- Published on Thursday, 08 December 2011 00:00
- Category: Featured Partner: Levantine Cultural Center
Note from the Editor: In April 2011, the founding artistic director of a Jenin-based theatre company, Juliano Mer-
Khamis, was murdered, shot dead in his car parked in front of the Freedom Theatre. Just a month before he had appeared as an Arab sheikh in Julian Schnabel's film Miral, which describes the Israeli-Palestinian events of 1948 and beyond from the Palestinian perspective. Juliano was Israeli Jewish on his mother's side but Palestinian Christian on his father's. He was both loved and hated in both communities, yet as a symbol of peace and hope for the future, his death continues to reverberate beyond Israel and Jenin.
In this journal, New York actor/director Sturgis Warner talks about his trip to the Holy Land and his meetings with theatre people on both side of the dividing Wall, including directors Juliano Mer-Khamis and Udi Aloni.
Monday, March 14
We depart for Tel Aviv. There are six of us on the plane with another coming from London. We are all affiliated with New York Theatre Workshop (NYTW), one of my artistic homes for the past 17 years. The Robert Sterling Clark Foundation has provided the Workshop with a generous grant to pay for the trip. I'm not exactly sure what to expect.
NYTW has lined up an array of Israeli and Palestinian theatre artists for us to meet. We will be traveling throughout Israel and the West Bank for ten days visiting theatres, exchanging ideas and seeing their work. As far as I know, there is no specific agenda.
New York Theatre Workshop has long been interested in international stages. Over the past decade, they have sent several small groups of "Usual Suspects," their 400 or so affiliated artists, to different countries for artistic exchanges. The program is called "Suspects Abroad."
The Middle East has been of particular interest to NYTW in recent years. They have developed and produced work by a number of Arab-Americans theatre artists, feeling that their narratives have been underrepresented on American stages.
One such developed project was PALESTINE, written and performed by Najla Saïd and directed by myself. When Twilight Theatre Company (of which I was co-artistic director) committed to producing the play, NYTW stepped in and donated their second stage, the Fourth Street Theatre, to the production. We had a successful 9-week, sold out run.
On the trip is Linda Chapman, the associate artistic director of NYTW; Rachel Silverman, artistic assistant at NYTW, and Jewish; Naomi Wallace, a well known American playwright, partly Jewish, and a long time advocate for Palestinian rights; Lameece Issaq, Palestinian-American, whose play FOOD AND FADWA will be coproduced by NYTW next season; Jacob Kader, a Palestinian-American filmmaker and Lameece's writing partner; Erin Mee, a director and scholar who teaches at Swarthmore College and specializes in modern Indian theatre; and myself. I feel very honored to be part of this group, although, aside from Linda, I don't know any of them all that well—Lameece and Jake, yes, a bit from the Arab-American theatre community, Rachel, a little from around the Workshop office, Erin and I have said hello a few times, and Naomi wrote a play called ONE FLEA SPARE in which I acted fourteen years ago, but we have never met. She's the one coming from England.
Tuesday, March 15
We fly into Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion Airport arriving at 8:15 in the morning. None of us have slept. We are met at the airport by Ghassan, who will be our driver for much of the trip. Ghassan, a talkative man, wants to take us to every sight the Holy Land has to offer. He's quite persistent about it, too. Linda patiently has to explain that there may not be time for many sights. We are here on a different agenda.
We check into the Prima Hotel overlooking the Mediterranean Sea and have a few hours to rest up. At 4:00 p.m. we all gather outside the hotel and meet Naomi. Okay, this is going to be our group. We jump into cabs and are taken to Beit Zvi, Israel's most prestigious acting school. We are greeted by director Micah Lewenson and well known Israeli playwright Motti Lerner. Motti has actually developed one or two projects with the Workshop. I met him in 2000 when he was first introduced to NYTW, and I've even directed an excerpt of his work. It's good to see him again. Micah takes us on a tour of the school, proudly showing off their five theatre spaces and several rehearsal rooms. He's a passionate man, about 60, and seems smart and dedicated. Motti tells us that the school has really turned around under his direction.
We are led into their largest theatre and told to sit onstage. In the red seats of the audience, invited by Motti, are 35 Israeli theatre professionals and students. The seven of us introduce ourselves and briefly talk about what we do.
Motti starts us off. I want to know, he says, what New York Theatre Workshop can do for Israeli theatre.
