin has the largest audience. Not so simple, said the editor.

The same report stated that according to Tel Aviv'a statistical yearbook of the Center for Economic and Social Research, in the city itself, the Cameri had the most viewers (639,000) as well as the most performances (1,472) and Beit Lessin is down in third place, with 400,000 viewers, and 736 performances. Habima, which at present has no home base, is in second place in Tel Aviv with 406,000 viewers and 801 performances.

So we can agree, said the deputy editor: There will be four records for Israeli theaters: the greatest number of viewers and the largest number of plays performed across the country, in a separate count, records in the city of Tel Aviv. Three records are held by the Cameri: highest number of performances in Tel Aviv and in Israel and largest audience in Tel Aviv. Beit Lessin holds one record: the largest audience nationwide. Everyone satisfied?

I am not so satisfied. (They did not ask me, because what do I know about records, but I like to write about what I don't understand; it makes me objective). Why are these records important and to whom? What do they actually mean? Is the difference a lot or a little? Is it good or bad? Compared to what? Is this what matters in theater - who has a bigger audience? And what plays they produced is irrelevant? And how do they count? Is it possible perhaps to interview the 263,547th spectator at Beit Lessin and compare his impression of the play to viewer 496,611 of the Cameri?

I also tried to figure out how they count. So when it comes to performances in resident halls, the theater systems are computerized. The numbers for Tel Aviv are precise. But outside the city, the theaters don't sell tickets, but shop to auditoriums and regional subscription programs. The research center's data consists of the size of the auditorium and an estimate of its seating capacity. So audience size at road performances is an estimate. If Beit Lessin performs more than half its plays outside Tel Aviv, it is possible that its record, by a small margin, for the whole country, is actually a photo finish that may yet be ruled out on appeal?

Apart from that, let's calm down. Although we have for years been priding ourselves on the fact that per capita visits to the theater here are among the highest in the world, and that in absolute numbers, Israeli theater has more paying viewers than soccer games, it should be noted that most theater ticket sales in Israel are organized through subscription packages that sell a series of plays for each year and organized groups that buy large amounts of tickets for a steep discount. (So the price on the ticket is pretty much a fiction; recently I purchased full-price tickets to a Habima production, for NIS 190, and theater sources told me I was one of the few to do so.)

That helps to explain why Beit Lessin leads in ticket sales: 81 percent of its tickets are sold in organized sales, 16 percent in subscriptions and just three percent at the box office. The comparable figures at the Cameri are 65 percent, 24 percent and 11 percent and at Habima, it is 67 percent, 20 percent and 13 percent. Beit Lessin leads in marketing plays in advance without any correlation necessarily to the quality of the play or audience preferences. No wonder: It employs 37 people in marketing (compared to 24 people at the Cameri).

So let's assume this makes no difference. After all, the theaters will argue that the audience apparently likes what it sees, because even if not every spectator personally chooses the play according to his/her preferences, no one is forcing people to go to the theater, even if they receive discounted tickets. In other words, they basically do like what they are seeing.

True, because what they are shown is based on what they liked in past years. Well then, what did they see?

In 2008, more than 30 different plays were presented at each of the three theaters mentioned here, and do not forget that in Israel there are another four public theaters (the Haifa Theater, the Be'er Sheva Theater, the Jerusalem Khan and Gesher), and countless other smaller groups in smaller places and children's performances, and together all of them sell around five million theater tickets annually. But the three big ones sell around half the total amount and almost half (46 percent) of that was divided in 2008 among just 10 plays. In effect, if these findings of the Center for Documentation and Research are of any significance, it is in this list, of what was most popular, because this is what will set the path of public theater for the future. In first place is Ephraim Kishon's "The Ketubah" (The Marriage Contract), first performed at the Ohel theater 50 years ago with the legendary Meir Margalit. Despite all the goodwill and Shlomo Bar-Aba and the tribute to Kishon, this is not exactly the flagship of quality theater or even of an admirable effort.

In second place is "Apples from the Desert" by Savyon Liebrecht at Beit Lessin. This is indeed an original play, but make no mistake: An original play is a fairly sure recipe for a smash hit. This is what the Israeli audience likes. Contrary to what is commonly believed, there is no challenge in putting on an original play, especially as most of them have a realistic format. A good play, a decent performance, no more than that.

In third place is "Rain Man" based on the movie, at Beit Lessin; good acting by Sasson Gabbai and Lior Ashkenazi, no more than a mainstream offering with a commercial tone to it. In fourth place is Habima's "Hahotenet", ("The Mother-in- Law"), a translated comedy lacking any importance - a theatrical entertainment done in a very undazzling fashion. In fifth place is "Driving Miss Daisy," which relies on the film's publicity. When it emerged as a play, with Lia Koenig, that was something that cannot be belittled. But now it's nothing special and challenges neither artists nor audience. Then there is "Tea," another original play by Roni Pinkowitz, at Beit Lessin (see under "Apples from the Desert," which is nice but does not require any effort; there are a few like it every season, and that is fine); "Thrill My Heart" by Hanoch Levin at the Cameri, which is Hanoch Levin, and it is good and I am very much in favor of it, but let's not get carried away; Edna Mazya's "Was it a Dream" (Haya O Lo Haya) at the Cameri Theater, albeit an interesting subject but a play that is not without problems, even though the production is impressive (the only one of the top plays with more than 10 actors in it). Closing the list is "The 39 Steps" at Habima, a hit imported from the West End, including the director and Moni Moshonov and Avi Kushnir, who are reminiscent of their days on "Zehu Zeh." In other words, theater as entertainment and not theater at its best.

Certainly there are more fitting accomplishments. For example, "Hamlet" was performed at the Cameri for the third year running (134 times in 2008) but in an auditorium with just 160 seats or so. Although there were more than 21,000 viewers, that's insignificant given the number of theatergoers over all. Incidentally, today "Hamlet" is a trap for catching subscribers at the Cameri. Want to see it? Buy a subscription. Moneywise, it really pays off.

One last comment: The three theaters compete over who will perform more all over the country. They fight to be included in regional subscription packages. This means the Cameri presents around five plays each night across the country throughout the year, including Saturdays and holidays and Yom Kippur; Beit Lessin does four plays simultaneously each night. This necessitates a large and skilled staff and many production teams and there are not so many of these in Israel, and therefore the plays come to distant auditoriums with understudies, with little care devoted to preserving the play, due to burnout among all the relevant parties, and this is before any mention of the risk of road accidents (Helena Yarlova is still recovering from injuries sustained in a road accident). And what is this all for? To distribute a public budget to the theaters, there has to be criteria. For there to be criteria, there has to be data. As it's theater under discussion, no one wants to risk setting criteria relating to quality, so everyone looks for numbers. And in the world of numbers, the perception is the more the better. And the logic of the general managers is: I present more, therefore I am more popular and more present. And what is stressed in the news reports from the figure-filled report of the center is that Beit Lessin has the largest number of spectators, but the smallest amount of public funding.

So perhaps if we do not do artistic theater at all that requires of the audience some mental or emotional exertion, but only commercial theater, the kind that the audience wants, as in the top 10 list, then there will be even more spectators, and then it will be possible to function with even less funding. If the ratings are so high, perhaps it may even be worthwhile to sell advertising spots in the middle of the play.