BDS on Stage: The Playwrights Who Refuse to Play Along With Israeli Theater

While the political establishment makes a song and dance about every canceled concert here, Israeli theater directors have quietly been receiving numerous rejections in their efforts to stage works by U.K. playwrights in recent years

An anti-Israel demonstration at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, Scotland, in the summer of 2014.
David Cheskin / PA Images via Getty

Cameri Theater Artistic Director Omri Nitzan sits at his computer and searches for the email he recently received. Finding it, he adopts an English accent and reads aloud: “Unfortunately, there are no O’Casey rights currently available for Israel.” He then switches back to his native Hebrew.“We got a crushing response here,” he says angrily. “It’s very insulting to be refused the possibility to mount an O’Casey play because we’re supposedly not worthy of him.”

The O’Casey in question is Seán O’Casey, one of the most important Irish playwrights of the 20th century. Some of his plays previously performed here include “The End of the Beginning” and “Juno and the Paycock.”

This refusal, coming 53 years after the playwright’s death and sent by representatives of his estate – “who generally represent the position of his grandchildren or his agent,” Nitzan explains – swiftly dashed thee artistic director’s dream of having the Cameri stage O’Casey’s 1923 classic “The Shadow of a Gunman.”

Similar emails have also been received by Beit Lessin Theater’s Tzipi Pines and Be’er Sheva Theater’s Rafi Niv. They wished to stage a new production of “Juno and the Paycock,” about the Irish civil war. They, too, had to cancel their plans.

And they aren’t the only ones who have had to turn to look elsewhere after having requests turned down. Similar messages from agencies representing foreign playwrights have been arriving with alarming regularity, both to directors at Israel’s major theaters and independent theater producers.

The wording is nearly always the same: Dry, laconic and ostensibly polite. Only in a few cases are hints offered as to the reason for the refusal, but the Israeli recipients have no doubts: It’s not only touring musicians who decide to skip Israel after receiving a polite request from Roger Waters, or academics who choose to avoid mingling with Israeli colleagues at professional conferences. Playwrights, too – most of them British – are also complying with the demands of the BDS movement, referring to boycotts, divestment and sanctions against Israel.

The fact is, say the theater people, even British playwrights whose work was staged here before are now refusing to sell the rights: playwright and director David Greig, artistic director of the Royal Lyceum Theater in Edinburgh; writer Mark Ravenhill, who first came to prominence in the 1990s with his provocative play “Shopping and Fucking,” and has since become known for his scathing writing on consumer culture; and Sam Holcroft, who was writer-in-residence for the National Theater Studio ... all sent a polite but firm “no.” So did Simon Stephens, the acclaimed British playwright whose works include “Punk Rock,” “Harper Regan” and “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” (based on the novel by Mark Haddon) – all plays that have been performed in the past decade by repertory theaters in Israel.

However, on closer inspection, what looks like an across-the-board boycott turns out to be more complicated and interesting. Sometimes the support for a boycott is in word only, and while playwrights are out signing petitions, contracts are still being signed giving Israeli theaters rights to produce their works. In other cases, past boycotts are lifted and rights are made available again to Israeli artists.

Things can be tricky on the Israeli side, too. Sometimes, theater directors feel offended when turned down by those whose political positions they generally share, and sometimes the sense of rejection appears to be a conditioned reflex when the real reasons for the cancellation are revealed and have nothing to do with the boycott. After all, when the Israeli government wants to magnify the BDS effect for domestic purposes, it’s easy to get carried away by a sense of persecution – even if you’re not a fan of the regime. So is there really a widespread boycott? Or, as with the music concerts, are fewer people boycotting than not? And how are the rejections being handled?

A fascistic approach

The frustration is echoed throughout the Israeli theater world. “In the best case, you get an answer that says something like, ‘Currently the rights are not available to Israel,’ without any explanation, says writer Amir Kliger from the Haifa Theater. “And when you ask a second time they don’t even answer you.”

