by Shai Bar-Yaacov*

Shay Pitowsky.
Photo: Gadi Fisherman

Shay Pitowsky is the artistic director of the Elad Theatre, a small experimental theatre company based in Eilat and the Arava region of Israel, not far from the Red Sea. The theatre ensemble is made up of actors and artists who left the established theatres in Tel Aviv, and moved south with their families to set up a new theatre which will explore the frontiers of theatre and delve into profound questions of life.

Pitowsky joined the company in 2015, after he worked for seven year as the artistic director of the Young Troupe of the Habima National Theatre. In this capacity, he staged several notable productions, including The Promised Land and God Waits at the Station, two international projects created in cooperation with the UTE and staged at Stuttgart, Graz, Reims, Cluj and Tel Aviv. Among his other notable productions were The Breakdown (2007-8, Seminar Hakkibutzim, Tzavta and Tmuna, a play that won the prize for best fringe show of the year in Israel in 2008, and has continued running until this day), The Nose (Habima, 2009, based on a story by Gogol), I Shall not Hate (Habima, 2015, based on the autobiography of Dr. Ezzeldeen Abu Al-Aish, the Gaza doctor whose three daughters were killed in an Israeli attack during the war in Gaza, a show also performed in America) and Ten Minutes from Home (Habima, 2014, a show that deals with the story of the Rabin assassination staged as a kind of ritual tragedy).

Pitowsky has also staged several successful children’s shows, including The Circus Adventure and The Adventures of a Donkey That is All Blue, both staged originally at the Haifa International Festival of Children’s Theatre.

Since moving to Eilat, Pitowsky has staged three shows with his new ensemble, Yerma in the Moonlight (2016), Philosophical Tales for Children (2017, a children’s show) and The Old Man and the Sea (2017-8). Each one of these shows has utilized different experimental staging techniques.

Tell me a little bit about your background and your way into the theatre? I know that you didn’t start out studying theatre but, actually, were working in a different field.

Doing theatre and writing for the stage were my first loves in high school, but I didn’t go and study theatre professionally until my late twenties. Initially, I studied copywriting and started working in advertising, because I felt I needed to make money from my writing. And I did. Within a few years, I was elevated to the post of creative director for one of the largest advertising firms in Israel, and this was a very lucrative career. Then, at the age of 28, my father died and that was a real shock to me. It made me realize that time was short; so, within two months I quit my job and found myself studying at the Seminar Hakibbutzim School of Drama. That was where my theatre career began.

Already at the end of my first year of studies, I decided to try and stage a play I had written, and I wanted to put it on during the summer recess. I approached Itzik Weingarten [the manager of the School of Drama at the Seminar Hakibbutzim, S. B-Y.], and he agreed to let me work in the theatre for free during the summer. After that, I continued every year during my studies, directing my own pieces independently of what was going on in the rest of the school.

The most famous piece that came out of that early creative period was your production of The Breakdown based on the novella by Friedrich Duerenmatt. That play started as a directing exercise in the Seminar and went on to win the Best Play of the Year award on the fringe in 2008, and also you won the Best Director award for that year. Amazingly, the production has continued running at various theatres in Israel for more than ten years since then. Can you tell me a bit more about that production?

The Breakdown was a play that came out of my period of interest in physical theatre. I was very much influenced at that stage by the work of Simon McBurney and the Theatre de Complicite. I saw one of their shows in America when I was younger, and I said to myself: “Wow, that is what real theatre should look like.” So, for years, I followed their productions whenever I came to London. I also got to know the work of Steven Berkoff, who also created a kind of physical, grotesque style of theatre. It was in their tradition that I planned the adaptation of “The Breakdown,” with the actors playing not only the characters but also the sets and the sound effects.

The Breakdown. Photo: David Kaplan

But the production was not just a result of a fascination with stylized staging and physical theatre. It also came out of a moral and social critique which was important to me. It was a story about a travelling salesman who pays the price for the sins of the world he lives in. For me, the play was a very clear critique of the way in which Israeli society was going at the time, with the victory of a kind of dog-eat-dog version of capitalism. In a sense, I could identify with the main character of the story, because I myself had been on that same path of life before I changed course and went on to do something completely different.

Video 1

Breakdown, a play that came out of the seminar years

Despite the fact that my early productions—not just The Breakdown, but also Beatrice [another show that came out of the Seminar years, S. B-Y.] and The Nose [Pitowsky’s first production for Habima, S.B-Y.]—were not seen as social plays at the time, for me, in hindsight, they definitely were. They were just filtering their social critique through allegory and stylization. In all of my early plays, there is a plot revolving around an individual who is pitted against a very grotesque, frightening, but also very funny, world of characters, which represents the society. Those plays used alienation and stylization to say something real about our world and its deformation.

Video 2

The Nose, Pitowsky’s first production for Habima

Those productions also earned you your an entry card into Habima, the National Theatre, where you were named the artistic director of the Young Troupe, in 2008, just a year after you finished your studies. But, when you moved to Habima, your style of production changed. Your shows became more directly related to political and social issues, while the style of the productions became much less grotesque and more realistic. Can you tell me a bit more about this shift?

