The Stage Mystic Theater

Helena Yaralova of the Cameri Theater, who is currently portraying the actress Hanna Rovina in the play "Was it a Dream," has been hospitalized after the van transporting Cameri players back to Tel Aviv from a performance in Tiberias was involved in a serious roadway accident last week. Two passengers of the car which collided with the van were killed, and in addition to Yaralova - who suffered hand and pelvic fractures - the driver of the van, a child actress and her father, and other actors and Cameri employees were injured to lesser degrees. The very next evening, Eli Gorenstein, whose hand was hurt in the crash, appeared on stage at the Cameri Theater Cafe in a one-man show based on David Grossman's novella "Frenzy" - about a man who has been involved in a serious car accident.

The Cameri accident, beyond its tragic significance for the families of the victims, and for those injured - to whom we wish and await a speedy recovery - is an incident which testifies to the nature of Hebrew theater since its very beginnings. One might say the accident is a symptom attesting to an illness infecting the entire system. At almost any given moment, every day of the year (except Friday evenings and holidays), minibuses travel around Israel carrying actors to and from shows, along with trucks bearing scenery from one stage to another.

Those interested in mysticism may find it in another real-life accident involving a character from Edna Mazya's "Was it a Dream." The play, set primarily in the 1930s, focuses on the love story between Hanna Rovina and Alexander Penn. In 1936, the Habima Theater traveled to Tiberias to perform Irwin Shaw's "Bury the Dead," with a cast that included actress Hanna Rovina. In those days it wasn't customary for players to return from distant performances on the same evening, and so the Habima actors slept in Tiberias.

Late at night, after partying, they set out to watch the sunrise over Lake Kinneret in a car belonging to Manu "The Fish King." The car overturned. The driver's daughter and Habima actor Yaakov Avital (who portrayed the gravedigger in the play) were both killed. Raphael Klatchkin (who was married to Avital's ex-wife Hadassa) was severely wounded. Rovina was the only one to escape injury, although she too was hospitalized in Haifa for observation.

To tell the truth, in a situation where so many cars are carrying so many actors every night (speedily, in order to give the actors a comfortable amount of time to prepare before going on stage), and late at night (speedily, because everyone wants to get home and go to sleep, and they all have to be dropped off at different locations), it is pretty surprising that so few accidents involving theater people take place. It is a professional hazard repertory players take on themselves, and everyone regards the situation as if it were natural.

In "normal" theatrical reality, established and repertory theater companies play at their home bases, and the audience comes to them; only marginal, independent troupes or commercial productions go on tour like traveling circuses. There have been such companies here - not the commercial kind, but ones in which the actors and directors double as stagehands and drivers.

I recall an interview some time ago with Hillel Ne'eman, the founder of the Open Theater, which produced Hanoch Levin's first play "Solomon Grip" in 1969, with a cast that included Ne'eman, Israel Gurion, Rami Kol, Nahum Shalit and Rachel Levy. I'm quoting what Ne'eman said from memory, which well summarizes the traveling theater experience from the point of view of the producer: You get up in the morning, load the truck with scenery and lighting equipment, travel three hours, put up the scenery, hang the lights, position them, then there are two hours of quiet, and then you take it all apart, load the truck and go home.

But, beyond the anecdotal, the fact is that Israel is too small of a country to have several independent cultural centers, and too large to make do with just one to which the entire audience streams. To this fact must be added the founders' egalitarian beliefs (which deserve a second look) - that theater art should reach everyone, regardless of ethnicity, cultural preference and place of residence - beliefs expressed in such public institutions as Transit Camp Theater and later Omanut Laam (Art for the People), which encouraged and subsidized traveling theater in all the corners of the country, and for all audiences, whether they wanted it or not.

For the moment let's ignore the issue of cultural arrogance that exists in this approach (Who decides which theater goes to everyone everywhere? Does everyone really need to fall in line behind one particular taste?) and concentrate on the practical issues. Theater people who in the past had to perform on any old stage or under any tree (sometimes this is not metaphoric) complained about the absence of proper stages, halls, dressing rooms, and minimal conditions for putting on a performance. Then the national lottery Mifal Hapayis and local government councils entered the picture, and in the 1980s the country became filled with a network of local and regional halls containing 500-900 seats, some with reasonable stages (most of them multi-purpose - for shows, concerts and large gatherings - which by their nature require theaters to make compromises).

From the beginning they weren't the types of halls meant to serve theatrical troupes, which would breathe life into them by putting on a play. The method of attracting audiences via subscriptions, which repertory theater managers quickly employed (beginning in Haifa in the 1970s) meant that each regional venue gave rise to a membership series that was based on the output of theaters in the center of the country. The centrally located theaters competed for places in the regional subscription series, even at the early stage when they were choosing their repertoires, because it meant that an audience could be secured in advance. From there, the emphasis of the entire repertoire selection process changed. Art directors had to decide not what they wanted to present, but what would sell in Tel Aviv and to the repertoire committees of the regional halls.

This process dictates a particular repertoire, known as the "middle way," if one wants to be fair. In many cases it results in commercial theater of a mediocre level or worse, but its success, based on advance-ticket sales, is a justification for its continued existence.

That's about the content. But a network of halls and consumer representatives in the periphery has also had a sharp influence on form. Scenery is designed with a thought to modularity that enables it to be used in halls with different conditions, and which takes into account the number of trucks and stagehands along with the amount of time needed to assemble and disassemble. The result is visual impoverishment - a functionality which may lead to creative thinking, but usually leads to boring, pointless routine.

To all this must be added the public sources of support for Israeli theater, which, somewhere back in the 1990s, in an attempt to formulate quantitative, egalitarian criteria (without getting mixed up in questions of taste and quality), raised the prestige of performances being put on outside a theater's home base. Performing frequently in the periphery may lead to a rise in public support for particular theaters. The Cameri, Beit Lessin and Habima theaters competed in terms of who traveled the most, and who "conquered" more "slots" in regional theater subscription series. A great amount of energy - creative, marketing, production - was expended on this effort.

This resulted in shows being put on at the home theater with a particular cast, scenery and lighting, while the traveling show hit the road with scenery missing, partial lighting and a cast made up of substitute players because the original actors had been snapped up by other productions (and who at the same time were traveling to stages in other parts of the country). Concepts such as production quality and "preserving the show as conceived and originally produced" completely lost their meaning, not only because budget directors found them trivial, but also because of the natural attrition among those involved in working this way: actors, production managers and stagehands.

I remember myself as a young theater lover in the mid-1960s, sitting at the Sultan Cafe, then facing the Cameri Theater on Frishman Street. At 11 or so at night, Yossi Garber entered and someone sitting at a table asked him: "What did you perform?" Garber answered, "The Lower Depths" (then considered a masterpiece, directed by Hy Kalus). "Where?" the man asked, and Garber answered, "Rishon Letzion." "How was it?" "Very fast," Garber said.

The above is another exaggerated anecdote from the past. Last week's car accident belongs to a different set of sad statistics, but sheds light on the problematic structure and day-to-day reality of Israeli theater, which over the years has shaped and adapted itself to this reality. The fact that there is a large audience in both the center of the country and outlying areas, and that there are so many productions, so many satisfied theater managers and even good shows at times (mostly at the home theaters) is a miracle of blindness and self-deception. The whole system is comprised of accidents waiting to happen, and not necessarily car accidents.