Send us your scripts, Linda graciously says. We're very interested in everything that is going on in the Middle East. But we'd also like to know who each of you are and what you're working on. Perhaps we could go around the audience and have everybody introduce themselves.
One by one, in true NYTW fashion, they do so. Many start pitching their projects spurred on by the notion that this important U.S. theatre just might be interested in producing their work.
Motti, getting irritated, tries to move things along. Just say your name, he pleads. But many are excited about their projects and take the opportunity to tell us about them. When the introductions are finally done, a few of us try to temper the enthusiasm of the room. We don't want Linda to be besieged with scripts! We talk about how difficult it is for any U.S. playwright to be produced. How there are already 400 Usual Suspects, most of whom the Workshop cannot regularly accommodate. How there are 20,000 actors in New York City fighting to get work. How hard it all really is.
They tell us how Israel has a few very large institutional theatres, well supported by the government, which everybody desperately tries to be a part of.
I bring up the notion of initiating one's own work, a concept that does not seem to be widely practiced here.
Jetlag makes sitting on this stage seem a bit surreal. We are barely off the plane and already into the fire. But the discussions are interesting and we are glad to be here. We run out of time. Micah desperately wants us to see one of the Beit Zvi shows this evening, but we have a dinner engagement. We taxi to the Tel Aviv Performing Arts Center, a huge complex, and there, at a restaurant, meet Yael Dayan, daughter of Moshe Dayan, famous Israeli military man with the iconic eye-patch. Yael is a well known novelist. Also at dinner is Savyon Leibrecht, one of Israel's top female playwrights. Her plays are regularly produced at Beit-Lessin, one the big theatres. APPLES FROM THE DESERT, her latest, is completely sold out.
I could never get you seven tickets, she tells us. Quite all right, Linda says, we're pretty booked as it is. Savyon and Yael are both part of the "opening night crowd," invited to all the big play openings, but, says Yael, she often sneaks out at intermission.
It's time to go. We are quite exhausted. Yael gives us some parting advice: On your trip keep your eyes and ears open. Don't believe everything you hear. Remember to think of both sides. And please don't judge us too harshly.
Wednesday, March 16
We see an article in one of the leading Israeli newspapers that begins "Why are Arabs so stupid? They should be smart like Israeli politicians." Wow... We are scheduled to travel to the West Bank later this afternoon. There is some concern whether we should leave today or not. A Jewish family in Itamar, one of the Israeli settlements in the West Bank, was murdered three days ago and we hear that security is going to be tight. We decide to go anyway.
It's a beautiful day. We head downtown to meet Motti Lerner for lunch at an outdoor cafe. Theatre in Israel, Motti tells us, is very popular. It has some of the highest per capita attendance in the world. In the past, Israelis used to love political theatre. It was a great forum for discussion and debate. However, in the mid-1990's, most of the big theatres turned more toward commercial entertainment. Audiences didn't want politics anymore, the marketing people said. Consequently, it has been very difficult for Motti to get his plays produced. However, he keeps on writing them. At age 62, theatre remains his forum. He still has a big enough presence to continue receiving commissions for his work, but it has not been easy. His new play, THE ADMISSION, concerns the 1948 mass ouster of Palestinians from their villages, a subject many Israelis are loath to discuss. Still, Motti is hopeful that it can be produced.
Motti leads us around the corner to the offices of the Habima National Theatre, one of the big Israeli institutions. We meet with Artistic Director Ilan Ronen. He tells of a recent, three-way collaboration between the Habima, London's National Theatre, and El-Hakawati, a Palestinian theatre. They all met for workshops in London with each theatre developing a different play, yet all with a common theme, the British Mandate.
We shall be seeing the Habima's effort, A RAILWAY TO DAMASCUS, a few days from now. Ilan has directed it. The British play has already been produced, he says, but the Palestinian has not because of a lack of funds.
"Typical," mutters Naomi.
