Rain and Politics Take Their Respective Tolls on Top Israeli Theater Festival

This year's event clearly attracted a much more religious, right-wing audience than in the past

A scene from 'ThisAbility' at the Acre Fringe Festival, October 2017.
Rami Shllush

Following a lot of political fuss that led to changes in the repertoire and a boycott by artists, this year’s Acre Fringe Theater Festival finally got underway this week. But rainy weather killed the momentum, attendance was sparse and many who did come were largely there to show their ideological support for an event perceived as religious and right-wing.

As the rain came pouring down on Monday, a festival worker was trying to use a broom to push water off the awnings over the ticket booths. “The rain really messed up the festival and yesterday it broke up early,” the taxi driver had told me on the way from the train station. As the worker was trying to push off the rainwater, another worker warned him to watch out and be careful not to let the water drip on an older religious couple who were standing in line. On her cell phone, the woman showed a message from the right-wing group My Israel, offering discounted tickets to the event. This year’s festival clearly attracted a much more religious audience than in the past. The festival ended Tuesday.

In the wake of the festival steering committee’s refusal to approve the play “Prisoners of the Occupation” and subsequent changes made to the repertoire, many theater artists and theatergoers decided to boycott the event. The surrounding green spaces were practically deserted. By the side of the lawn, the Rubinstein family was eagerly awaiting the day’s performances. They had come from the Efrat settlement for ideological reasons. This was their first time at the festival. Son Uri, who is studying filmmaking, selected the plays for them, including “The City of Fortune” by a theater ensemble from Tekoa. “We heard about the artists’ cancellations and that pushed us to come,” said Rachel, the mother. “We came to support right-wing, religious theater.”

In general, the positions expressed by Culture Minister Miri Regev seemed to have made an impact among the festival-goers. Rachel’s husband Hanan said: “It’s a matter of consensus among us that we’re against plays that depict the country in a negative light. Right-wing plays can also present a distorted view of the country. I have no problem with freedom of speech or with people expressing themselves and speaking out against the country, but I don’t think that the government should fund them. It’s fine by me if people want to say that the country is terrible and Bibi is the devil, but the government shouldn’t be funding that. Regev is right about that.”

Their son Uri took a somewhat different view. “I don’t care if leftists are in the festival or who’s behind the plays, as long as the plays are good and of high quality,” he said. “I’m not coming here just because there are plays by right-wing or religious playwrights. I’m here to see plays and I’d rather it not all be a monochromatic reflection of one particular political camp or type of crowd.”

Erez Hasson, a member of the artistic committee, stood at the entrance to Knights Hall A (where, last year, Einat Weitzman’s play “Palestine, Year Zero” was presented, causing an uproar of its own), waiting for the last audience members to file in to see Barak Ben-David’s play “LOR(c)A.” “Yesterday, there was about a 10-percent difference in the audience size compared to last year. That was the first day of the festival, and usually the second day is the strongest. But then we got the rain. No one is coming here to demonstrate. There’s no talk about it,” said Hasson.

Inside the theater, high school students from Shoham specializing in theater were waiting for the play to start. The theater students come to Acre every year for the festival, but this year they made the trip without their teacher, who declined to join them because of the artists’ boycott, although he gave them his blessing. Talking to some of the students, the big question that seemed to be on their minds was – will there be nudity? “It made me uncomfortable last year the first time I saw a penis in a play, and when there was somebody who was peed on,” said one twelfth-grader, recalling one of the plays in the 2016 festival. “I didn’t get what the peeing was about.”

Whether to the delight or disappointment of the high-schoolers who filled the theater, the four Spanish actors in “LOR(c)A” remained dressed in tight white boxers – which was cause enough for some excited whispering in the crowd.

By the time the play was over, the sun was shining down on the festival grounds again. One of the Spanish actors, Javier Prieto, sat down outside for a little break, while the lawn filled with a number of religious families with children listening to an actor wearing a burlap sack talk about Acre’s history. “I heard about the boycott but when it comes down to it, this is a festival that’s promoting art and all we’re trying to do is put on the play, which is about homosexuality and is important to us to perform,” Prieto said. “Art is art and politics is politics, and the response we’ve received so far has been very positive.”

German playwright Inge Paul, a guest of the festival’s artistic director Moni Yosef, said: “I understood that this was a case of censorship and I understand those who say this is a reason to boycott the event. Moni told me that if there was no festival this year there won’t be one next year, and I understand the conflict.”

Not far from the lawn, two couples in their 50s from central Israel were discussing the plays they’d seen. They’d been coming to the festival for many years, and they noticed the smaller crowds this year and what they called the “Haredization” of the event. They all liked the play “Tikun Hatzot,” about the conflict between a father and son during the evacuation of a settlement. But the play “Homer Siha,” about sex addiction and sexual harassment, and which included the use of sex toys, was blasted by the men. “It didn’t need to be so brutal,” said Danny, who was there with his wife Tzahala. “I felt like getting up and walking out in the middle. It’s a known and painful subject, and it can be addressed, but not this way, not in such a brutal manner.”

When the subject of the “Prisoners of the Occupation” episode came up, the two couples took opposite views. Danny and Tzahala thought Weitzman went too far. “We didn’t like what Einat Weitzman was doing here,” said Tzahala. “She’s going too far to the other side. There’s a limit to what people want to see.” Her husband Danny added: “Regev was right about this. The state can’t be funding things that are against it.” Their friends Tali and David said: “Leave it to the public to judge. You shouldn’t use the budget to influence content.”

Unlike past years, when many fringe and repertory theater people would fill the grounds, this year they were nowhere in sight. And the culture minister, who was a major topic of conversation around the festival, was not in attendance either, as she was off on a family vacation in Cuba. Perhaps the only familiar figure on the scene was Culture Administration director Galit Wahba-Shasho. She was in a half-empty theater watching a performance of “ThisAbility,” which comprises two dance pieces: Keren Nutik’s “Rak al Atzmi” and Nicole Mahler’s “Porno Hashra’a.” In the second piece, two female dancers in wheelchairs performed alongside two able-bodied female dancers. “We all need kindness,” sang one of the dancers. Here’s hoping that the storm will pass and that next year’s festival won’t need any special kindnesses.