The crowds in the lobby of Tel Aviv’s Tzavta Theater last Friday afternoon might have misled passersby. The crowds weren’t there for the so-called emergency conference about censorship and self-censorship in Israeli theaters, which took place in the Tzavta 3 hall, but for the Shlomo Artzi concert in Tzavta 1. Empty chairs, some marked with signs reading “reserved,” dominated the hall where the conference took place.
Those chairs tell the story of the entire event in a nutshell and lead to a clear conclusion about how low the standing of theater in Israeli culture has sunk. After four years of Miri Regev as culture minister, and with streaming services growing more popular, even theater people have lost interest in discussing the field’s future, just as their audience has gradually abandoned the theaters in favor of binge-watching.
The faces on the stage, like those in the small audience that bothered to show up, were well known: accomplished playwrights, directors, actors and creative artists (the vast majority of them men, but so what?), who have persisted in staging political theater for decades – from Ilan Ronen, Oded Kotler and Motti Lerner, all of whom were among the conference’s organizers, to Yehoshua Sobel, Sinai Peter, Norman Issa, Makram Khoury, Hillel Mittelpunkt, B. Michael and Ephraim Sidon.
Israeli fringe theater was particularly poorly represented, in the persons of director Avi Gibson Barel and playwright Einat Weitzman. They raised the ghost of the Acre Fringe Theater Festival’s cancelation of the play “Prisoners of the Occupation” in 2017.
In this context, it would have been more interesting to hear from the directors of fringe theaters and members of their artistic committees (not to mention the current Acre festival management), who are the first to be exposed to the refreshing creative repertoire submitted to alternative theaters. Do they, too, avoid political works? If so, why? And how does this self-censorship mechanism, for rejecting anything suspected of being political or potentially explosive, actually work?
Above all, the conference was a painful testament to the field’s general moral bankruptcy. Aside from slogans like “We’ll put on a given play if it’s good,” what we mostly heard during five long hours at Tzavta were old, predictable texts that have been said or written in countless previous forums, dating back to the pre-Regev era. These texts condemned the preference for pure entertainment, excessive consideration for the audience’s tastes and the fear of suffering economic damage. They also included selections from old controversial plays and calls for some amorphous future action.
Director Sinai Peter accurately identified young theater artists’ tendency to avoid political material in an interview with Haaretz’s Gallery section in 2016, ahead of a performance of Lerner’s play “The Admission” at the Jaffa Theater. Several major theaters had rejected that play.
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“Every year, I see a new cohort of young artists, identify the ones who are political and involved, and realize that there’s a deeper problem here than fear of censorship,” he wrote. “There’s an inability to cope with the [Israeli-Palestinian] conflict. These people have served in the reserves; many of them suffer from exceptional post-traumatic stress, but not from war – rather, from the occupation. They are weak-kneed when they approach the conflict and don’t know what to do with it. So even the political ones turn to economic or social issues, or to personal distress.”
Just as these young artists, like a significant portion of Israeli society, don’t know what to do with the conflict and prefer not to rack their brains over the occupation and its implications, Israeli theater similarly doesn’t know what to do – not just with the conflict, but above all with the changes that have befallen it and the changes in the political, cultural and economic climate in which it operates. For the most part, it has withdrawn into itself through routine, paralyzing forms of writing and directing. It carries on and tries to eke out success and revenue, mainly on the basis of proven works.
“Theater is seen today as something very unimportant,” playwright Hillel Mittelpunkt regretfully admitted at the conference. “We put on plays that run like a hot dog production line. There’s a terrible exhaustion with the whole matter known as theater.” He then related how he recently gazed jealously at the young, curious, enthusiastic audience attending a performance by the Batsheva Dance Company. “We don’t have that audience today,” he said. “Perhaps the audience is fed up with words and wants to see movement,” speculated Kotler, who was moderating the panel.
But what might work better than movement would be remembering those empty chairs at Tzavta, followed by some soul-searching, instead of once again pulling out whining, recycled texts about the small audiences at repertory theaters, the puritanical demands of buyers outside the country’s center, governmental censorship and self-censorship, and theater’s declining status in Israeli culture.