Everyone in the Hatikva market in south Tel Aviv, from the butchers to the vegetable vendors and chebureki stalls, knows exactly where Yoram Leowenstein's Performing Arts Studio is. Some of the folks even have a family member in one of the studio's many theater troupes. Leowenstein and his school are a staple of the community.

Community theater, like any kind of social theater, doesn't really sound all that compelling, even at a time when social justice is on the public agenda. Leowenstein knows this. Even homegrown international hits, such as 2009's “Children of the Heart” by the community theater group for religious teens – which won raves in Bangkok and New Delhi and will continue touring abroad in 2013 – isn't guaranteed an audience in Tel Aviv.

So the 62-year-old teacher and director is producing the second Hope Festival Hatikva from November 8–11 to bring attention to these types of productions. He's well aware that a festival format is the way to garner the needed publicity and media attention to attract wider attention.  

“That event is the reason you’re calling me right now," Leowenstein says. "The media loves festivals.”

Five original productions will be performed over the course of four days in the school’s auditoriums. The productions were chosen from 12 submissions, all based on stories from the lives of local students, and one by a group of elderly women as well. The material was dramatized, polished and directed by graduates and current students of Leowenstein's studio.

In addition to running the acting studio, Leowenstein devotes a great deal of time to community youth theater. An acting teacher since the mid-1980s, he was dismissed from most teaching jobs because of his unconventional approach to theater. He established his acting studio in the late 1980s, and in the year 2000 moved it to its current home in Hatikva. Now sixteen theater groups operate in the neighborhood, all run by Leowenstein graduates and current students. Far from the glitzy stages of central Tel Aviv, he has managed to bring serious theater to an eager community.

Q. How is your work with teens different from that of other community centers?

We’re not a theater group created for teens, but rather a collective of professional theater groups who create performances in which teens participate. We work with youth who have dropped out of the school system. For many of them, our community theater is a real springboard back into life. A teenage girl came to us whose parents had abandoned her. She was sleeping in Hatikva Park. We also took a teenage boy out of a locked ward of the Abarbanel Mental Health Center. Now he’s a director.

Q. Who are the teenagers you work with?

We work with high schools and elementary schools throughout Hatikva. For example, we work with Amiel, a religious public elementary school, and Reshit, a religious high school. We work with the children of foreign workers from Eritrea and Sudan at the Rambam School, in after-school centers for young special-needs children, and with two groups of kids from the centers run by Lilach for at-risk children of immigrants. In addition, we work with a school for teens with autism.

Q. What is the therapeutic component in your work with the teenagers?

There is no therapeutic component in the work. I don’t believe in that. Some of the teenagers are referred to me by welfare agencies, and we are aware of their situation. But we don’t pretend to treat them or create therapy through theater. Treating them isn’t our job – that’s the job of the psychological and educational settings. We invest professionalism, knowledge and awareness into them in classes that run several hours a week.  We do it to put on a show. The method is important, but there’s also a goal.

Q. What happens to kids who can’t stick with it, or who have difficulty?

If someone has a severe crisis, we contact the welfare agencies. In many cases, we tell the teenager that we’ll support him if he sticks with it. We'll transform what happened to his family or community into artistic material for the stage. We tell him, "Instead of helplessness, we’ll use it to give you a voice and the audience will see it." We believe that even the toughest human stories can find their way to the stage. The road is long and difficult, but it’s also cleansing.

Q. Do the students see any theater? Do they get to see the studio’s shows for free?

They have no money for the Cameri [Tel Aviv's municipal theater] or Habima [Israel's national theater]. Many of them come to the school productions and pay a minimal price of NIS 20 instead of the full price of NIS 70. Nothing is free. I don’t believe in giving things away for free because people treat what they get according to the price they paid for it.

Q. What kind of public support do you get for the work you do?

The support I get from the Tel Aviv municipality for the studio is about half a million shekels. Of that, 40 percent – in other words, NIS 200,000 – goes to the community theater for teens.

Q. How do you manage on that kind of money?

I manage thanks to the volunteering spirit of the students and teachers. They all see the importance of theater’s social role. In regular high schools, the parents have to pay a lot of money. In the Hatikva neighborhood, the situation is completely different. You can’t ask the children of refugees from Eritrea and Sudan to bring money. We work with a population that has real existential problems. Theater is very far from their world.

Q. What kinds of groups are you in touch with?

We're actually in touch with groups from Islamic countries like Iran and Pakistan. They are so vigorously opposed to the regimes there and to Ahmadinejad. They long for cultural openness that hasn’t existed since the Shah’s time. We have a very close relationship. They get us right away. We met them recently at a festival in southern Germany. Romantic relationships even developed. There was a "war" between two teenage boys, one from Iran and one from Pakistan, who were interested in an actress from our studio. The Iranian won, by the way. Professionally, we’re still in contact with those groups.

Q. The social activities add to the school's prestige. Does that affect supply and demand?

We’ve been very much in demand for a long time because of our excellent teachers and the fact that we’re socially active. But it’s also because we put on nine productions each year for graduating students, which provide experience and opportunity. There are hundreds of candidates to enroll each year. We select 38 in the first year, about a third of who drop out, and 25 are left in the second year. Almost every one of them – 22 to 23 – finishes the third year and graduates.

Q. When it comes to the productions of the school itself, what kind of theater do you believe in?

I try to prepare my students as well as possible for the variety of repertory theater. I have an obligation to give them the best internship I possibly can. That’s why we did the musical "Chicago," for example. Many people said it was the best of all the productions in Israel. I made connections with the Cameri Theatre through the musical "Srul" and we put on 14 productions together. On the other hand, we put on a gem of Shakespeare’s, "Love’s Labour's Lost," which has rarely been produced here. We also put on Tennessee Williams’s "Not About Nightingales" and Emile Zola’s "Therese Raquin" which no other theater would ever risk producing.

Q. Which shows will be the stars of the festival?

I believe one of them will be "Island," the show put on by the religious teen group. It’s very physical theater, full of movement. It’s about four teenage boys who are actually well-known characters: Gandhi, Merlin the magician, Superman and Albert Einstein. They are trapped on a desert island where they try to cling to sanity. It’s an original play directed by a graduate of the studio, Yair Mosel, who is also a graduate of the Hispin Yeshiva in Samaria. There’s also "The Black Princess" by Roy Reshef Maliach, a graduate of the studio who now teaches here. It tells the story of a young girl who quarrels with her mother. Then she has a dream about a black princess who makes all mothers vanish. Then she has to find the black princess to rescue her mother. It’s a fantasy about the love-hate relationship between daughters and their mothers.

Q. Six month ago, you experienced a terrible tragedy when Hen Barel was killed at a school party. How has that affected you?

The people with vision problems, where Hen worked with a lot of dedication, were devastated. They got through it. We dedicated a production to her memory, and we draw on her strong desire to grow and develop and become a professional actor. We will always honor her memory.