Dramatic Effects

Ofira Henig, director of the Herzliya Theater Ensemble, jumped right into the storm of controversy over performing in Ariel. In her work as well, she is no stranger to polemic - one reason why she's a leading figure in the theater scene both here and abroad

When a group of actors signed a protest letter against performing in Ariel, Ofira Henig was on her way to the airport, but she managed to add her signature before departure. "The initiative moved me very much," she says. "I was happy to sign." The next day, in chilly London, she learned that the letter had raised the late-August temperatures here higher than ever and sent the normally sedate theater world into a major tizzy.

In an effort to calm things down, Henig, artistic director of the Herzliya Theater Ensemble, penned a personal missive that was published on Ynet. But the letter only stirred things up further, and made plain to her the real distance between London and Ariel.

henig - Reli Avrahami - Sept 24 2010
Reli Avrahami

"I felt that I couldn't just sign and leave," she says. "So I addressed my letter to the theater directors. The power lies with them, not with the actors."

What did Henig's letter say that touched such a patriotic chord and led some city council members to call for her dismissal? "The Israeli theater world has created, by and large, a sycophantic bourgeois art that has accustomed its audience to viewing actors as a bunch of clowns whose whole purpose in society is to amuse and entertain; it's not clear what happened to that creature who suddenly has a head that thinks and a mouth that speaks," wrote Henig.

"The protest letter signed by theater people, including myself, is a painful letter that contains no manipulation and absolutely no threat. It is a legitimate personal protest that seeks to create a public discourse on the definition of the boundaries of what is permitted and what is forbidden, on the definition of the terms right and wrong, and on the definition of the limits of obedience. The protest letter is a healthy phenomenon in a democratic society, and should be welcomed."

Her letter triggered an online debate, drawing hundreds of (mostly furious ) responses. "Bleeding heart, why don't you go love yourself," was one; Nir from Herzliya wrote that he was ashamed to be paying Henig's salary; Yehuda wouldn't be surprised if she were refused service by a bank, restaurant or taxicab; an anonymous post suggested "boycotting her f- ing theater," while a response from Netanya offered clear professional guidelines: "First of all, an actor's job is to entertain, just like a refrigerator technician's job is to fix refrigerators."

Herzliya city council members said they would refuse to give funding to an organization that aimed to exclude certain populations from cultural activity. "Better that the Ensemble not misappropriate the funds of its supporters, or that it also forgo the support of the Herzliya municipality. It is legitimate to hold political opinions and to present them on stage, but it is absolutely not legitimate to deny citizens the right to culture."

Herzliya Mayor Yael German declared: "Every person has the right to express his or her position, but the Ensemble will perform wherever it is invited." Before long, even actress Cynthia Nixon, Miranda from "Sex and the City," and a whole group of American actors had voiced support for the protesting Israeli actors.

"It's very important to me to say that I am speaking here as an individual and as an artist and not as a theater director," Henig stresses. "I believe that the Ensemble can contain all the various opinions and I hope that I won't get to the point where I'll have to make my own moral decision."


"If there is an invitation and the public administration and the director-general decide that they're performing over the Green Line, I and some of the actors will have a big problem."

And once you realize that no one is asking you, and that you have no choice?

""It's a complicated issue. A play is a product of a theater and not of a director or actors. I understand that even though I am the director of the theater, there's not really anything for me to say. I can only draw conclusions."

It's easy for you - The chances that your ensemble will be invited to Ariel are practically nil.

"True, the Ensemble does not travel around the country and I don't have to choose and so my dilemma is theoretical, but I think the theoretical plane is just as important. I think and hope that this will not end with a whimper. That this time it will be a long process and in November the important part will begin."

henig - Gerard Allon - Sept 24 2010
Gerard Allon

And until that happens, or not, Henig, 50, is returning for now to her classic world. After the success, in Israel and abroad, of Shalom Aleichem's "The Town of the Little People," a production from the present season, at the end of this month the theater will mount its premiere of "Three Sisters."

"To me, Chekhov is the greatest playwright," says Henig. "He and Shalom Aleichem both deal with the human soul in such a profound and chilling way. It's too bad that in Israel Shalom Aleichem has been put into this nostalgic box of the Yiddish shtetl. I read him differently, and this question, of how Zionism related to our parents' cultural roots, really interests me. On the one hand, you couldn't speak Yiddish because that belongs to Diaspora Jewry, and on the other hand, you couldn't speak Arabic, because that's primitive and connected with our enemies. For me, working on Shalom Aleichem and Chekhov means bringing them out of the narrow local context and treating them as a work of art. Chekhov's dramaturgical structure embodies the essence of the human situation and basically reminds me of why I do theater in the first place."