The Israelis also share the feeling that there’s a foolish dimension to the whole thing, that these rejections are counterproductive. “It’s a shame we didn’t get the rights to ‘Juno and the Paycock’ because it’s an anti-war play and putting it on here could have sent an important message,” says Niv about the O’Casey play. “It shows the foolishness of the boycott.”

A scene from Sean O'Casey's "Juno and the Paycock."
Ruby Washington/NYT

Nitzan, who was among the Israeli theater directors turned down when they tried to obtain the rights to Stephens’ 2015 two-hander “Heisenberg: The Uncertainty Principle” – which had successful productions on Broadway and on London’s West End – also struggles to hide his resentment. “Stephens is a star British playwright these days and ‘Heisenberg’ is still being put on, and I really don’t understand this attitude. He’s refusing due to ‘political conscience,’ but it’s not the Israeli government that’s staging the play; it’s people in Israel who hold views that are different than the government’s and want to stage his work,” he says. “Maybe he’s really boycotting the audience that’s interested in his work and thinks the same as he does? There’s something very fascistic in this boycott stance.”

None of this has stopped Nitzan from applying for staging rights to other British plays. But he admits that neither he nor the agencies through which rights are acquired usually clash with the playwrights or agencies that turn down requests; nor do they try to elicit an explanation for their motives. Pines, who calls the rejection from O’Casey’s representatives “very painful,” also doesn’t believe there is any point in trying to get them to change their minds.

But not everyone is so quick to move onto the next play. In the fringe and independent theater scene, there seems to be more determination to uncover what’s behind the rejections. Jason Danino-Holt, artistic director of Haba’it Theater in Jaffa, was determined to have a direct dialogue with the playwright who refused to give him rights, in order to try to understand – ideologically and practically – the reasons behind the decision and under what conditions, if any, he could still produce the plays in Israel.

The playwright in question was David Greig, whose name has been associated with the boycott movement since he signed a letter calling for the cancellation of performances of “The City,” by Jerusalem’s Incubator Theater, at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2014. Danino-Holt wanted to stage his play “San Diego,” but was turned down.

“This is the first time it ever happened to me, so I was very upset and got into an intensive email correspondence with Greig’s agency and with him too,” he recounts. “I wanted to understand if his ‘no’ was a total prohibition and I raised different possibilities to see how he would respond. For example, that before each performance we would read out a list of 20 or 30 Palestinian casualties of the Israeli occupation. Greig said that would be an interesting gesture and he hoped I’d include it in every work of mine, but that he still wasn’t giving me the play. It was an unequivocal no.”

But when Danino-Holt probed some more by asking if Greig would let him stage the play in a theater that wasn’t supported by the Israeli government, the answer was yes. “I understood that this is the man, these are his politics, and I have to respect that,” he says. “There is something to talk about here regarding obeying one’s conscience and the role of art. But it really aggrieved me that people who have similar political views can’t let each other make art. There’s an element of hypocrisy here, too: If playwrights won’t give their rights to any country where some type of colonialism or war crime is occurring, it will wipe a lot of countries off their map. On the other hand, who is supposed to have values if not intellectuals and playwrights?” Danino-Holt notes that the same agency gave him the rights to another contemporary British play, Martin Crimp’s “Attempts on Her Life,” without any problem.

Conditions attached

Kliger and Haifa Theater Artistic Director Moshe Naor had a similar discussion with Ravenhill. The British playwright’s name has also been linked with the cultural boycott – for one thing when he signed a letter by the organization Artists for Palestine UK in 2015. Naor and Kliger had already clashed with him a year earlier, following the 2014 Gaza war. The two had planned to stage Ravenhill’s play “Product” – about a Hollywood producer who convinces an actress to take part in a movie that examines terrorism stereotypes, and a romance ensues between them. The Israelis had already cast Dvir Benedek in the lead role, but Ravenhill refused to give the Haifa Theater the rights to the play.

