Tel Aviv and theaters fund incubators to set stage for new class of dramatists

City and 4 repertory theaters split cost of NIS 640,000 program to develop works by local playwrights under 40, with hopes to bring them to the stage when doors can reopen

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

Illustrative: An Israeli couple wait for a play to begin in Tel Aviv on June 5, 2013. (Zuzana Janku/Flash 90)
Illustrative: An Israeli couple wait for a play to begin in Tel Aviv on June 5, 2013. (Zuzana Janku/Flash 90)

A spate of new plays commissioned from young Tel Aviv playwrights may be one way the beleaguered culture industry is fighting back against the strangling effects of the coronavirus pandemic.

Over half a million shekels is being invested by the Tel Aviv municipality and the city’s four most established repertory theaters — Habima Theater, Beit Lessin Theater, Gesher Theater and Cameri Theater — to help develop works written by Tel Aviv residents who are under 40.

“The Future of Theater” will establish incubators at each of the four theaters, each of which will foster four playwrights, leading to a total of 16 stage projects. The project is a chance for the theaters and the city to foster younger talent, an idea that came about thanks to the extended pandemic closure having given them breathing room for a rethink.

“It’s acting on the change and not just talking about it,” said Jason Danino-Holt, 34, a beneficiary of the program. “All the big institutions have had a chance to rethink what they want to be.”

Actor, playwright and theater director Jason Danino Holt, one of the young playwrights selected in a new incubator project created by the Tel Aviv municipality and its four major repertory theaters (Courtesy Jason Danino Holt)

Holt’s play, “A Unit for Rent” — a reaction to Leah Goldberg’s beloved children’s book, “A Flat for Rent” — will be developed and performed at the Cameri Theater.

The writers sponsored by the project, all of whom have been chosen, will be paid for their writing and stage work, with every theater undertaking to stage at least one of its incubator projects next year, for a minimum 30-day run.

Local theaters have invested in developing works by young playwrights before, but what’s new this time is the significant municipal participation, noted Roy Chen, the in-house playwright at the Gesher Theater.

The project will be funded by an NIS 640,000 (around $195,000) budget, split evenly between the municipality and each theater.

Each playwright will receive NIS 30,000 (around $9,200) and, when there are additional participants, each co-writer will receive NIS 10,000 (around $3,060).

Playwright Roy Chen, whose work at Tel Aviv’s Gesher Theater now includes working with four young playwrights as part of a new incubator project created in 2021 by the Tel Aviv-Jaffa municipality and its four major repertory theaters (Courtesy Roy Chen)

“The city did something amazing here, giving its money to this,” said Chen.

He said the support for younger playwrights has come about primarily because of the pandemic.

“The municipality decided that if there isn’t theater right now, it’s the time to write,” said Chen. “To get ready for the next day.”

Chen, whose work at Gesher includes writing his own plays, building the theater’s annual seasons, translating plays from English, French and Russian to Hebrew and adapting books into plays, has worked with young playwrights in the past.

A decade ago, he worked with Noa Koler and Erez Drigues when they were young actors who wrote a play called “One Plus One,” which was performed at Gesher. A fictionalized story surrounding the play’s genesis recently became a hit TV series by Koler and Drigues called “Rehearsals.”

“Now I’m doing it again,” said Chen. “I really believe in these four playwrights and hope that in less than 10 years we’ll be talking about them the way we talk about Erez and Noa.”

The participating repertory theaters and municipality want plays that will draw a younger crowd to the theater. The projects selected for the incubator project echo the issues faced by a new audience, including urban economic survival, the job race, societal rifts and sexual identity conflict.

Chen at the Gesher Theater is already at work with his four playwrights: Ealeal Semel, daughter of playwright Nava Semel, who is working on a musical; Jaffa rapper Neta Weiner of System Ali; Odessa-born fringe actor, director and playwright Ariel Bronz, whose work is about immigration and emigration; and filmmaker Aleeza Chanowitz, a former member of the Chabad Hasidic sect from Brooklyn, whose play will focus on the religious community and those who choose to leave it.

“When our doors open again,” said Chen, “I want at least two of them to be ready for rehearsals.”

Israeli actress Yona Elian (middle) and Tel Aviv mayor Ron Huldai (left) attended the opening ceremony for the new renovated Beit Lessin Theater in Tel Aviv on August 3, 2019 (Courtesy Flash 90)

Support for young playwrights has been a long time in coming, said Giyora Yahalom, director of the Tel Aviv-Yafo Municipality Department of Cultural Affairs.

It’s been 50 years since a new generation of playwrights burst onto the Israeli stage, including Hanoch Levin, Hillel Mittelpunkt, Edna Mazia, Joshua Sobol and Miriam Kainy, said Yahalom.

“They echoed the audience of their own age, and founded a new generation of Israeli playgoers who fell in love with theater forever,” he said.

Yahalom is “bringing in new blood,” said Danino, who is also the artistic director of the fringe Habait Theater in Jaffa, and whose play will focus on the marginalized communities and voices in Tel Aviv.

Artists, performers and cultural sector professionals protest the ongoing pandemic closures outside Habima Theater in Tel Aviv, November 23, 2020 (Courtesy Tomer Neuberg/FLASH 90)

Yahalom is himself a screenwriter and the playwright project is similar in scope to the support given to Israel’s film industry, which has led to award-winning, commercially successful films. Chen linked the film industry’s success to funding from major foundations for script development.

“People were given money in order to write and get help developing their scripts,” he said. “Now we’re getting money for play development, and we’ve never, ever had that in the theater world.”

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