Tuesday, April 29, 2008

"Who Can Speak for Me?"

Below is an excerpt from my article in the May/June issue of AMERICAN THEATRE (AT) magazine. It is the lead feature in the special section: The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict On Stage. AT does not usually post the entire content of its magazine online, so I don't think this will be accessible that way, but you can check after May 1st on tcg.org. (If you are unable to obtain a copy of AT for purchase or at your library, feel free to email me and I will email you the full text of my article.)


"Who Can Speak for Me?"
Israel’s vibrant theatre scene boldly assays the
Palestinian conflict—but with authentic voices
from the other side mostly missing

We compound our suffering by victimizing each other. —Athol Fugard

It seemed at first that Nurith Yaari had bent over backwards to demonstrate that Israel’s theatre scene is not shy about self-reflection, self-criticism and, perhaps, even self-flagellation, based upon the plays she selected for inclusion in IsraDrama 2007.

Surprisingly, half of the plays staged in this November–December showcase in Tel Aviv were political dramas taking dead aim at Israeli-Palestinian relations in ways that often reflect less-than-flattering images of Israel’s official policies and the attitudes of many of its citizenry. Yaari is a professor of theatre at Tel Aviv University and artistic director of IsraDrama, sponsored by the Institute of Israeli Drama and designed to encourage production of and scholarly attention to the work of Israeli dramatists.

Despite its relative youth as a modern nation, celebrating its 60th anniversary on May 8, Israel has an immensely vibrant theatre scene, with among the world’s highest per-capita attendance. According to Gad Kaynar, another professor of theatre at the university and head of Israel’s branch of the International Theatre Institute, “The data is rather astonishing: On any given evening one can watch in Tel Aviv alone, with its population of more than 350,000, no less than 40 theatre performances in mainstream
theatres as well as on fringe and festival stages.”

Some might see this phenomenon as making up for lost time. “Drama’s origins in pagan myth, its growth within Greek culture and its development within Christianity have ensured the hostility of the Jewish religious authorities to theatrical manifestations throughout the ages,” former Oxford University scholar Glenda Abramson has written.

In fact, Kaynar points out that this historical antipathy took a new turn when several modern Israeli theatres started pushing boundaries, beginning with Hanoch Levin’s 1970 play The Queen of the Bathtub, which “dared to question the moral stance of a power-drunk Israeli society following victory in the Six-Day War (1967),” a production that provoked “massive demonstrations.” The role of theatre also reached Israel’s national parliament, the Knesset. In 1986, the Israeli Censorship Board decided “to ban the staging of Shmuel Hasfari’s The Last Secular Jew, a satirical cabaret depicting the apocalyptic vision of Israel as the tyrannical theocracy of Judea,” says Kaynar. A public outcry led the Knesset to abolish play censorship. In 1988, Kaynar reports, playwright Joshua Sobol was accused “of ‘self-hatred’ and ‘destruction of national and religious morals,’ following the violent interruption by right-wing fanatics of the premiere of his 1988 The Jerusalem Syndrome, which compares the devastation of the Second Temple and the Israeli occupation of the West Bank.”

Israel’s contemporary theatre clearly serves as a national moral
conscience, though that fact is little known elsewhere. So it made great sense for Yaari to expose 63 theatre practitioners from 21 countries to a strong dose of drama that, according to Kaynar, is “a ritual of existential value.”

These were works produced not only by low-budget fringe theatres; included among their creators were Israel’s two largest theatres, the Habima National Theatre and Tel Aviv’s municipal theatre, Cameri, major companies with significant government subsidies, large audiences and strong philanthropic support. And since IsraDrama was funded by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, raising the curtain on these unvarnished depictions of life in Israel today received an official imprimatur as well.

The first reaction of many attendees was that it is commendable
for Israeli theatres to be unafraid to tackle head-on the most explosive political issue dividing their country today. Some of these visiting theatre professionals, including Americans, quietly lamented a lack of similar courage in their own nations’ theatres.

Yet there was also something a little self-congratulatory about
this demonstration.

In their desire to prove themselves free and outspoken in a
proudly democratic society, the organizers of the event were unable
to conceal the fact that these provocative works still represent just one side’s perspective. Regardless of their honorable intentions, what’s disturbing is not just the ironic point that Israeli theatre artists are attempting to serve as mouthpieces for the Palestinian people. It’s that Palestinian theatre artists are largely unable—or unwilling—to speak for themselves."

Until next time...


PS-Please excuse funky line breaks that blogspot inevitably creates.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

For art's sake (not because it makes them better at math)...

I was so happy to read Ann Hulbert's piece in today's New York Times Sunday Magazine, entitled "Drawing Lessons."

For several years, at the Laguna Playhouse, I cast my lot with those who argued that arts education should be advocated on the basis of proven studies of improved test scores and performance by schoolchildren. In the hostile climate for the arts (and funding for the arts) that emerged during the Reagan administration and "trickled down" to state and local government as well as corporate funding, it seemed like we were mounting a last stand to fend off the barbarians.