From the play "Psychosis 4.48" by Sarah Kane.
Gerard Allon

“I assumed he was afraid that if it were misunderstood, the play would be seen as taking a somewhat racist stance toward terror,” recalls Naor. “So I wrote to him that we understand his nuanced message about the complexity with which this supposedly enlightened industry creates stereotypes and exploits primitive feelings in order to sell its products. I thought he would see that our interpretation was probing and not one-sided – that I don’t do plays for the sake of the right or left, but look for the complexity.”

Ravenhill didn’t respond with an outright no. But he did stipulate some conditions: He would release the rights as long as the Haifa Theater donated the royalties to a London fund for Gaza war victims, and also if a collection box for the fund was set up outside the theater. “At the time it was crazy to suggest such a thing,” recounts Naor. “I wanted so badly to do the play, and it was already cast, but the theater is a public body and this was akin to a death sentence. There was nothing to talk about. I tried to convince him, because I thought we could have a rational dialogue. But he still said that the burden of proof was on us. And that’s insulting. He didn’t understand the complexity of an Israeli public theater organization, whose artistic choices are politically free but whose administration is part of the municipality.”

This didn’t stop Naor and Kliger from approaching the playwright a second time, but the answer remained the same. Like Naor, Kliger notes the similar political positions of the two sides and sees this as a missed opportunity. “We didn’t make an emotional appeal. It was a principled ideological discussion about taking the proper artistic stance in such a situation,” Kliger explains. “If I felt that by saying no to me Ravenhill was thereby helping the Palestinians somehow, I’d be the first to say no too. But that’s not the situation. The sad truth is that this cultural boycott has never helped a single Palestinian. These boycotters need to see that they’re not helping the Palestinians and they’re not helping the sane and humane voices within Israel. Ravenhill ought to understand that the people with whom he’s creating a dialogue are on his side. What good does this do?”

Mark Ravenhill and Elizabeth Baker
Sandy Young / WireImage

But things aren’t always as cut and dried as they may seem. When Kliger wanted to stage the play “4.48 Psychosis” by the late British playwright Sarah Kane, he was told no. For years, Israelis had been unable to acquire rights to her plays. But then he contacted her brother, Simon, the executor of Kane’s estate. He sent him a statement of intent about the production. “I also sent him a document describing my outlook and the kind of direction I had in mind, but nothing more.”

The brother gave him the green light. “A lot of people ask themselves whether Kane was opposed to Israeli policy. She was a very political person, on the one hand, and on the other hand had a very morbid worldview – so maybe she didn’t see the value of the cultural boycott but understood the value of having audiences confront her material.”

There is no answer to this question. But one thing is certain: Kliger isn’t the only Israeli artist to benefit from the change of policy from Kane’s heirs. Danino-Holt has also bought the rights to one of her plays, “Cleansed,” and will direct it at Haba’it Theater in 2019. Which also makes you question whether the directors of the major theaters aren’t giving in too soon when they first receive a rejection.

Actor-director Roy Horovitz had a slightly different experience after trying to acquire the rights to “Every Brilliant Thing” by Jonny Donahoe and Duncan Macmillan, after seeing it at the 2015 Edinburgh Festival Fringe. “I wrote to the agents and received the short answer that the rights are currently taken,” he says. “About six months or a year later, I wrote another email and called, and got the same sort of response. Finally, the agent Maya Tebbi contacted them on my behalf and was turned down, but they told her the truth – Macmillan had signed a petition supporting the boycott. After a few more tries I gave up, even though I really wanted to perform in this play. I also tried using the financial angle: Telling them that if it were a success, it would run for years and they would earn royalties – but it didn’t work.”