Not a whole lot happens in Chekhov. The characters are always drinking tea and then meeting the next day to drink more tea.

"But they always want more than that. They always have this longing and yearning. The characters are not calm and tranquil. They do act, but always a moment too late and in the wrong place, and they are continually being shattered. It's a kind of cliche to say that the dominant theme in Chekhov is boredom. I learned it that way, too. But this longing that always occurs the moment after is genius, I think."

Henig came to Herzliya three years ago, and a year after that, the Ensemble moved into a new building in the city center. Unlike all the megalomaniacal cultural halls that have sprung up in the periphery in recent years, the Herzliya auditorium has an intimate and endearing atmosphere. Henig succeeded Gedalia Besser, who retired after seven years of managing the theater. Upon taking over the position, Henig altered the theater's direction. From a place that worked on various projects at temporary quarters in the Israeli Air Force House, it became an ensemble. A theater troupe, like the Khan in Jerusalem, according to the classical tradition of a theater that functions with a regular core group of actors. Some of the actors, such as Gili Ben-Ozilio (who passed away a year and a half ago ), Motti Katz, Uri Ravitz, Icho Avital, Naomi Promovitz and others had worked with Henig before in places like Habima, the Khan and The Lab.

"I believe the right way to do theater is with an ensemble," says Henig. "All over the world, the most important artists, the ones who created milestones in the history of theater, worked with ensembles. People like Arian Menushkin, Peter Brook, all the greats." Among the plays she put on in Herzliya were "Black Rain," originally written by her companion Shimon Bouzaglo for the Israel Festival; "Yerma" by Lorca and "Don Quixote's Claim" by Gilad Evron. The Ensemble's production of "Iphigenia in Aulis" by Euripides was directed by Yossi Yisraeli.

Henig's brand of theater is very much like that of Peter Brook. Without a lot of scenery and costumes. Theater on a modest scale that puts the words and the actor front and center. "Theater that doesn't try to copy a certain reality but to foster a relationship between the stage and the audience," says Henig.

"I aim to appeal not only to the audience's emotions but also to thinking and insight, and to make use of aesthetic values. For me, directing is like taking a rug that is the reality, unraveling all the threads that make me angry and then, together with the actors, knitting something new that is all mine. Directing is a way of life. Nowadays, anyone who can block a scene calls himself a director. Directing isn't about blocking, but about viewing the world through a certain perspective. Living it. Experiencing. Reading. When I worked on 'Black Rain,' I spent a whole year in Japan - mentally, culturally, researching. I absorbed things first and then the natural selection and the creative process began. I love this profession, and directing is something sacred to me. This is one reason that I left places where I worked for a regular salary. They work on written plays, and I often work on an idea or an image and start the process from there, as in the project that I'm currently working on: Jewish and Arab folktales.

"In the last few years, my great love has been books and music from Arab lands. It started with a political worldview of wanting to get to know the other, and developed into a really great love. These days I wander from Poland to Morocco, Ukraine to Egypt, and I'm from neither here nor there."

Henig and Bouzaglo live in a small apartment in central Tel Aviv. Her study contains the complete works of Shalom Aleichem. A professional-quality stereo system makes the living room (which doubles as her study ), her sanctuary.

Henig was born on Kibbutz Ruhama to a father from Czechoslovakia and a German mother, who immigrated in 1946. During the war, her mother was hidden by two Christian families in Zurich. As a child, her father was sent to Budapest to study violin; he and his older brother, who was living there as well, were fortunate to escape on Kasztner's train [in which almost 1,700 Jews escaped from Hungary to Switzerland]. She grew up in Holon, where her parents moved when she was two years old, with her older brother and sister. Her father worked at Agresco, her mother taught music. In high school she did not excel academically, but earned a reputation as a smart aleck. She learned to play the flute, played basketball and became a Marxist.

"My parents were always telling me to settle down and be like everybody else. My mother worried about me. She would say: 'What man is going to want a wife with an above-average IQ?' After high school, my parents went to Germany as emissaries and I stayed here and enlisted in the army."

She served in the Nahal Brigade on Kibbutz Yiftah in the north. The proximity to the Lebanese border led the young Nahal soldiers to get carried away. "The hot topic was drug smuggling from Lebanon. Hashish and marijuana. Everyone was going crazy over it. We did hashish, it was maybe the third time in my life, and someone told on us. I was the only one who admitted under questioning that I smoked, and the next day I was sent to jail for 35 days. To serve as an example. It was an extremely aggressive punishment. I was 19 years old, a good girl, and I had no idea how to cope with it. It took me a very long time to recover from that experience. They broke me there emotionally. The only lucky thing was that I was considered a lone soldier, so right after I was released, they let me travel to Frankfurt to my parents."

