Israeli-born Guy Ben-Aharon staged his first play reading four years ago, as a 19-year-old first-year student at Emerson College in Boston, where he was studying directing.
The program’s director suggested that he direct a reading of an Israeli play. So Ben-Aharon chose “Possessions” by A. B. Yehoshua, a family drama about a mother who moves to a nursing home and wants to divide her few possessions among her children. He had the play in English translation and thought it would be appropriate for an American audience.
The first performance of the reading took place in November 2010, in a small auditorium at the Goethe-Institut Boston. Despite the organizers’ low expectations, about 100 people came to see it and there weren’t enough chairs for everyone - probably because Will LeBow a leading Boston actor Ben-Aharon’s acting teacher, was one of the participants. Ben-Aharon refers to him as “Boston’s Moni Moshonov.”
The reading was so successful that it paved the way for Israeli Stage, a series of dramatic readings of Israeli plays, with prominent Boston actors in the leading roles. It is a niche that Ben-Aharon has carved out for himself, according to an article in the Boston Globe. Now he intends to branch out into actual stage productions.
My meeting with Ben-Aharon, 23, took place when he visited Israel about two months ago for a conference held by ROI Community, a global network that brings Jewish social entrepreneurs together from all over the world. He was frenetic, going from one idea to the next, and didn’t look much different from the group of young Americans stopping for a short break in a cafe near the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem.
But unlike his peers who are taking their first steps into their careers, Ben-Aharon is already far along the road to making his dreams come true. He says he has two goals: to bring Israel’s cultural industry to the United States and to show the Americans a different kind of theater. Americans, he says, only see plays in English and mainly from their own country; they see almost no plays in translation. So “A Night in May” by A. B. Yehoshua — Israeli Stage’s first production — which tells the story of a Jerusalem family on the eve of the Six Day War, exposed the audience to a reality that was new to them.
The subject was not completely alien to them, however. “There are families in the U.S. that go through it, too. It’s not foreign to the Americans today,” he says.
With Ulysses in Gaza
Ben-Aharon arrived in the U.S. with his parents when he was nine-years-old. But his Hebrew is current, with the deepest nuances of the language, and he has no accent. He discovered theater in school.
“Someone from my class said, ‘Go and join — they’re having tryouts for Mary Poppins.’ I played the banker who laughs himself to death. Suddenly they realized I had a voice.” He turned out to be a wunderkind on the stage. He played piano, sang in the Boston Symphony Orchestra Chorus and directed his class’s senior show in high school. After graduation, he enrolled in Emerson College to study directing and the management of cultural institutions. A year in Spain after he graduated exposed him to anti-Semitism and sharpened his realization that he had to do something about it.
“When I was there, I felt I was more Jewish and Israeli than I thought I was,” he says.
During Israeli Stage’s second year, Ben-Aharon produced a dramatic reading of “Apples from the Desert” by Savyon Liebrecht, and took it on tour to Boston University. “I decided to bring theater to young people,” he says. “If the students are busy with their studies, then why not come to them at the university?” The audience was mostly Jewish students, but the audience at the Goethe-Institut was mixed. Later on, readings were given at retirement homes in Boston. “I have a kind of missionary drive,” Ben-Aharon says. “I think it’s important to reach audiences that don’t get to the theater.”
“My target audience is people who aren’t familiar with Israel,” he says. He wants Americans to get to know Israel in all its complexity, and not just through the narrow political lens of the conflict, or through falafel and hummus.
Israeli Stage, which is funded by CJP and Israel Campus Roundtable, has 11 plays in its repertoire: “The Banality of Love” and “Apples from the Desert” by Liebrecht; “Possessions,” “A Night in May” and “Hand in Hand Together” by A. B. Yehoshua; “Wanderers” and “Sinners” by Joshua Sobol; “Best Friends” by Anat Gov; “At Night’s End” by Motti Lerner and an adaptation of the novel “To the End of the Land” by David Grossman. The latest addition was Gilad Evron’s “Ulysses on Bottles,” about an Arab literature teacher, nicknamed Ulysses, who is arrested for trying to sail a raft of books to Gaza and the Jewish lawyer who defends him.
Recently, Ben-Aharon has begun turning his attention to political plays; the naïve, patriotic stage has become more complex. “Ulysses on Bottles,” which won the Nissim Aloni Prize for best play and best playwright in 2012, has become Israeli Stage’s flagship production. “When people stopped producing the play in Israel, I went to Gilad Evron and told him I’d be happy to produce it,” Ben-Aharon says.
The first staged reading of the play took place during the Operation Pillar of Defense in Gaza in the fall of 2012. “The political circumstances definitely intensified the play’s significance,” Ben-Aharon says, “but the emotional basis is its strongest part.”
Expanding across the Atlantic
The first staged reading of “Ulysses on Bottles” was followed by a discussion between the actors and the audience.
“People asked: How can you put on such a play, which smears Israel? I told them that the job of Israeli Stage is to put on good plays from Israel. It’s that simple. This is the best play I’ve read. In addition, Israeli Stage’s purpose is to give expression to the cultural variety in Israel, and that means choosing plays that are characteristic not only of the mainstream, but also of the minorities that live on its borders.”
“Ulysses on Bottles,” says Ben-Aharon, “allows us to shed light on the experience of Israeli Arabs through their day-to-day contact with Jews.” Still, Ben-Aharon avoids making clear political statements. It seems that he doesn’t want to annoy anyone. He says he is on the left side of the political map, but doesn’t rush to give details.
Ben-Aharon has also begun German Stage, with German plays translated into English. Soon he will branch out into Swiss and French drama and he’s already thinking about an international staged readings festival.
“Americans don’t see non-American theater, and I want to build bridges across the Atlantic,” he says. “It’s like the theaters are afraid of any play that didn’t win a Tony Award, or a play that will never win one. I invite artistic directors and tell them: So what if it wasn’t written in English? It’s a good play. What convinces them is that the best actors in Boston act in the productions.”