Mission Impossible

The whole system of publicly funded theater has been struggling valiantly against the waves for the last 25 years.

Theater is one hell of a misleading business. Part of it is mass entertainment. Another part is a huge illusion. It looks as if there is no business like show business: 300 seats in an auditorium, 100 NIS per ticket, a net income of NIS 30,000 per night - how can we lose? Easily. First, there's no guarantee that 300 people will come. And it is not really NIS 100 per ticket, because most tickets are sold in advance as part of subscriptions, deals and huge discount offers. And mainly because an evening on stage - assuming it is up to professional standards - costs about NIS 30,000 if not more. An actor on stage has a price per night, and there are the sets, the lights, the stagehands and the overhead costs of running a system that can produce and perform a succession of such performances.

Why do we need such a system - a company, working in a building, having staff on a payroll - and why can't we put on shows with an ad-hoc cast and crew, like they do on Broadway or the West End? Because there is no infrastructure - stages and audiences - for putting on a show on a commercial basis and letting it run as long as the audience comes and buys tickets. But mainly because repertory theater - a theater that earns public support in order to present repertory - should not be about such calculations.

The artistic director of the Haifa Municipal Theater, Doron Tavori, was asked by the theater's board to step down after less than one year in office. The theater's managing director, Israel Ben Shalom, who was there when Tavori was appointed, stayed on in his job. He says: "A managing director should see to the income column of the budget, and contracts cannot be signed when there is no income." Very true, but a repertory theater is not about income. It can't do without it, but that is not the aim or reason for its existence. That is the reason why repertory theaters in Israel - and all over the world - are subsidized. In Israel the public subsidy for theater was meager to begin with and has been diminishing steadily.

During the last 25 years many auditoriums have been erected around the country. All of them buy shows from the companies that produce repertory theater. Each new show has to pass the muster of a committee that will buy a run that will fit their audience. Woe to a theater whose show is not booked in advance. And as theater needs an audience more than the audience needs theater - at least that of a kind that demands a measure of concentration, emotional and intellectual effort, and not just easy-to-savor entertainment - all publicly funded theaters, especially those in more "provincial" towns (assuming Tel Aviv is not one), are being run in effect as subsidized commercial theaters.

An artistic director in such an environment can bet on filling the coffers with a commercial hit on the main stage - hopefully, but not always, one that is well done and professionally produced - and will aim for several smaller "satellite" productions of purely, or at least purer, artistic value. But when a commercial bet flops - you win some, you lose a bigger sum - the first things that go overboard are the things a repertory theater is supposed to exist for: classics, culture, experience, quality.

The other path, pursued by Tavori in Haifa, is to pay no heed to the audience and to reality, and to try to put on the shows he wants in the style he believes in. This experiment, alas, did not work, at least during its first year, neither artistically nor commercially. But after 25 years of a steady slide down a slippery slope of declining standards of public taste, it was a very unsafe bet to begin with.

This is even more true in the case of publicly funded theaters on the verge of collapsing under a heavy burden of deficits carried over from past years (the Haifa theater has a NIS 17 million deficit; Habimah theater, after 10 years with Yaakov Agmon, who was supposed to turn it around, has about the same deficit it had when he took over); when the public subsidy diminishes steadily, and sometimes is curtailed or cut at a moment's notice; and when boards of directors who are interested only in the balance sheet don't or won't look for new sources of funding and won't back up an artistic director whom they have voted in. They want a success, a box office full of the sound of money, and they want it now.

In making theater, and in creating and fostering audiences, there is no "now" and there are no shortcuts. The whole system of publicly funded theater has been struggling valiantly against the waves for the last 25 years. Any show that is even slightly above mediocrity - in its aims, and hopefully in its achievements - is nothing short of a miracle.

Anyone who will be ready to step into Tavori's shoes with things being as they are now should be disqualified on the grounds that by merely presenting his candidacy, he has proved that he does not understand the first thing about running a theater in Israel 2006.