What broke you?

"The problem was the attitude of the female jailers. It was already an enormous effort for me to adapt to a military framework - and then to put me in jail? The punishment was disproportionate. I was stuck in there with deserters. I was one of two or three girls in there who knew how to read and write, and soon I became the letter-writer for everyone. In another period, someone like me wouldn't have enlisted at all, but Israeli society then was very rigid and uncompromising, and there was no other option. We were told that if you don't enlist and you're released on a Section 21 [for psychological reasons], you'll never be able to get a driver's license, and driving has always been something I really love to do."

After her release from military prison, she was stationed as a clerk at an army base, and later, with the intervention of a psychiatrist acquaintance who thought she needed a corrective experience, she was returned to her Nahal group, which was now at Mitzpeh Shalem. On the day of her army discharge, she felt like a tightly wound coil that just had to spring, and she left the country for two years. "I lived a nomadic life. I wandered around Europe, I worked at different jobs - in Norway, in the south of France, in Amsterdam, in southern Spain. I picked flowers, I picked grapes, I sold all kinds of things, I cleaned houses. After two years, I felt like I needed to get back to something intellectual and I decided to study, but I didn't have a matriculation certificate. I did two exams very quickly and then I applied to the theater department in the theoretical track, and to the law department."

She was accepted, but soon afterward she learned of a new theater program that was opening at Seminar Hakibbutzim Teachers College. As part of the admissions procedure she was asked to act, and she failed. But after convincing the admissions committee that her real wish was to direct, she was accepted.

What came next surprised her as well. When she was in her third year, Gary Bilu came to observe her directing exercise and then invited her to direct for him at Beit Zvi. She directed a number of plays, including "Equus," whose premiere was attended by Omri Nitzan and the director of the Moscow Festival. "That night I received two phone calls," says Henig. "Omri invited me to direct at Habima, and the festival director commissioned 'Equus' for Moscow. I bypassed the standard route of starting from the bottom, of directing in Acre and all sorts of small places. I went straight to the top. I went to Moscow for the festival, and at the same time I was having a dialogue with Omri, and then I got an invitation from the Moscow Academy to teach there. This was the Academy that produced the members of the Gesher Theater, and so of course I said yes."

At age 28, Henig signed a contract to be an in-house director for Habima and committed to doing two plays a year. Between these productions, she went to Moscow to teach, and there she fell in love with a Russian director and lived with him for a year. Ever since, she has lived in several worlds at once. In Israel and somewhere else (or two different places ). This arrangement lets her dream in several languages, flit between different cultures and miss whatever place she is absent from at that moment.

Her Russian love affair, like her other loves, was stormy and intense. "Perestroika had begun," she recalls, "but the airline system wasn't very developed yet. I would travel via Vienna or Bucharest. We lived in a tiny apartment. It was a year of living a different kind of life.

"I was certain that he would come to live in Israel because he was half-Jewish and it was better in Israel than in Moscow. Today I realize how arrogant it was of me to think that. He did come for a visit, but then he told me he had absolutely no intention of living in Israel, and I remember how shocked I was. The romance lasted for about another year, and afterward we kept up an artistic relationship."

At Habima, Henig directed Yosef Bar-Yosef's "Gold"; Yehoshua Sobol's "The Night of the Twentieth"; August Strindberg's "Creditors"; Tennessee Williams' "The Glass Menagerie" and more. "I worked with Dror Keren, Yigal Sadeh, Gil Frank, Doron Tavori, Lia Koenig - the best actors in Israel. There is no greater gift than that for a director. You enter the rehearsal room and you're just overwhelmed."

After four years at Habima, she got that itch to wander yet again. She left Habima and became a freelancer, directing in various places, such as the Be'er Sheva Theater and the Khan Theater. She also went to New York on a fellowship from the America-Israel Cultural Foundation. "I spent three months at the Metropolitan Opera and I saw rehearsals and plays by the greatest directors. At the end of 1995, the Khan was searching for a new artistic director and Motti Katz, an actor and friend, told me: 'If you take over there, you could direct whatever you want.'"

Henig calls her time at the Khan "the six happiest years of my life." And not only because of the work. Because of Jerusalem, too. "I discovered a whole new world. Population groups I had never encountered before. The city fascinated me, it got my mind working and sharpened my thinking. It gave me confidence as a creative artist. It was good to have that distance from the whole Tel Aviv scene, to be focused completely on the creative work and not on talking about it. This is what I tell my students now (at the School of Visual Theater in Jerusalem ): 'You can only really develop your own personal language when you are far from the center.' The center co-opts you and makes you formulaic."

