Train Theater Puppeteers Still on Track After 25 Years

Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis
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Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis

The entrance foyer of the Jerusalem Theater's Sherover Hall had a festive look yesterday: some 50 theater puppets that have starred over the last 25 years in performances of the Train Theater in Jerusalem were on display on a red carpet as a tribute to the veteran institution. The colorful puppets, which in theater performances always seemed to be alive, were placed motionless on four stages designed to look like large limbs: two hands, a face and a leg.

The Train Theater's staff wanted to enable the puppets to bow as a gesture to the artists and audiences that have kept the unique theater alive for the last quarter century. The Israel Festival, which is now under way at the Jerusalem Theater, is hosting this exhibit as part of its program.

The Train Theater, which has gained international recognition and status, has been operating, since its establishment, out of an old train car located at the edge of the capital's Liberty Bell Park. Four young artists - Hadas Ofrat, Mario Kotlier, Alina Eshbal and Michael Schuster - originally decided to transform the scrap heap into an artistic institution. "Michael found the car in a scrap warehouse in Tel Aviv after seeing a newspaper ad, and planned to place it atop a hill in the Galilee and use it as a home," recalls Ofrat, who is also the exhibit's curator. "But because of the size of the train car, around 24 meters, he suggested we turn it into a puppet theater." The old blue car has over the years been transformed into a major cultural institution: every year it offers 1,400 performances in Israel and another 200 plays at international festivals. The Train Theater Association later founded the International Puppet Theater Festival in Jerusalem, the Habamah Theater - now known as Hazira (Performance Art) - in Jerusalem, and the School of Visual Theater.

Alongside the puppets, the exhibition also features 25 photos documenting the life of the theater. Ofrat recently recalled the theater archive and albums of the proud puppeteers, and selected 25 milestones from them: one photo, from the days of the Gulf War, depicts a special bus trip taken by the Train Theater's performers to small communities throughout Israel in order to perform for their residents; another photo depicts the Train Theater's visit to an African village; and a third photo shows a special project in which the theater's performers escorted children in the oncology ward at Hadassah Hospital in Ein Karem to the operating room.

In addition, Ofrat recently completed a special documentary film about those behind the puppet theater. The film, "Kidat Habubnai" (The Puppeteer's Bow) describes, among other things, the artist's dependence on the puppet he has built: "Whoever listens to the interviewees in the film will be able to hear some difficult things," Ofrat says. "I asked the interviewees not to prepare and to open in my presence the storage spaces and bags in which they store the puppets they created. This nostalgic encounter immediately was transformed into a story about the lives of the puppeteers," she says. "They say a puppet is dependent, that the moment it is set down it dies. Yitzhak Pecker, a veteran puppeteer I interviewed, said it's hard for him to part, that he can't leave the puppet when the performance ends. The puppet in many cases becomes a mirror of the puppeteer."

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