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'You Make the Road by Walking' :: Guy Ben-Aharon on Israeli Stage's Final Production

by Kilian Melloy
Wednesday May 1, 2019
Guy Ben-Aharon
Guy Ben-Aharon  (Source:Anna Olivella )

We've barely had time to digest the reality that Zeitgeist Stage Company is leaving us once the curtain comes down on their final production, "Trigger Warning," and now there's news of another long-running stage company taking its last bows. Once "The Return" completes it planned run — from April 26 — May 19 — Israeli Stage will wrap up its ninth and final season.

The driving force behind "Israeli Stage" is Guy Ben-Aharon, who was born in Israel and moved to the United States at the age of nine. When Ben-Aharon was in high school his family returned to Israel. Eventually, Ben-Aharon came back to the U.S., and he launched Israeli Stage.

That beginning was nine years ago, and the company has grown and flourished through 35 plays that, as a recent press release from the company notes, were "presented in English translation as staged readings and productions." The company "has been a platform to engage audiences in vital dialogue — often from points of view that are rarely seen on stage."

With the fully staged production of its final play, "The Return," Israeli Stage breaks new ground right up to the end: "The Return" will be the company's first production by a Palestinian-Israeli author, co-writer Hanna Eady, who wrote "The Return" with his longtime collaborator Edward Mast.

EDGE caught up with Guy Ben-Aharon to hear about "The Return," ask what his future plans are, and offer him a word of thanks for nine seasons of meaningful, and memorable, theater.


EDGE: I know that you've described Israeli Stage Company as a kind of "experiment," but what prompted that experiment? Did you feel there was a need for a greater Israeli voice in the Boston theater scene?

Guy Ben-Aharon: The "experiment" part was I was nineteen, and I had no idea we were starting anything that would last that long. The other thing is that we're doing staged readings as a product; staged readings are usually done internally, and we're experimenting with the idea that this is the cultural experience that people are engaging with, and that readings can provide a way for people to be even more engaged and sit forward in their chair, because they are such an active part of making the story come to life.

EDGE: If you can suspend your disbelief and invest in the idea that a full set is a real place and time, then why not take it all the way? Why not let your imagination really take over! Right?

Guy Ben-Aharon: Yeah! People always laugh. "My god, it's incredible. Your staged readings are sold out!" I think it's because we treat staged readings not as a one-day rehearsal (we rehearse a good amount of time for them), but with an approach that allows the audience to be very active. Sometimes we've also not staged them traditionally, so that sort of plays with the idea of what a reading can be.

In terms of starting Israeli Stage, I was at Emerson College; my parents had just moved back to Israel and I was coming back to the States from having spent a gap year teaching English in Spain, and I think in some ways it was a way to bridge these two homes, these two identities. The other thing, which I think only became apparent over the years — because nothing was apparent when it started right? You make the road by walking — was that this initiative could really be a way for people to approach and to listen, to share, to engage with issues that are very difficult to engage with. I think that's thanks to the fact that it was always intimate and that for nine seasons we've never had a performance without a dialogue afterward. We don't have the artist up on stage usually [for the post-show discussions], we have moderators and I think that makes a big difference.

The other thing I think became apparent after a few years is also that when we look at what's known as translated theater, do we know any translated theater beyond Chekhov and Moliere and Yasmina Reza? Not really. It's been sort of a personal mission to open Americans up to voices from abroad.

EDGE: Yes, and in the process you've brought playwrights over to do residencies and present new works — most recently Dror Keren, but also Joshua Sobol, Nataly Zukerman, and others. Plus, there have been times when you have presented fully staged works — and "The Return," your next play, will also be fully staged.

Guy Ben-Aharon: That's right, we've had a reading series, a residency program, and a fully staged program.

EDGE: But now, after nine seasons, you're presenting one last play and then moving on and shuttering Israeli Stage. Why now?

Guy Ben-Aharon: There's a conglomerate of reasons. One is that I didn't become an artist to find a model that works and keep repeating it. I became an artist because I wanted to continue to experiment, to continue to seek new truths, to continue to explore. I think that there's this idea that everything must last, but in fact, if we look at theater, the beauty of theater is that it's not a film. You can't put it into your DVD player or stream it on Netflix and see it again. It was alive at a moment in time, and that's what makes it so powerful and so memorable — because you actually have to engage your memory in summoning the experience up, as opposed to, "Oh, let me just screen this again. I'll watch 'When Harry Met Sally' for the eleventh time."

[Laughter]

Guy Ben-Aharon: And I think, you know, it was time to move on. It was also, values-wise, I recognize that the name in some ways perfectly describes what the company did, but also was more apparent for certain people to be at the table while giving a reason for people to say, "Oh, that's not for me." We did programming over the last few years that was more daring and more vibrant. We have a two-thirds Jewish audience, but we also have a third non-Jewish, which I think is amazing. And our board is a third non-Jewish. I'm interested in continuing to make theater that brings people together to create a shared experience for them, and allows them to get to know one another — get to know what they don't know through one another. This is not the vehicle for that. But, at the same time, it's been incredible! I'm so grateful. It's been nine years that are really amazing.