At the Khan, Henig directed "Anna Galactea" with Gita Munte, "The Seagull" and "Back to the Desert" with Doron Tavori, and more. Henig took the production of "Anna Galactea" to a festival in Brussels, and while there she fell for a Dutch man who lived in Belgium and worked in opera. "We fell in love," she says. "And for three years we lived on the Brussels-Tel Aviv route. He didn't understand why I insisted on staying here. I was the artistic director of the Khan then, and I didn't want to leave. I was fine with the traveling."

Once again, an international romance ended due to patriotism. It was followed by other romances, big and small. But none ever made her want to marry or have children. "Aside from Moscow, I had never been in a relationship [before Bouzaglo] that involved living together."

Did you think about having kids?

"I was too busy with my work, and if I thought about family, it was more in connection with a relationship than with children. I met people who brought me a lot of happiness and I hope that I brought them happiness, but I didn't need more than that. With all the relationships I had, in the end I chose art. I'm the cliche of the artist. Living a very modest life, happy with my creative work."

Weren't there social and family pressures?

"Of course there were. People were always reminding me. They thought maybe I was a lesbian, or maybe something was wrong with me, or I was sick. I kept coming up with excuses until it dawned on me that I was taking part in a script that someone else wrote for me, and that I really just wanted to do something else with my life. And because I'm the kind of person that has to completely throw myself into things, I knew that if I had kids, I would have to be a full-time mother for the first few years at least and not take the child with me to the theater, and that I couldn't commit to that because I travel so much. And then there was the thinking that says that there are enough wretched children in this world already. And all that made me see that I didn't really want children."

After the Khan, Henig became the director of the Israel Festival. "That was one of the toughest periods I can remember. A month after I started, the second intifada broke out and no one wanted to come here, and I debated whether we should even have a festival when people were being killed. The job forced me into a public position where I had to contend with the notion of 'We must keep on and we must be happy in united Jerusalem,' which goes completely against my private life."

What do you mean?

"I taught drama in Ramallah, and I used to go there in my car. There were nights when my friends from Ramallah stayed at my place in Jerusalem because they couldn't get through the checkpoints at night. We watched the news together, and in the morning I would get up and go to manage the Israel Festival. All the serious artists and important ensembles didn't want to come near Jerusalem for security or political reasons, and I was Arik Sharon's representative. There were times I felt like I was lying to myself, but I stayed because I feared that they would replace me with someone who was completely committed to the establishment. But then I also asked myself - Just who do you think you are? Now I know that I wasn't cut out to be a festival director. I'm a creative person. I can't go around the world being a buyer."

Henig met translator and poet Shimon Bouzaglo five years ago. She was running The Lab at the time and "one day he came in and said that he wanted to translate. I had his poetry books at home, and I'd first gotten to know him as a translator when he translated 'Medea' from the ancient Greek for Habima. I told him that I didn't need a translator right then, but we talked for a long time, and then again, and a week later he called me and asked if I wanted to go out. It was on my birthday, and we've been together ever since. He moved in with me in Jerusalem and then two years ago I convinced him to move to Tel Aviv. When the right person comes along, it happens naturally."

Around the same time, she met another person who changed her life - theater director Peter Brook. In 2001, she had started directing "Pargodim" at Habima, as a freelancer, and invited Palestinian actor Taher Najib, who lives in Paris, to act in the play. Najib bought a plane ticket without knowing that the trip to Israel would take place right after the September 11 terrorist attacks. He turned the hardships he was subjected to on the way into a play called "In Spitting Distance."

"It's full of humor and pain, but at heart it is about a person without a country whose identity is translated into something else everywhere he goes, and about being an artist whose language is his instrument, but who is essentially multicultural and international. This is something I really relate to. He gave it to me to read and I thought that I wanted to direct it, but that someone else should play his character. I suggested Khalifa Natour, one of my favorite actors. I worked with him when he studied at Beit Zvi, and Taher stepped aside like a gentleman. We brought in the lighting designer Jackie Shemesh, and we made a clear and principled decision not to take money from any party, that this would be an independent production. We submitted the play to TheaterNetto and we won first place, but we didn't get to put it on anywhere."

And then the thing that is every actor's dream happened. Peter Brook, who was a guest of the Israel Festival, came to see the play and fell in love. "Our lives changed from that moment on. Within a month, we'd received three invitations and those led to more invitations. We traveled the world with this play for two years and I received lots of prizes for it. We performed at the Barbican in London, at the Opera House in Sydney, at the Theater of Rome, the Peter Brook Theater and many other places. Taher received commissions to write, Khalifa moved to Paris to work with Peter Brook at his Bouffes du Nord Theater. I became sort of an in-house director for Peter Brook; I was invited there twice a year to give workshops."

