Former Center Stage Director Sets Up New Theater Company in the Capital

Rafi Poch says amateur English-language theater can benefit young immigrants who arrive with their families.

Half a year after one of Jerusalem's most active Anglo theater companies was forced to fold for lack of funding, its former artistic director is introducing a new theater company to the capital. Despite competition from at least four other English-language theater companies in the area, Center Stage Theater's Rafi Poch is resuscitating the group, starting with a series of acting classes, saying he believes that it fills an important niche.

The theater officially ended operations in February when the Young Judaea youth movement shut down the Merkaz Hamagshimim community center, which had hosted the production company.

Rafi Poch

Poch, originally from Toronto and active in the local English-language theater scene for over a decade, is parlaying support from AACI and other Anglo organizations to get the fledgling troupe back on its feet. "I turned a hobby from college into a full-time job, which is amazing, it's kind of a dream," says Poch. But he also wants J-Town to make many people's dreams comes true, he says, just like Center Stage - which he directed for five years - before it.

Poch says amateur English-language theater can benefit young immigrants who arrive with their families. "They don't necessarily acclimatize so well to Israeli culture, they don't go into the Israeli youth groups so much," says Poch. "These kids made aliyah when they're 10, 12, and they just never made the switch completely, and they needed a place to be accepted, and not just be accepted, but be given a project and given responsibility."

When then-17-year-old Joshie Trachtman wanted to direct a production of the popular musical 'Grease' in which every role, both on- and off-stage, would be filled by young adults like himself, Poch took Trachtman under his wing and convinced his colleagues at the Encore Theater Company to help make Trachtman's dream come true. "The theater was a really great place for it," says Poch. "We found through doing shows like this that the theater really becomes a place where the teenage actors can find a home. There's a home away from home," he says.

Yakir Feldman, 56, a Philadelphia native who lives with his family in Beit Shemesh, is full of praise for Poch and the English-language theater scene in Jerusalem for these reasons. "I can give you names of kids whose lives have been transformed - not just something nice added, but life literally transformed - by the theater experience," he says. He includes his son Coren, who played the leading role in the Center Stage Theater production of '13,' in this category. "It transformed all of our lives, our whole family. My wife started doing makeup, and I started acting," he adds. "For father-son experiences, the best parts of my relationship with my son are all related to theater."

Center Stage also created a safe space for Orthodox Jews to collaborate on theater projects with secular Israelis. Certain halachic restrictions prohibit observant Jews from performing some of the acts that would normally be expected of actors on a secular stage, like touching unrelated members of the opposite sex. A group of women in Gush Etzion formed the female-only Raise Your Spirits Theater Company a decade ago to provide a venue for Orthodox women with the acting bug. But Center Stage endeavored to find creative ways that would allow both permissive people and more conservative community members to collaborate on stage.

"It was a portal for religious people who love acting, and don't necessarily want to act in a single-sex cast to have that experience," says Anna Cohen, 25, a native New Yorker now living in the neighborhood of Katamon, who, with her husband Ilan, co-starred in a 2010 run of Neil Simon's "Barefoot in the Park," which Poch directed. The storyline follows a newlywed couple and obviously involves intimacies such as hand-holding, but since the Cohens observe family purity laws which restrict physical contact at certain times of the month, they had to alter the script in order to play their roles.

"Rafi thought he was getting a bonus because he was getting a married couple to play the role of a married couple, and in the end it was more than he bargained for," laughs Anna. "But the flexibility that they showed was remarkable." In the end, she says, the script was modified in such a way that the plot would flow seamlessly without the audience feeling awkward, and the Cohens could still uphold their religious convictions. "I'm eternally grateful for the opportunity to have starred onstage with my husband. It was a priceless experience," she says.

Cohen adds that the efforts Center Stage made to be inclusive were not only extended to Orthodox Jews, but to every segment of Israeli society. The group performed the racy musical "RENT" last year, and reprised scenes from the play for an audience of social justice activists on Rothschild Boulevard last month. "It wasn't only in terms of religiosity: Jewish, not Jewish, in Israel for a short period of time, gay, straight, whatever. It was a real mix of people, which you would expect to find in the acting world," says Anna. "It's the community theater, where everyone is welcome, and everyone is made to feel cared for."