Behind the Financial Curtain: Israeli Theaters' Misguided Star System

The arrival of Sir Patrick Stewart in Israel to appear in a local film provides the perfect example of how the theatrical star payment system should work.

In a column here a while ago, I wrote about the fate of the rookie actor. Now it seems appropriate to deal with the other end of the scale as well: the professional lives of the stars of Israeli theater.

This "stars of Israeli theater" category requires some qualification. First of all there is the issue of astronomy - and no, we are not talking about pay (we will get to that later, because any discussion of art ultimately works its way around to money matters ). Rather, we mean their status: in their own eyes, their colleagues' and the audience's.

The relativity of this is well illustrated by an anecdote that brings together, on an opera rehearsal stage, the Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini and the legendary soprano, Maria Callas. This same anecdote is related with differing casts of characters and it is apparently "generic" - that is, there is no certainty it actually happened but given the nature of the medium and the personas, it could have happened. I have chosen Toscanini and Callas because they were known for being hot-tempered and were also very aware of their own status. During the course of a rehearsal, when the maestro insisted on criticizing the diva, she bristled: "Maestro, I am the star here!" To which he replied: "My dear lady, stars are only in the heavens."

The second qualification is in the matter of geography. This is an article about stars in the heavens of Israeli theater. And though I greatly admire the acting level on Israel's stages, unlike what they themselves, their agents and the theater managers of Israel think, the heavens of the theaters here do not resemble the celestial reaches of Broadway in New York and the West End in London.

When we talk about theater stars in Israel, the reference is to that not very large group of actors and actresses who are not permanently tied - organizationally or artistically - to one of the country's publicly-subsidized theater companies. These are artists who, even if they start out on the stage, have won most of their fame either as light entertainers (in various kinds of stand-up, as a singer or as a presenter ) or on television, in dramatic series or soaps, or on the big screen, in films.

Unlike actors who have pursued all or most of their artistic career in the theater, where an employment contract is seasonal or for several seasons, the contracts with the stars - who usually have agents - are subject to negotiation. Star pay per evening is usually stipulated in dollars (in good times this was in the vicinity of $1,100 to $1,200 ). Of equal importance is the commitment on the theater's part to a minimal number of performances per month: Because if a production featuring a star only runs once a month, then even with $1,000 for the night it is impossible to make it through the month.

Theoretically, the marriage between an actor - the bulk of whose artistic work is the creation of roles in a dramatic framework, including continuous rehearsals for the production, sometimes over the course of months - and a theater is driven by an artistic aim.

From the actors' perspective, this may be in order to experience the "bread and butter" of the art of acting, with a flesh and blood audience, in something that happens live, subject to the laws and the conventions of the ancient art of drama, in which there are elements of entertainment but also "something" else.

From the theater's perspective, the director may deem the actor capable of creating and giving the audience something unique in a particular role - and in a more interesting way than members of the permanent troupe could do it.

Over the market rate

That is the theory. As usual, this is more beautiful than the reality. In everyday life, both sides have their cost-benefit considerations, which aren't necessarily "artistic." The theater needs a name that can "sell" a production to large audiences, without any necessary connection to the play and the quality of the production; a name that will attract ticket buyers, especially representatives of groups of buyers (workers; committees, representatives of subscription programs at regional auditoriums ). From the perspective of the actors-entertainers and their agents, this is also a way to exploit the potential that has been built up in one area (television, say ) in another area (the theater ), which is prepared to pay more than "the market rate" for this.

The issue of paying over the market rate is the focal point of criticism over theater stars' pay. This is reiterated ever more strongly whenever discussions arise about the (invariably ) fragile state of repertory theaters, which are for the most part in the red.

