Why Don’t They Want to See Israeli Plays in America?

Guy Ben-Aharon stages Israeli plays in Boston, including works by Joshua Sobol – it’s a tough gig, both agree.

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Israeli Stage founder Guy Ben-Aharon, at the Cameri Theater, January 20, 2016.
Israeli Stage founder Guy Ben-Aharon, at the Cameri Theater, January 20, 2016.Credit: Daniel Tchetchik

Walking through the labyrinth of corridors backstage at Tel Aviv’s Cameri Theater, director Guy Ben-Aharon has time to think about the play “Ghetto” by Joshua Sobol. Ben-Aharon founded and runs Boston’s Israeli Stage , which specializes in readings and performances of Israeli plays. (The works, along with plays from Austria, Germany and Switzerland, are all translated into English.)

One rainy afternoon last week, Ben-Aharon met up with actress Ola Shor Selektar, who had just returned to the Cameri after a morning performance of “Ghetto” in Modi’in. “Who wants to see ‘Ghetto’ early in the morning?” he wondered, apparently forgetting that the work is the most successful Israeli play ever, having been produced in 25 countries since its 1984 premieres in Berlin and Haifa. It has also been produced in the United States.

We walk past a huge portrait of the late Hanoch Levin – another pillar of Israeli theater who also earned great success worldwide, although, like many of his compatriots, his plays are rarely staged in the United States – and finally locate the exit. Even though Ben-Aharon has staged plays in Boston by both Levin and Sobol, it’s hard to ignore the difficulty he and others face in bringing Israeli theater to the U.S. stage.

While a number of playwrights, including Edna Mazya and Yosef Bar-Yosef, have enjoyed great success in Europe, the United States is almost off-limits to them. Data gathered by Haaretz – with the assistance of the Hanoch Levin Institute of Israeli Drama – paints a clear picture: From 2010 to 2015, between 30 to 50 Israeli plays were produced annually (or had dramatic readings) around the world, but only a fifth of those took place in the United States. And last year, of the 39 productions of Israeli plays outside Israel, only four (about 10 percent) were in the United States. Canonical playwrights like Levin, Sobol, Mazya and Motti Lerner enjoy far greater success in Europe, and even South America, than in America.

Since its inaugural season in 2010-2011, Israeli Stage has performed 21 Israeli plays in its small 100-seat auditorium in Boston. Although there were some full productions, most have been readings – including works by Sobol, A. B. Yehoshua, Gilad Evron and Savyon Liebrecht.

Ben-Aharon, 25, was born in Israel and his family moved to Massachusetts when he was 9. He studied theater at Emerson College in downtown Boston, specializing in directing and arts management.

Actors Tamar Keinan and Avi Kushnir during a read-through of 'The World Fixer' at the Cameri Theater, Tel Aviv.Credit: Daniel Tchetchik

The Z word

He visited Israel this month, where he also made his Israeli debut as a director on a reading of the play “The World Fixer,” by late Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard.

Ben-Aharon says his motivation for Israeli Stage is not Zionist in nature. Because he doesn’t live in Israel, he doesn’t call himself a Zionist, Mind you, he doesn’t define himself as American or Israeli, either. “People ask me, ‘Is your project Zionist? Does it promote Israel?’ But I’m not promoting any State of Israel,” he says. “Maximum, I give our perspective – shine a light on something that’s not being seen.”

His main interest, he says, is in creating a cultural bridge between Americans and Israelis through texts that will expose the Americans – who he sees as very closed off – to a different perspective. One example is Gilad Evron’s “Ulysses on Bottles,” about an Israeli-Arab literature teacher (nicknamed Ulysses) who’s arrested after trying to sail on a raft to Gaza, in order to teach Russian literature, and the Jewish attorney who takes on his case pro bono. Ben-Aharon staged the play in his 2015 season.

“Someone can see ‘Ulysses on Bottles’ and say, ‘What a screwed-up country!’ and ‘What are they doing in Gaza?’ But they also start to think about what they themselves are doing and what they’re ignoring in their day-to-day lives – like the attorney in ‘Ulysses’ ignores Gaza,” he says. “I don’t think Americans have a particular taste, but there are plays that are too specific and have too many Israeli details so they’re impossible to understand. ‘Ulysses’ is an allegory, so they can understand it and make a kind of translation.”

Playwright-director Sobol says that many countries already have an abundance of well-written local plays, making it that much harder for foreign plays to break in. “Who in London, Los Angeles or New York needs absurd Israeli cabaret, or Israeli plays on ultra-Orthodox Jews, love triangles, AIDS, cancer, feminism or LGBT when their markets are already flooded with locally produced plays, in the local stage language, with talented professional productions?” he asks. “They don’t need the ‘well-written plays’ translated from contemporary Israeli-Hebrew into wooden and stiff English that Israeli theater has cultivated for 30 years.”

Sobol says there are Jewish community theaters in New York and Washington – such as Theater J and the Mosaic Theater Company – which have an interest in Israeli plays, similar to Ben-Aharon’s Israeli Stage. In comparison, the high level of commercialism of mainstream U.S. theater – whose owners, much like their counterparts in Israel, are trying to “get people through the door” – means they distance themselves from incendiary content, he adds.

Lerner, who has had a number of plays staged in the United States in recent years, concurs, also noting that political considerations must be added to these economic concerns. “In the United States, similar to Europe, I’m encountering a more and more hostile attitude toward Israeli plays,” he says. “In recent years, most of the Jewish theaters there have closed, and a performance of an Israeli play in a non-Jewish theater is a small miracle.

“The fact that I deal with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict actually limits my possibilities,” he adds. “American theater is wary of political plays, just like Israeli theater is – maybe more so. Israel has become a nuisance, and its conflict has become an even greater nuisance. Fortunately, the vast pluralism that exists in the United States allows me to occasionally find an artistic director who’s been convinced of the universality of a certain play.”

Israeli playwright Joshua Sobol. His plays are regularly performed internationally, except in the United States.Credit: Moti Milrod

So why do Lerner’s plays appear in the United States when Levin’s rarely do – even though Levin’s work is universal and has a poetic quality that has earned him an international reputation? Ben-Aharon believes the answer lies in the cultural differences from when the plays were written. “Lerner writes contemporary things, and contemporary Israeli culture is much more American than the Israeli culture in which Levin lived, which was more Polish and Russian,” he says.

Nonetheless, Ben-Aharon and his actors decided to challenge themselves by performing some of Levin’s works, even though Israeli Stage normally concentrates on works by living playwrights.

Even though they were staged readings rather than full productions, Ben-Aharon was pleased with them and isn’t afraid to criticize what is considered “the real thing” in theater (i.e., fully staged plays). “All the nonsense they place above the text hides it many times and also weighs it down,” he says. “If you have dialogue as wonderful as that of Bernhard, Beckett, Sobol or Levin, you don’t need to dress it up too much with your interpretation. You also see the audience is much more involved in readings than in full productions. In a full production you sink into your seat because everything happens in front of you, but in a dramatic reading you lean forward because you must listen to the text,” he explains.

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