Tebbi declined to be interviewed for this article. However, the rejection from Macmillan was short-lived. He may have expressed support for the boycott, but his plays have been sold to Israeli theaters: His and Robert Icke’s adaptation of “1984” is currently playing at Habima, and his play “People, Places & Things” – which was a hit in London’s West End – is due to be staged by the Beit Lessin Theater in September. And Rachel Taylor of the Casarotto Ramsay & Associates agency, which handles Macmillan’s works, says “Every Brilliant Thing” was also sold. “The rights to the play were given exclusively to another theater in Israel (which has yet to stage the play), therefore we cannot respond to any more requests at this time,” she explains.

The Loach syndrome

American playwrights Tracy Letts and Annie Baker – who both signed a letter calling for the cancellation of the Habima and Cameri co-production of “To the End of the Land” at New York’s Lincoln Center last summer – have given the green light for their plays to be staged in Israel. One of Baker’s plays that was supposed to be staged here a few years ago was ultimately not produced, though not due to any objections from the playwright. And Letts, who has had several of his plays produced in Israel, including “August: Osage Country,” has agreed to sell the rights to his new play here, too.

Ken Loach, center, at the Cannes Film Festival in May 2017.
STEPHANE MAHE/REUTERS

Some like to refer to this dual dynamic as the “Loach syndrome” – after British film director Ken Loach, a leading voice in the cultural boycott movement. Last summer, it was argued in Israel that his stance was hypocritical: While supporting BDS in Britain, he had no problem accepting the profits from his films being distributed in Israel. Loach’s partner argued that the distribution contract for Loach’s films was signed without the knowledge of his production company, but the Israeli distributor insisted they had never heard any objections from the director or his representatives.

In any case, it’s hard to imagine that the profits from the minuscule Israeli market were such a temptation. Some even suggest that the small level of these profits could be another reason for the boycotters’ doggedness. “Around here, regardless of whether you’re on the right or the left, there’s this mentality that we’re the center of the world, that ‘Everyone is interested in the conflict.’ But it’s not true – hardly anyone is interested,” says Prof. Gad Kaynar-Kissinger from Tel Aviv University’s Theater Arts Department. “As a theater market we’re tiny, so it’s very easy for a playwright like Ravenhill to say, ‘Fuck off, Israel! Occupation, Palestinians! I don’t want to give you the rights.’ What does he have to lose? He would think twice about doing the same thing to a bigger country.”

Others offer another explanation: the Habima Theater’s problematic history with payments, due to its constant financial straits. In recent years, British and American playwrights and agencies have complained to Israel’s Culture Ministry about issues ranging from delayed royalties payments to failure to transfer them at all. In September 2016, Britain’s Curtis Brown agency informed the ministry it would not permit any Israeli theaters to stage productions of any of its properties (including plays by Samuel Beckett) until Habima and the Mara Theater in Kiryat Shmona paid it full royalties for the Elaine Murphy play “Little Gem.”

“Habima is ruining everyone’s reputation,” says one theater insider. “One of the agents abroad told me he heard that the theaters in Israel don’t pay. But other theaters can have all sorts of delays with payments due to income tax or waiting for the government subsidy to come in. But when you don’t pay at all, that’s a different story.”

Habima did not respond to questions about the matter, nor did any of the British agencies.

So, assuming that Israeli theaters are not being systematically shunned, how should the not-insignificant number of rejections be handled? Kaynar-Kissinger, who also serves as president of the Israeli section of the International Theater Institute, proposes a solution: dialogue. “A lot of theater people abroad don’t realize that many of the artists in Israel are left-wingers who are opposed to the occupation, who are opposed to the kinds of things the boycotts are about – just like in academia,” he says. “In other words, their boycotts are directed to the wrong address and end up acting like a boomerang. Their plays aren’t presented here and the political establishment is happy to respond by proclaiming, ‘They’re all anti-Semites, the whole world is against us!’ So it misses the target completely.

“What’s needed is to explain to them where the artists in Israel stand and where the theaters stand – to make them see we’re waging an internal battle here, too,” he continues. “When they start seeing that most of us are on their side, they’ll see that their support is really important. You needn’t dictate or preach to them, just start a real dialogue with them. Because what we have right now is a dialogue of the deaf.”