Puppet Theater

The Russian-Jewish ballerina is torn between her love for the Zionist activist and her love for dance. It's the era of the Iron Curtain, the 1970s, and Jews in the Soviet Union are not allowed to immigrate to Israel. "The Iron Curtain" is also the name of the new play being put on by the Orna Porat Theater for Children and Youth, which tells their story.

He wants to hijack a plane, cross the border and immigrate to Israel. She is afraid of losing him, but she also does not want to leave the glittering future awaiting her with the Bolshoi Ballet. And she is even more afraid of a member of the KGB, who lurks beneath his obsequious behavior, his fur hat and his thick tortoise-shell glasses.

Even behind the scenes there is fear and tension. Along with the drama presented onstage in the Duhl Center in Tel Aviv's Hatikva neighborhood on a hot July afternoon at 5:00 P.M., there is another drama taking place: "The Iron Curtain" itself is fighting for its life.

It received the hoped-for approval from the schools' National Cultural Basket, the educational project that is part of the Community Center Association in the Education Ministry - and in that sense has been more fortunate than many other plays that withered away for lack of the seal of approval. But it is still far from overcoming the main obstacle: the teachers.

Schools are at present the largest target group in the field of children's theater, and they "they have a stranglehold on the children's theaters," as one of the directors said.

According to Rivka Nusan, the director of the Kibbutz Theater and the chairwoman of the Association for Children and Youth Theaters and Performance Art, which counts most of the children's theaters as members, if they don't sell at least 50 performances a year of a certain play to the schools, it will falter and be discontinued after a short time.

Only plays that are sold to about 100 schools a year succeed in becoming hits and are considered a success in the local market.

To a great extent, therefore, the audience in Duhl - the vast majority principals and teachers who serve as cultural coordinators in schools, as well as directors of the cultural budget in the local councils - will be the ones to decide the fate of "The Iron Curtain."

If the play is not to their liking it will not be ordered by the schools they represent and will simply be taken off the stage.

Judgment play

The occasion, which conveyed an intensive marketing effort and an attempt to please the teachers, is not unique to the largest and most important children's theater in the country. The entire children's theater industry grovels in the summer to the cultural coordinators, on whose word the new season depends. That is when the new plays designed for the new school year are presented to them, one after another.

When the stream of teachers leaves "The Iron Curtain," they are asked to express their opinion on forms designed for the purpose. Later during the summer vacation they will probably receive pleading phone calls from the theater.

Dalia Guri, the principal of Herzog High School in Holon, for example, didn't like the play. She doesn't think that ideology should be pushed and to her taste Prisoners of Zion are not an artistic subject.

But Guri is apparently not a representative example. And in any case, the success of the play does not depend on the personal taste of a principal or a coordinator. This field has a logic of its own and a list of hits that travels by word of mouth.

Zehavit Ohayon, the cultural coordinator for Sderot, says for example that the plays have to be educational and have a message. And of course they have to be suited to the age of the students. Above all, the criterion is "whether or not the children will like it."

"If there's a steady procession [of teachers walking back and forth] in the theater, the teachers know that the play will not grab the children. They want a child to sit quietly during the play," says another coordinator.

The children's show industry in Israel is very active. But many people claim that the level of the shows, especially when it comes to theater, is not high. And the reason for that may be that culture for children is stuck in a vise: between the repertory committees of the culture basket, which are supposed to separate the wheat from the chaff and to reject shows that are not of high quality, and the schools, which are supposed to choose the shows to be seen by the pupils, according to the teachers' taste.

To draw a flow chart of who makes the decision of what the Israeli pupils should see do this: Following the schools in the hierarchy are the officials in the local councils in charge of the culture budget. In the middle are the parents, whose money is used to purchase the shows (to be precise, they usually pay for 75 percent of the cost). And above all of these looms the culture basket, which subsidizes the rest and is supposed to supervise the type and quality of the performances by means of repertory committees in the various arts, and to counsel the school through its cultural mentors.

There are many complaints about the powers of the culture basket. In early August Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar received a letter from the children's theaters organization, whose members include most of the children's theaters, demanding that he examine the administration of the culture basket, otherwise the various theaters - the Orna Porat Theater, the Mediatech Holon, the Kibbutz Theater, the Association for the Promotion of Theater and more - will not cooperate with the basket this year.

In the letter it was claimed that "the activity of the basket suffers from an absence of practical and transparent criteria" and arbitrary, sometimes discriminatory pricing.

But the main complaint in the letter was that the basket goes beyond its role and interferes with content, imposing censorship.

This conflict between the culture basket and the theater industry erupts in a kind of cyclical fashion every year or two in the summer, and dies down after a while.

For example, in a similar letter from 2004 it was claimed that the director of the basket, Bruria Becker, is "one woman who has several committees subordinate to her that do her bidding, decides what millions of children in Israel will see, which artists will work and which will starve..."

But this time the association prepared a petition to the High Court of Justice, and will decide whether to submit it, subject to the decision of the education minister.

Control committee

The country did in fact decide that a national body, a culture basket, will mediate the culture received by Israeli students, and that they will be educated in high culture. But there is room to ask who should decide on the definition: a culture basket or the schools themselves, the policy deciders or the people in the field?

There is also room to ask whether there should be control from above. Control is censorship, and the danger is that whoever is in control will in the end influence the work of art itself.

This debate is reminiscent of the conflict between the various approaches in economics: a market economy or a welfare state. On the one hand are the theater people who contemptuously call the basket "the culture commissar," and claim that the schools should be allowed free choice.

On the other hand, many people involved in culture claim that the basket is the guardian that protects Israeli children from the ratings culture that has long since infiltrated the schools.

Today the basket's supervision over the quality of the performances is carried out primarily through repertory committees of professionals from each of the five areas of art: music, theater, film, literature and dance. About 300 new shows come to the committees each year, and about half, says Becker, are rejected. Last year the plays rejected from the basket included "Little Women" by the Mediatech and "Hasamba" by the Orna Porat Theater.

Ran Guetta, the director of Orna Porat, says the teachers liked "Hasamba" and begged to purchase it, but in vain. One of the cultural coordinators confirmed his claim.

Guetta does not understand why the play was rejected. The outgoing head of the Culture and Arts Administration, Micha Yinon, claims that there is logic to the demand for transparency from the committees. He says that recently he advised Becker to publish criteria for examining the various cultural performances.

In spite of the claims by the theaters, the strong rejection of "Hasamba" apparently does not testify to the basket's control and to its high quality threshold.

"Many plays that don't pass the first time are approved after submitting an appeal (each play has one right to appeal)," admits Nusan, from the Kibbutz Theater. "After all, it's a matter of the taste of a member of one committee or another, and that is entirely arbitrary."

Gad Kaynar, a professor in Tel Aviv University's theater department and a former adviser to the culture basket, claims that the group is under a great deal of pressure to approve even plays that are not on a high level, and that what the NCB offers is a supermarket - there are excellent plays alongside entertainment material. The pressure, he says, comes from the schools, which aim lower.

Becker refuses to reveal the list of shows selected each year by the schools out of all the offerings, she says, in order not to influence the choice. But she admits that the choice of the schools is "to my regret, in the mainstream."