Europeans are very fond of coexistence projects, but Henig and her partners in the production adamantly refuse to be labeled in such a narrow way. "They were always trying to present us as a coexistence project, both the Israeli embassies and the Europeans," she says. "But it was written in our contract that the word 'coexistence' shall not appear anywhere. They say, 'Take some money, one Arab, one Jew and a woman and put them in a Volkswagen and do a project.' I received endless proposals like that, but good art doesn't come from that. I myself don't go to see that sort of thing because it's condescending and hollow. A serious artist shouldn't get into this area or cooperate with these acts of deception. That's what's happening more or less in Israeli theater, which is playing the bourgeois Tel Aviv system that cooperates with the 'We must be happy' line and the total escapism."

In May of this year, the Herzliya Ensemble performed "The Town of the Little People" at the Barbican (in addition to performances at festivals in Poland and New York ). The invitation was a result of the personal relationships that Henig struck up while putting on "In Spitting Distance" there. "When I started the rehearsals, I already knew that I had an invitation to London. With the folktale project I'm working on now, we've already been invited to a festival in Zurich, to Peter Brook and the Barbican. Beyond the financial aspect, it's an expression of faith and it's very exciting and allows me to work in a long-range way."

The theater that excites Henig the most is far from the mainstream of Israeli theater and even further from the kind of profitable theater that can put on 500 performances of a show. The theater that excites Henig is elitist and appeals to a small audience that's looking for art rather than entertainment. "I'm very much against theater that offers nothing but thrills, and most of the theater industry in Israel is like that. To me it almost borders on fascism. It's a reflection of the lowest type of thinking. Whoever does that kind of theater is treating the audience like one big lump. They're saying: 'The audience won't like this, the audience will like this.' You can't create a significant work while trying to please everyone all the time. That's just not possible. I know that more and more people have fled from this kind of theater. I get angry when I sit and see a play that is manipulative from beginning to end. Aggressive, fascist and brutal manipulation. I could put in music that will make you cry at a certain moment, but I can't leave my work of art there. It has to go through something else, so that you'll come out with thoughts and questions."

Maybe we prefer not to ask questions?

"There's a connection between the brutalization of a society that cannot distinguish between art and entertainment - which is something that is becoming ever more grotesque, and the occupation. I absolutely think that the occupation corrupts. Period. The trouble is that it has also entered the field of people of culture, who were supposed to embody an alternative, but this other notion of theater is taking over everywhere in a flurry of power struggles, of total imperialism that says success equals 500 performances. When you're doing a very complex piece of art, it's impossible to put it on 500 times. This doesn't happen anywhere else in the world, only in Israel. The theater has lost a lot of subscribers because of this."

She says that theater critics, for the most part, also make things easy for themselves, writing in a flimsy, thumbs-up/thumbs-down kind of way, just telling people to either hurry to the theater or to stay home. Henig detests that, and longs for the days of the in-depth and learned analyses that used to be written by Haim Gamzu and his contemporaries.

"I don't get offended or angry anymore over a bad review. I know it's all a marketing tool. The newspapers don't give serious space to criticism. There's no discussion of the work, except on the level of whether or not it was enjoyable. In my opinion, that doesn't matter at all. What matters is how you decipher the work, what its place is in relation to other works and its place in relation to other works by the same director.

"In the history of Israeli theater, the reviews they write are irrelevant. Compared to what's happening in the world, here there is no discussion, and it doesn't affect anything beyond ticket sales. They let all kinds of people who have no knowledge or perspective write columns about theater. It's not respectable and it's unprofessional. Not long ago there was an interview with Miki Gurevitch, one of the most important people in Israeli theater, and 80 percent of the interview dealt with the fact that he had a daughter at an advanced age, and the writer asked him if he was happy or not. I was in shock. More than half the world has kids at an older age - so what? Here you have a marvelous opportunity for an intelligent conversation, and she didn't ask him a single significant question about theater and society, about theater and Jerusalem. It's not serious. It's just lowly sensationalism."

Who else would you like to direct whom you haven't so far?

"There are three people I feel I missed out on. I never got to meet Nissim Aloni. We were planning to do something with Yossi Banai, but then he got sick. And I once had a cup of coffee with Nissim Azikri at Habima, but that was all. I've never seen any Russian theater do 'Uncle Vanya' as well as Azikri did it at Habima.W