Our meeting is brief as we have to get our bags and drive to Jenin in the West Bank. It's a bit of a logistical challenge. Israelis are not allowed into the West Bank and most Palestinians are not allowed into Israel. Our van is driven by Bunji, a Palestinian who has the proper papers and license plates to come into Tel Aviv and pick us up. He is late as he was slowed by checkpoints. We board the big van and take off. Bunji tells us that hundreds of Palestinian men were rounded up after the Itamar murders, but that it appears to be have been done by a Thai worker, who was owed 10,000 shekels by the family. (One month later two teenage Palestinian boys are arrested. Israeli authorities say they have confessions.) After 45 minutes of driving we are stopped at a checkpoint, then enter the West Bank. Our chatty van suddenly turns silent. We are dumbstruck by the visual oppression that permeates the West Bank. There are many Israeli settlements, pre-planned villages, usually on a hill or a ridge (good for views, good for defenses) surrounded by walls and barbed wire with military personal all about. We later learn that the majority of settlers are not the right wing fanatics we hear so much about, but rather economic settlers taking advantage of the super low-cost housing deals offered by the government. There are also plenty of "bypass roads," off limits to Palestinians, that run between the settlements and into Israel. It is not pretty.
The Arab villages we pass are quaint, much poorer,makeshift, people milling about, homey and real. Individualistic. Bottom up, not top down. There is such division and separation here. Much military. Well, it's occupied. And seeing it up close, so many of the intellectual arguments just go flying out the window. We take many pictures from the van, putting our cameras away whenever we come to roadblock manned by the IDF (Israeli Defense Forces). One wide-eyed, scared shitless, 18 year old soldier asks where we are going.
"Jenin," chirps Linda, quite merrily, as if we were headed to a birthday party. The young soldier is not quite sure what to make of us, but waves us through. Erin says that the decision-making part of an 18 year old's brain is still very much in development. Studies have said so.
We drive north to Jenin where security is manned by the PA (the Palestinian Authority). We check into our hotel, the Haddad Tourism Village, a recently completed ornate complex that has on its grounds a 2,000 seat theatre and an amusement park. It is hoped that this complex will help spur tourism in Jenin.
Deborah Hecht is here to meet us. She is the second of three NYTW artists to run workshops at the Freedom Theatre in the Jenin refugee camp. This is all part of the same Robert Sterling Clark Foundation grant that is paying for our trip. Deb is an expert vocal coach and will be at the Freedom for a month. She is a week into her stay and is most happy to see us. She says she went for a walk today in the camp and some boys threw small stones at her before being stopped by an adult. They did so, Deb says, because she was a woman walking alone with her head uncovered and wearing pants. She is okay about it, but wary. This isn't America! Also, she says, in the camp the Muezzin broadcast the call to prayer five times a day over loudspeakers, but that nobody pays any attention! Even the men wearing turbans couldn't be bothered! Everybody just goes about their business. The paradoxes of this land...
We drop our luggage in our rooms, pile into two taxis and drive the back roads of Jenin to the home of Juliano Mer-Khamis, the co-founder and artistic director of the Freedom Theatre. I had met Juliano two years before at a Freedom Theatre fundraiser in New York. Najla Saïd had performed an excerpt from PALESTINE and I had tagged along. Juliano's house is on top of a hill overlooking the Jenin refugee camp, one of 59 "temporary" camps created for displaced Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan.
Juliano, 52, is there along with Jenny, his Finnish wife pregnant with twins, his one-year-old, as well as 8 or 9 other people who work at the Freedom Theatre. We meet Udi Aloni, an Israeli filmmaker and Juliano's best friend. Udi has a dynamic personality and dominates much of the conversation. But he is smart and very passionate about the Freedom Theatre, where he spends much of his time. It's a lively evening. There is a large spread laid out for us. Lots of talk and getting to know each other. Lameece and Naomi get into a long discussion with Udi about the boycott, the international cultural boycott on anything connected to the Israeli government. It is part of the BDS movement, a non-violent campaign for boycotts, divestment and sanctions against Israel until they end their occupation of Palestinian territories.
Decades of projects with the Israelis have not led to peace, Udi tells us. Things have only gotten worse for Palestinians, so we need to give the boycott a try. The boycott is a way to acknowledge Palestinians as leaders of this initiative, he says. By following, we empower them.
The cultural boycott issues are complex, full of nuances, which we are all trying to understand. I first encountered it last year while discussing the possibility of touring PALESTINE in the Middle East. There turned out to be serious implications if we did "x" instead of "y." We will be seeking more opinions on this issue, I am sure. Juliano stands the entire evening, cradling his one-year-old in his arms.By Sturgis Warner, Levantinecenter
This content is provided courtesy of Levantinecenter