But that rationale turned out to be a specious one, according to Hulbert's article today, and frankly, I'm relieved to know that. I never took pleasure in justifying support for arts education because it could make a kid a whiz at math. And I bemoaned the lack of courage and honesty--not to mention, ("hello!") actual belief in the intrinsic value of the arts--that led our field to abandon forceful, convincing arguments for what we do in favor of suggesting that art is only of value when it teaches us to do other things well. (It's the same way that many organizations "follow the funding" when making strategic programming decisions, creating new programs to qualify for grants and straying from their institutional mission to do so.)

I'm perfectly comfortable in believing that some students who receive exposure to the arts in school may benefit by gaining an early appreciation for the arts, but I'm hopeful that we can now lay to rest the strategy of advocating our cause on such a flawed basis.

Until next time...


Friday, April 25, 2008

"J Street"

I first read about this a few weeks ago, then heard somebody mention it at a meeting I went to, and then today's New York Times buried a piece about it pretty far back in the front section.

"J Street" is a new American political action committee to support Israel, but one that will also take a critical eye at Israel's steps towards peace. It's inteded to be a counterweight (unlikely) to AIPAC, the America Israel Political Action Committee, that is well-funded, strong and is widely known to exert considerable influence on Congressional representatives.

"J Street" sounds like it's "Jewish" street, and I'm sure that's partly intentional. But the streets in Washington DC are lettered, "K Street" is the euphemism for lobbying organizations (since many are headquartered there), so "J Street" is playing off that as well. Ironically, there is actually no "J Street" in DC for some reason.

As someone who is pro-Israel, but have been uncomfortable with many of that government's actions vis-a-vis the Palestinians, I am looking forward to seeing what influence "J Street" might develop. AIPAC is often criticized as being monolithic in its support of Israel, believing that any criticism of Israel is tantamount to anti-Semitism.

Perhaps "J Street" can contribute to a more balanced dialogue leading to peace. I've registered on their site to receive informational updates, and invite you to consider that too.

Until next time...


Thursday, April 24, 2008

Spring Has Sprung

After last year's frost (a few consecutive days of 28 degree temperatures damaging the plants in my north-facing back yard), this year our garden is looking sensational. Almost everything has come back with a vengeance, telling the world "it's too early to write me off."

Here are just a few shots...

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Final Day in Lake Arrowhead

4 more miles of hiking around a portion of the lake brings our total for the week to 20 miles. Tonight we celebrate with our only fine dining experience (we hope!).

Until next time...


Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Top Down/Top of the World

On the north slope of Lake Arrowhead, facing the high desert, we enjoyed 50+ degree sunny walks in the woods and on a trail overlooking the valley below, and drove back into town with our convertible top down. Still, it was a chilly 38 degrees when we headed out this morning for our hikes!

Until next time...


Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Spooky Walk Through A Burn Area

Heaps Peak Arboretum is a one mile nature trail along the Rim of the World scenic highway that faces down upon the LA basin. This time of year the basin below is covered in fog but the mountain tops are above it all in sun. Not today. The fog rolled up the mountain and shrouded this trail in eerie smoke-like billows among deciduous trees that have not yet sprouted leaves and sections of devastation from last year's fires.

Until next time...


Monday, April 7, 2008

Settling down

Just a 2 mile hike today, feeling worn out from 10 miles of hiking our first two days. Then took a touristy boat ride on Lake Arrowhead past movie stars' homes with Cap'n Jim as our guide.

Until next time...


Sunday, April 6, 2008

Breathless II

Today's hike was longer--3 hours/6 miles--on the Exploration Trail near Running Springs, a trail that is mostly north-facing, and therefore quite a bit is still covered with snow. Spectacular views of the San Gabriel Mountains and below across the cloud covered LA basin. Rewarded ourselves with lunch at Rocky's--don't you love the archetypal carvings of bears out front of this little roadhouse?

Until next time...


Saturday, April 5, 2008


Our first morning in the SoCal mountains, we took a good "starter" trail: Cougar Crest Trail on the north shore of Big Bear Lake. That's the view from this trail down onto the lake and at Snow Summit where they continue skiing today.

Temperature was in the low 40s when we began our hike, but easily felt like 20 degrees more in the sun. This is a great trail! Only 2 miles, its several hundred feet of climb is so amazingly gradual that after about 15 minutes I felt warmed up and ready to move forward full tilt to the top, where it meets the famed Pacific Crest Trail that one can hike from Mexico to Canada.

The breathlessness is not just due to the views, however. The hike begins well above 7,000 feet altitude, so even if you are in good shape aerobically, it does take getting used to. Tomorrow our plan is to take a longer hike.

After this one, we stopped at Paoli's in Big Bear Lake's village, sat outside at a sunny table and ate basic but good Italian lunch. We drove around the lake with the top of my convertible down until we reached Arrowbear (returning to Lake Arrowhead where we're staying) as a chilly fog was rolling up the mountains from below.
The top photo by the way is a view of the Los Angeles basin this morning--totally clouded in below us.
Until next time...