And the last part is, there's a political element to it, which is: What does it mean to run a company called Israeli Stage at this time? Over the last nine years, it's grown and grown, and we've had to face questions that I think don't even make any sense. People saying certain plays are "anti-Israel" or "pro-Israel." What does any of that mean? Did anybody go up to Arthur Miller and say, "My god, 'A View from A Bridge.' That's an anti-American play!" And because our name is Israeli Stage we have to face that. We produced the world premiere of "The Last Act" [a play that no one in Israel would produce], which is written by Israel's most famous living playwright [Joshua Sobol], and we had people calling us "anti-Semitic" for it. Which is — at first it was sort of funny and ridiculous and then moved to be kind of tragic, and then moved back to be kind of funny. I mean, to me, that's how I know we were doing the good work. If you're not spurring controversy, that means everybody's totally comfortable, so the plays don't really do anything.

EDGE: It seems like you are poised for a little controversy with "The Return," which is by Hanna Eady, a Palestinian-Israeli playwright.

Guy Ben-Aharon: And by Ed Mast — it's co-written by the two of them.

EDGE: What drew your attention to this play in particular?

Guy Ben-Aharon: It's a gorgeous script. I met Hanna when he was acting in "The Admission," which is a play by Motti Lerner that drew quite a controversy to Theater J down in D.C. I've known Motti for years, and we've actually had Motti in Boston twice.

So, I went to see Hanna in that, and we met, and I'd heard that he was writing, also, so I asked him to send me scripts. And we chatted, and at a certain point I had read "The Return" and thought, "My god, what a gorgeous play." Certain plays have a political agenda or it's very apparent that the main thing they are doing is describing a political reality, and then other plays describe humans within a political reality I think "The Return" does that beautifully. It's truly a human story, this Palestinian citizen of Israel and this Jewish Israeli. I don't want to say too much because it might really... you know... spoiler alert!

[Laughter]

Guy Ben-Aharon: But I think the play so gorgeously weaves two people and their desires and shows them as two people.

EDGE: To play those two people, you've cast Nael Nacer and Philana Mia — how did that come about?

Guy Ben-Aharon: I think they're both amazing actors! When we were choosing the season I did a few readings in my living room — when people just come over and read scripts and we sort of talk about them and see what works. I actually called in Philana to see if she might be interested in reading the script. She read it on her iPad and said, "Oh my god, this is a stunning script!" I sort knew right away Philana was gonna be amazing in this. Heartbreaking, because she's so real — Philana's bullshit meter is very acute. This is such a human story, you want such a human.

And then, Nael — I adore him. We've worked together, we've done over ten readings together, and he'd been a part of Israeli Stage over the years. We actually were laughing when we told Philana and our stage manager, Kim, just the other day how Nael and I did a play in French together, a mono-drama that we toured with — we took it to Denver and down to Rhode Island, and in one advertisement they sort of made up this thing. They said, in French, "Israeli-American director Guy and his Lebanese actor present..." Not an actor, his actor, his Lebanese actor. Lebanese! Where did they get that? Anyway, Nael came in and we just read it. We didn't really have an audition for this; it was just so apparent this would be a beautiful story with these two people telling it.

EDGE: So — are you looking to make a statement with this play?

Guy Ben-Aharon: Well, I'll let you make that decision!

[Laughter]

Guy Ben-Aharon: With Israeli Stage, the mission is sharing the diversity and vitality of Israeli culture. Vitality comes from the Latin word for life; we always are committed to things that are vital, that are of the moment, that are happening now.

And we are committed to diversity. We had six playwrights in residence over the years, from highlighting Sephardic stories — bringing in a Moroccan-Israeli playwright — to bringing in a disabled performance artist for an artists' residency. I think it's really important to include and showcase stories that are not told in the traditional arena, especially when people think of Israel or Jews. I remember when we brought Hanna Azoulay, the Moroccan-Israeli playwright, people were saying, "I never knew there were Jews of color." Or, "I always think of Jews as European." Well, no. Let's expand people's minds! I think in the same way, this is a great opportunity for that.

EDGE: Can you say a little about what you're going to be doing next? You've made a few references, but said anything specific.

Guy Ben-Aharon: Yeah, I am keeping that story. That will be another story. I'm not going into it, but what I do say is I'm going into something that is equally cultural as it is social. And putting an equal value as to what's on stage and who' s in the audience and how we engage them. I'm really interested in the fact that culture brings people together and creates a shared experience, how do we harvest that and use that as a way to dissolve barriers and have folks get to know one another and get to know what they don't know?

EDGE: Will you be staying in Boston, or heading to some other city for your new venture?

Guy Ben-Aharon: It'll be in Boston, yeah. I'm not leaving yet!


"The Return" is scheduled to run April 26 — May 19 at the Boston Center for the Arts. For tickets and more information, please go to https://www.israelistage.com/event/the-return-full-production

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


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