Since The First Gulf War, the theater community in Jerusalem has been stepping up to provide a much needed artistic outlet to help alleviate stress in times of conflict. The six current english speaking community theaters have been working overtime to create opportunities for people of all ages to get involved in creative projects that help them deal with stress and refocus their attention on the positive aspects that art brings to life.
“Both the audience, as well as the actors and creative team, use theater as an outlet to alleviate a lot of the day-to-day tension that arises when times get tough,” said the Artistic Director of one of the local theaters who requested to remain anonymous. “It is why in times of crisis, such as the almost bi-annual conflicts with Hamas, and whenever there is a heightened number of terror attacks in Jerusalem, audience attendance actually rises. People are looking for a way to deal with the tension, a way to reaffirm the beauty of life.”
At last Thursday’s performance of First City Improv’s theatrical improvisation show, one attendee expressed his gratitude for a positive outlet at such stressful times. “Thank you for performing during this tough time. It really helped me to laugh. We all need something to laugh about now-a-days.”
Stories abound in the community of how theater has helped people deal with various conflicts throughout Israel’s history. One particularly touching story occurred during the performance of Second Star to the Left a musical that was written and performed for families and children. The performance took place at AACI’s J-Town Playhouse during Operation Protective Edge. During the final matinee, a code red siren sounded warning of incoming missile attack from Gaza on the Jerusalem area. The attack occurred just as intermission was called, and the cast, in full costume and makeup accompanied audience members, most of whom were young children to the shelter.
“Everyone was in tears,” recalls Amanda Keehn, an actress in the Musical. “It was the day that the three boys were found, and we had a discussion as to whether or not to have the show. during the attack we walked downstairs and tried to comfort the audience. Both the young and the elderly. I think it was a necessary escape for the audience to forget about their worries for a few hours.” Keehn is currently starring in the theater’s upcoming production of Pride and Prejudice slated for this December.
The Playhouse is currently gearing up to produce a pulitzer award winning rock musical by the name of Next to Normal. The play which is being produced in cooperation with the Jerusalem branch of “Enosh”, Israel’s mental health association, tells the story of one family’s struggle to cope with mental illness, loss, and heartbreak.
Layla Schwartz, the Director of the show told Arutz Sheva exactly how this show is set to help audiences during the current wave of terror in Jerusalem.
“Theater is about struggles. Big struggles, small struggles, it doesn’t matter what they are exactly, the important thing is that they exist,” she said.
“The audience who comes to a show roots for the protagonist to overcome their struggles, and that message is universal. It is something we can all connect to, it helps. I think it’s therapeutic to come see a show with a big struggle during a time of crisis. It’s catharsis,” she continued.
Schwartz who is no stranger to the stage, having performed twice in Jerusalem in the past year said that theater helps people find courage. “People go to the theater to see other people being courageous. Next to Normal in particular is perhaps a different kind of fear than looking over your shoulder in the old city, but fear is fear. Overcoming that fear is what is important. That is why we tell stories,” she said.
Schwartz said that the musical is one that can truly inspire the audience in the current crisis. “Next to Normal is a play that has a lot of personal struggle involved. But the show ends off by letting us all know that there is a light at the end of the tunnel, and that is true for the security situation in Israel as well. Even though we are in a tough time now, things will get better.”
Leah Stoller, former Director of the recently closed Jerusalem English Speaking Theater, also discussed her experiences when facing terror and war. “During the First Gulf War, when scuds were falling from the skies, we were in the middle of rehearsing for our performance of South Pacific,” Stoller recalled. “Everyone used to come to rehearsals with their gas masks, and instead of rehearsals taking place in the middle of of the city, we rehearsed from people’s homes.”
Stoller recounted how staying connected to the creativity helped the actors through the ordeal of the time. “Everyone knew that it was important to keep going with the daily routine, and to keep creating. Theater takes us out of ourselves, more than film. Because you are there with the people on stage and the other audience members.”
According to Stoller, the sense of community, and togetherness that theater creates is possibly the most important antidote to terror. “It is very important for people who are afraid to keep coming out. To fulfill the need to be with other people. Sitting in one’s home is not good for mental health. To see other people come out in tough times helps others make the same decision that a person can keep coming out, and can continue with real life.”
Another example was the Sderot Media Center’s theatrical production of Children of the Qassam which took place in 2009. The play tells the story of teenagers who have lived their entire lives under the the threat of qassam rocket attacks in the southern Israeli town of Sderot. The play was created to provide a therapeutic outlet for the youngsters to talk about their traumas in a way that would allow them to be comfortable doing so.
“The art of theater, is that it creates a veil through which the audience and the actors can share in the tension that is all around them, and by creating a new story, one in which they see the protagonist overcome their struggle, they too can be empowered to overcome the personal struggles and fear that they are dealing with on a day to day basis,” said Schwartz.
“The idea that theater helps us alleviate the tensions in our lives is not new. It goes all the way back to the Greeks,” Schwartz continued. “No one can really relate to what Oedipus was going through, but through his tragedy, the audience was able to relate to their own lives differently, and put their own problems into perspective,” she said.
“Being creative in the performing arts, or any art for that matter, is perhaps one of the most important therapies that is around,” said one Artistic Director.
“Performing arts, allows one to touch an aspect of themselves that is otherwise left untouched. They can dig deeper into themselves, and tell stories, or relate stories, that they would otherwise be unable to tell,” he said. “Pursuing the human endeavor to create and achieving a communal goal, is perhaps the greatest answer to terror that has ever existed. As Jonathan Larson wrote in his magnum opus, Rent! 'The opposite of war isn’t peace, it’s creation.' In the face of war and wanton destruction, creation is the best answer.”