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Jerusalem’s Train Theater takes a short ride to a new playhouse

The Karon Theater offers more space and facilities for the city’s beloved children’s theater, with its original train carriage still on site

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

The original train carriage that was the theater space of the new Karon Theater in Jerusalem's Liberty Bell Park (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)
The original train carriage that was the theater space of the new Karon Theater in Jerusalem's Liberty Bell Park (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

When Jerusalem’s Train Theater opened in 1981, the puppet playhouse was held in a repurposed railroad carriage stationed in Liberty Bell Park, a nine-acre park named for its replica of the Philadelphia bell.

That same train car, slightly shorter now and freshly painted, has a new home inside the park: the Karon Theater complex was formally opened in August, and fully completed just before Hanukkah.

Karon is the Hebrew word for a train carriage, which hearkens back to the roots of this creative and imaginative children’s theater. The new complex, situated next to the park’s skate area, basketball courts and playgrounds and funded by the British Davidson family, looks like children’s building blocks tossed on the ground.

Once inside, theatergoers can head to one of several theaters, including a grassy outdoors amphitheater, a simple black box theater that seats about 50, and the largest theater, which is located downstairs, with rows of fold-up seating that can be closed and closeted with the push of a button.

Backstage are simple dressing and storage rooms for the theater’s actors, with each small-scale tale folded into small trunks and suitcases placed neatly on the metal shelves.

The main building also houses a new exhibit created by the Karon Theater puppeteers and creators, with clever mobiles and dioramas equipped with moving parts and pieces that engage younger theatergoers, reminding them of the performances they’ve seen or could see in the future.

Koby Frig, the new CEO of the recently opened Karon Theater, or Train Theater of puppetry at Jerusalem’s Liberty Bell Park (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

While this new space is a far more expansive and permanent space than the previous incarnation of the Karon Theater, it still retains its spirit of creativity and wonder.

For new CEO Kobi Frig, this new complex is just the start of his grand plans for the Karon.

He wants to foster greater connections between the theater and its surrounding park, as well as bridges — both virtual and real — between Karon and the nearby Khan and Jerusalem theaters, the Hansen House cultural center, and the wide open spaces of the nearby Bloomfield Gardens and the First Station, all within easy walking distance of Liberty Bell Park.

“This is a theater that has grown with Jerusalem,” said Frig, a cultural entrepreneur who has worked on Jerusalem events and productions for over a decade. “It makes sense that we’d create something larger here.”

Back in 1981, the original wheel-less theater train car cost a whopping NIS 3,000 — not a small sum of money at the time, said Hadass Ophrat, one of the original founders, in a video made in 2011 for the theater’s 30th anniversary.

The theater was established as a collaboration of four independent puppeteers: Michael Schuster, Alina Ashbel, Ophrat and Mario Kotliar. It was the American-born Schuster who discovered the train carriage by chance and proposed using it for performances, doing most of the renovation work with his fellow puppeteers.

The theater became a source of innovative puppetry in Israel with plays that were created for children but with dialogue and concepts that were directed to the adults in the audience. By 1983, it was hosting the International Festival of Puppet Theater each summer, inviting global artists to perform on the homegrown stage.

The Jerusalem Foundation eventually helped fund the construction of a permanent 70-seat theater in the park.

The Train Theater expanded to create the International Festival of Puppet Theatre, The School of Visual Theatre and HaZira Performance Art, all local institutions that are still dedicated to interdisciplinary experimental work.

“It was the start of a great outdoor community center for the city,” said Ophrat. “There was a freedom that wasn’t about marketing or money.”

Frig shares that same kind of energy and desire to spread the magic that the Train Theater has always offered.

He wants young theatergoers to attend performances and participate in workshops at the new site, and wants to appeal to teens and older kids as well. He hopes to have performances in Arabic, to add more weekly activities in clowning and puppeteering, and to expand the stage’s reach.

“This is really just the start,” said Frig. “There’s a lot of options now that we’re here.”

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