When public theater managers recently voiced complaints about how ticket prices in bloc sales were too low - therefore leading to deficits - the immediate response was: Don't pay outrageous sums to "stars" and you won't have deficits. Incidentally, the information about the "outrageous" sums usually becomes known as follows: Shortly after the director of a theater complains that the state is not budgeting enough for the theaters, someone leaks the cost of the pay for certain actors, in comparison to the specific theater's deficit. (I assume the information doesn't come from the actors whose pay is leaked, nor the theaters that are paying it - which only leaves one source in possession of the details.)

The names are not a big secret and I have no special interest in bandying them about. The problem concerns mainly the large theaters - the Cameri, Habima and especially Beit Lessin, where most of the first-rank actors are employed on a kind of rate-per-performance contract, with a commitment for a certain number of performances monthly. This is also why most of the expensive productions, which involve pay for stars, are initially marketed as being for "a limited number of performances" until it is clear what the fate of the production is.

And here another important point must be noted: The stars themselves earn their pay honestly. They, or their agents, have assessed that this is what they are worth, with respect to their artistic and market value.

I might think that a stand-up entertainer or successful television star will not successfully deliver quality theatrical acting (even if he has studied acting), and that the person who casts him, and anyone who buys a ticket to see him is striking a bad deal. I might think that before I have seen the result, and also after I have seen the result.

Theater managers or audience members or other critics might say of me that I am mistaken artistically, or that the marketing investment has proved itself. But that is not the point; the point is exactly how much the cost of these stars is more than the market rate. And here is where the difference between little Tel Aviv and big Broadway and the West End comes into play.

The fact that Sir Patrick Stewart is currently here shooting an Israeli movie ("Hunting Elephants" ) can clarify the essence of this difference. To the general audience, Stewart is known as Capt. Jean-Luc Picard, the captain of the starship Enterprise from the television series "Star Trek: The Next Generation," which was filmed in Hollywood from 1987 to 1994. However, even then he was a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company (where he played both Macbeth and Prospero ), and also acted at the National Theater in London.

His television success, which was at a pay level completely different from that of the public theater in England, and also that of the commercial theater in New York, made him a star and also led to a film career where the pay is very different from what is usual in the theater. This is what enabled him to find the time to go back to the stage in order to act "for real." Thus, in recent years I have seen him at the Royal Shakespeare Company both as Mark Antony in "Antony and Cleopatra" and as Claudius in "Hamlet." He was wonderful in both roles. To my regret I did not manage to see him in Samuel Beckett's "Waiting for Godot," opposite Ian McKellen, in the West End.

He is just one example. It is possible to list many film stars who make appearances on theater stages in London or New York, in large or small dramatic roles. The rule is that they see theater as an artistic challenge and can allow themselves to accept the standard theatrical rate (the actors union contracts in London and New York are usually clearer and more binding than those in Israel, which apply to most actors but not the stars ). In a radio interview in London I once heard a film star (I no longer remember who ) relate that, for him, performing onstage was equivalent to winning his spurs - a comparison from the world of horsemanship. That is to say, a kind of acceptance into the professional order.

In Israel, there is not such a big financial gap between film or television work and the usual pay for stage work. But then again, the professional or artistic challenge on a theater stage in Israel is not always the peak of Mt. Everest. However, the competition among theater managers (mainly from the big three theaters ) for "hot" names is untrammeled and huge. Were the managers able to agree among themselves that there are prices they are not prepared to pay to stars - just as there are prices at which they are not prepared to sell tickets - and if they were to trust one another to keep those agreements, that would already be a good start.

But all this makes no difference to what is important to remember: the performing artist's right to demand the sum he thinks his performance is worth. They did not steal their talent from anyone else, and the vast majority of them have earned their reputation by hard work. It is true that sometimes some of them value themselves beyond their true worth (but who doesn't? I do the same in my own field ). But the problem is not what they ask. As long as there is someone willing to pay them, it is not their problem. It is the problem of those who pay them, who do not assess correctly the value of the field in which they engage. And here every theater manager makes his own reckoning - of his conscience and of his box office.

Sir Patrick Stewart as William Shakespeare in a performance of  “Bingo” in London earlier this year