New York Times

In Israel, Where Art Imitates Messy Life
By Lisa Alcalay Klug
New York Times

When the Palestinian playwright Mohammad el-Thaher accepted a commission to write a new bilingual Arabic-Hebrew play, his inspiration was Luigi Pirandello’s “Six Characters in Search of an Author.” Pirandello’s signature work, it explores not only themes of illusion and reality, but also ways that truth is distorted. It was a fitting choice. Mr. Thaher titled his play “Six Actors in Search of a Plot,” and during the first five days of rehearsals last August at Kibbutz Ein Hahoresh near Hadera, Israel, the Palestinian and Jewish actors argued about nearly every line.

Mr. Thaher, a native of the Arab quarter in the Old City of Jerusalem, based his script on personal monologues written by Israeli Arab and Jewish facilitators affiliated with Peace Child Israel, a nonprofit group based in Tel Aviv that has used theater to teach tolerance and mutual respect to Arab and Jewish teenagers. The play, which has its premiere tonight at the Ein Hahoresh theater, is the group’s first project for adults.

During rehearsals, both sides said they felt under attack. The Palestinians were “unwilling to give up their attachment to history,” Mr. Thaher said. “It’s their weapon.”

Jewish actors thought that Mr. Thaher’s script richly expressed Palestinian claims but was anemic when it came to Jewish experience, said the director and choreographer Billy Yalowitz. “The Jews also felt they were on the defensive again and again.”
Mr. Yalowitz, a Jewish native of New York City with a doctorate in education, traveled to Israel during his summer break from teaching. He is an assistant professor and co-director of Temple University’s Tyler School of Art Community Arts Program. Since 1990, he has used performing arts as a tool for examining issues of gender, race and class in the United States but never for exploring disagreements between Arabs and Jews.

The cast’s disputes soon reached full boil, and rehearsals stalled, much like Middle East peace efforts. The actors had “great feelings of warmth for each other, but when you get to the collective,” it all went “bonkers,” said Melisse Lewine-Boskovich, an American Jew who immigrated to Israel and has been Peace Child Israel’s managing director since 1998. “This kind of roadblock just doesn’t happen in these rehearsals. It happens in every venue where both sides are trying to communicate.”

Still, “Six Actors in Search of a Plot” survived, and after a long autumn break because of Mr. Yalowitz’s teaching schedule in the United States, the team gathered again this month. In rehearsals at Kibbutz Gaash north of Tel Aviv, they kept disagreements on a back burner. But, Mr. Yalowitz said, “at any moment, things can boil back over.”

When the show opens tonight and continues in the coming days at Israeli Arab, Jewish and mixed sites (including Jerusalem’s Y.M.C.A.), audiences will decide if it succeeds in its goal: forging a new way to address the conflict. The play, which runs about 75 minutes, airs tragedies on both sides and challenges the actors, who go in and out of character, to focus on the present and the potential for new human life. Each performance will be followed by a discussion with audience members and an invitation to form dialogue groups.

“It is like a birth, so I feel a little bit afraid, a little bit hope, and a little bit tension,” Mr. Thaher said. “But I hope that the end will be like a baby birth, a beautiful thing.”

This summer, when discussions became heated, Mr. Yalowitz intervened, turning the actors attention toward the play’s childbirth theme, which Mr. Thaher portrays as the ultimate focal point of shared humanity. Mr. Yalowitz arranged for a Jewish midwife and an Arab midwife to discuss childbirth with the group. The Arab midwife was called away to a delivery but the actors enthusiastically received the Jewish midwife.

Mr. Yalowitz also asked the actors to interview their mothers about their own birth stories. Sharing them aloud, he said, “They were dumbstruck by the birth process as an allegory for the emergence of two nations,” a concept the play retains.

A cycle of rehearsal-discussion, rehearsal-discussion continued for eight more days while the group arrived at a mutually acceptable script, using more of the actors’ narratives. The troupe also incorporated material about a life-threatening medical condition, Twin-to-Twin Transfusion Syndrome, characterized by an imbalance in the in utero blood supply. Left untreated, the smaller twin may starve and the larger twin may die from cardiac stress. In “Six Actors,” the condition evokes the struggles of Jacob and Esau, the biblical ancestors of Jews and Muslims. “That theme is not part of the national narrative for Palestinians, but many Jews who hear it are touched,” Mr. Yalowitz said. Originally, the link with Jacob and Esau was explicit, but their names were removed in the final draft.

In contrast to early tensions among the actors, Mr. Thaher, who has freelanced for Peace Child Israel as a playwright and director since 2000, experienced “no conflict of opinions” with Mr. Yalowitz and has credited him with a shared byline on the play.
“The process and the relationships built have been an effective way of finding a new perspective on the conflict,” Mr. Yalowitz said. “It’s been, very personally, deeply hopeful for me.”

Peace Child Israel is currently seeking money for a fall 2006 tour of “Six Actors” along the Eastern Seaboard. In the meantime, it is sponsoring its first cultural exchange for American, Israeli and Palestinian teenagers, Jan. 15 to 24, in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. During that time Mr. Yalowitz will coordinate a cultural exchange in Philadelphia for Peace Child Israel teenagers and their local counterparts, at Art Sanctuary, a frequent partner in Temple’s Community Arts Program.

“Art is an international language, and she also speaks to the feelings of people and the real things that exist within people,” said Mr. Thaher, who, like Mr. Yalowitz, perseveres in his belief that art can help repair the world. “The real things are love of life and not love of death.”

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