The Inevitable Demise of an Israeli Theater Company

Why was the Herzliya Ensemble shut down, 13 years after it was founded, and did it ever stand a chance?

Last Wednesday Herzliya Mayor Yehonatan Yasur summoned Oded Kotler, the executive director of the Herzliya Ensemble, and informed him of the theater's closure. If anyone wondered why on earth a mayor would close down a municipal theater, and whether this was even possible, the answer came the next day. As in every decision that is not purely artistic, the public board of the theater has the sole authority. The mayor convened the board, of which he is chairman, introduced his resolution and received its approval.

Even before discussing the theater company, its history, accomplishments and problems, it is clear that this story points to one of those problems. The Herzliya Ensemble is not alone in this. When the mayor of a city that provides around NIS 3 million of a municipal theater company's annual budget of about NIS 5 million is also the chairman of the ensemble's public board, then the whole concept of a cultural institution supported by public funds having a public board, ostensibly to keep the people with the money at an "arm's length" from the people who make the decisions,, becomes meaningless, a sad joke.

Nonetheless Yasur's predecessor Yael German (who is now the minister of health) played a major role in establishing the ensemble, one of whose purposes was to take advantage of the fact that such prominent theater figures as Hanna Meron, Leora Rivlin and Gedalia Besser are Herzliya residents. Had it not been for German’s involvement, in 2000, the company would not have been founded, nor would it have survived 13 crisis-filled years.

For the first few years performances were held in a tent next to the municipal soccer stadium, under Besser's artistic direction. This was followed by a move to the new Herzliya Performing Arts Center, which turned out to be totally unsuitable, by Besser’s resignation as director - in part due to a lack of funds in 2007 - and the appointment of Ofira Henig as artistic director, with Anat Radnay as an executive director..

In 2008 the ensemble moved to its own theater downtown, with a 280-seat auditorium. After a financial debacle Daniel Alter was hired, alongside Henig, to bring in audiences while changing the nature of the company. Then Henig was fired and Kotler became an interim executive director in 2011, all in an attempt to overcome the ensemble's growing budget deficit.

Perhaps if German were still mayor and still in Meretz (she switched to Yesh Atid for her Knesset race), things would have been different. We can't be sure, though, because the odds are against a publicly funded theater in Herzliya, which in effect is a suburb of the cultural capital of Tel Aviv, at a time when a theater must be commercially successful in order to be eligible for government subsidies.

Pandering to audiences
Over the course of more than three decades of public subsidies for Israeli theater, a single model of support has become entrenched. The national and local governments contribute to the budgets of active theater companies. These contributions are limited by the size of the state budget and are always in danger of being slashed. Neither the state (nor the municipalities) can promise a certain level of funding, but neither do they restrict the theaters’ activities or budget. In practice the sole condition is that the theater’s budget be balanced.

A High Court of Justice petition filed by theaters claiming unfair discrimination in the distribution of support in the 1990s led to the formulation of criteria for allocating funds. The criteria do not deal with questions like the quality or type of production (apart from an emphasis on original Hebrew plays); funds are apportioned in accordance with the extent of the activity.

The managements of Tel Aviv-based companies - Habima, Cameri and Beit Lessin - have learned to work within the existing reality. They have considerably expanded their activity in their home theaters and elsewhere, increased the number of production and the length of the runs to satisfy audience demand, including in cities with active, subsidized municipal theaters (Haifa Be’er Sheva, Jerusalem) and have developed extensive marketing operations.

The extent of the activity and its nature have necessitated a kind of activity that is on and beyond the border of the commercial, which doesn’t require much intellectual or emotional effort from the audience to which it tries to pander and give enjoyment. This extensive form of activity enables these theaters to turn from time to time to theatrical work for its own sake, which focuses on the doing, a statement, quality, searching and experimentation.

This formula is sustained mainly at the Cameri Theater. It cannot be applied to smaller theaters with limited budgets, and certainly not in a suburb of Tel Aviv like Herzliya. Thus, when the Herzliya Theater Ensemble was established in 2000 and performed in a romantic tent where there weren’t many seats, it in any case could not have undertaken extensive and ongoing activity with no income of its own. Regrettably, not a single one of the productions during Besser’s tenure as manager became imprinted in the public memory as an artistic success, even if among them there were some good and interesting productions.

On her own path

The last production during Besser’s time, in which he participated as an actor and not as director, was Patrick Marber's “Dealer’s Choice” (“Poker” in Hebrew). Ofira Henig’s hiring to replace Besser was a conscious gamble on the part of the Herzliya municipality. Henig, who had previously managed the Jerusalem Khan Theater, did not promise to capture an audience but rather to challenge it with a repertoire and its production.

What happened to Henig was what happened to Gadi Roll, who replaced Zipi Pines in the management of the Be’er Sheva Theater in the 1990s, and to Doron Tavori during the short period he managed the Haifa Theater in 2005. All three of them, who abhorred the path that sanctified expanding the theater’s activity and making it willy-nilly semi…commercial, turned consistently in the other direction: loyalty to themselves and their statement (and that of the artists they chose to work with). And they were not prepared to make the change gradually.

But it is impossible to keep a theater going without trying to win the heart of the audience. There are few theatergoers who are open to complex and unpleasant statements. In the world of the Herzliya Ensemble therefore plays were not performed every night and when they were performed the house was not always full. For its part, the municipality allocated millions of shekels to the company every year (an estimated NIS 35 million over 13 years, or about NIS 2.5 million per year. With a budget like that, it is barely possible to do decent fringe theater, but there is no way to make it even partly commercial).

If anyone in Herzliya believed that Daniel Alter as executive director would be able to create in the hall theatrical activity that would yield income and enable Henig to create her own kind of theater – he (or she) was ignorant of the social reality in this country. Henig continued to march along her own path and the last series of productions in the ensemble auditorium under her management were political, interesting, committed and different from anything else, even if they were not always communicative.

Culture without a voice
And then came Oded Kotler, perhaps one of the most experienced people in theatrical activity in public frameworks and without a doubt an experienced politician in the world of the Israeli theater. Therefore it is quite surprising that he reacted with astonishment to having the ensemble shut down on him in the course of what should have been another recovery move in the wake of a deficit.

Kotler brought with him people who had worked and succeeded with him in Israeli theater in the past, among them writer A.B. Yehoshua. He also put on an adaptation of Amos Oz’s novel “Fima,” directed by Nola Chelton, as well as two original Hebrew plays, “Avram” by David Levin and “Foes” by Ya’akov Eyali, which he also directed. He did not succeed in making them - in my opinion, of course - impressive productions.

In the 13 years that have gone by since the founding of the ensemble the working conditions of Israeli theaters have not improved. If they have changed at all it has been for the worse, in the sense that the majority of the public has no patience for theater for theater’s sake.

In the recent general election the word “culture” did not appear in any party platforms, and after the election no representative of the "new politics" fought for the culture portfolio.

Herzliya will go to the polls again to elect a mayor in October. In contrast to his predecessor Yasur seems not to think theater in Herzliya is important matter in and of itself, and certainly not a matter to which money should be directed that cannot be depicted afterward as a productive investment.

Yasur has concluded, correctly I fear, that supporting a local theater will not bring him votes. The end of this theater was inherent in its beginning, in the sad reality whereby it is impossible to do theater in this country with establishment support unless there is a strong commercial aspect to it. And the Herzliya theater could not have had any such aspect.

Gadi Dagon
Gadi Dagon