I think this shift was a result of my meeting with Ilan Ronen, who was the artistic director of Habima at the time and also the President of the UTE (Union des Théâtres de l’Europe). His style of theatre is more directly political and topical, and, through him, I got involved with two international projects under the auspices of the UTE, which were centered around certain topical issues, such as the refugee crisis and the war against terror.

The departure of Ilan Ronen (photo) from the position of the artistic director of Habima, also signalled the departure of Pitowsky.
Photo: Public domain (web)

For these projects of the UTE, I created two very different socially focused documentary plays. The Promised Land dealt with African refugees who had fled from conflict zones in their own countries and ended up in Israel, while God Waits at the Station dealt with the story of a specific suicide bombing in a restaurant in Haifa during the second Intifada. It tried to filter the story through the experiences of two young women—the female Palestinian bomber, who was coerced into carrying out the attack, and the female Israeli soldier at the checkpoint, who let the bomber through, because she felt sorry for her, and had to live with the consequences of her actions.

Another play which I did a bit later in the same documentary style was I Shall Not Hate, which was based on the autobiography of Dr. Eizaldin Abu Al-Aish, the doctor from Gaza who lost three of his daughters in the war there, in operation Cast Lead. I myself had been a soldier fighting in the reserves in that war, and I had actually been stationed not far from his home, so, when I read the book, I felt I had to relate to his story on the stage. I worked with the Israeli-Arab actor Ghassan Abbas, and, somehow, the meeting between me, as an Israeli Jewish director, Ghassan, an Israeli Arab actor, and the story of Dr. Abu Al-Aish, created something extremely powerful and moving. It seemed to me that the material itself was so strong that it did not need a lot of theatricality to bring it to life.

These were plays based on stories from real life with extensive research, which I carried out with the actors in my ensemble. In The Promised Land, we worked for a year in a special shelter for refugee children from Darfur, in preparation for the show. It was like working with Holocaust survivors.

After all the terrible experiences they had been through, these kids just wanted a chance to live a normal life. Their stories were so heart-breaking. So, in a way, after my trilogy of allegorical, stylized pieces I did a trilogy of more simple, documentary, social plays.

After seven creative years at Habima, you made the next major shift in your career when you decided to leave the cultural centre of the country, Tel Aviv, and move to Eilat, where you started working with the Elad Theatre ensemble. Can you tell me how that move came about?

It became apparent to me that, with the end of Ilan Ronen’s tenure as Artistic Director, Habima theatre might not continue the project, so I started looking around for other places to work. I had various offers from repertory theatres in Israel, but I felt that the move to becoming a freelance director, working with different actors, in different theatres, for a limited space of time, didn’t suit my approach.

I really believed in working with an ensemble of actors, and doing long term research with them before each show, in the way in which directors such as Peter Brook or Arianne Mnouchkine had done in the past. Then, I got a call from Boaz Dan, an actor who I had known years before at the Seminar Hakibbutzim. He and his wife, who was also an actress, had moved back to his kibbutz, Eilot, which is situated in the deep South, just north of Eilat, in the Arava desert, and set up a small theatre there, which is named the Elad Theatre, after Boaz’s elder brother who fell as a soldier in the Second Lebanon War. He asked me if I might want to come and work with this group, and, after considering the offer, I decided that this was the right place for me now.

I wanted a place where I could do the kind of experimental theatre I believed in, but I also wanted to do theatre that had a connection to new audiences in the periphery, following in the tradition of some of my teachers at the Seminar Hakibbutzim, like Nola Chilton, a director who had gone with a group of actors to Kiryat Shemona [a town on the northern border of Israel, S. B-Y.] way back, in the seventies.

Nola Chilton, a pioneer of socially engaged theatre in Israel, influenced Pitowsky’s decision to move down south. Photo: Public domain (web)

Nola and Itzik Weingarten, who was her student, and today heads the Seminar, had instilled in me the ideal that theatre should make a change on a broader level in society, if it knew how to cultivate new audiences and also give them a voice. So, I moved down south with my whole family and I convinced a couple of the actors from my group at Habima to join in the adventure.

When I arrived in Eilot, at first, I felt like I had been born again. I started taking long walks in the desert listening to music, and, then, it occurred to me that this was the kind of experience I wanted to give my audiences. To take them out of the theatre halls and the usual auditoriums, and bring them back to this beautiful barren landscape. That was how the idea for our first production Yerma in the Moonlight was born.[1]

Why Yerma? How did Lorca connect to your vision of theatre in the desert?

I felt very close to Lorca because of his language and his poetry, but also because he was trying to touch on very basic emotions and needs, especially as regards the relationship between a man and a woman. For me, Yerma is not just a play about a woman who is desperate for a child; it is also a play about a tragic relationship between a man and a woman. Each one of them is trying to influence and change the other, but they cannot change something inside themselves.

Video 3

Yerma in the Moonlight

If they could only let go a bit and loosen up, they might be able to find the fruit they are both trying desperately to find, but they cannot let go of their opposing dreams of what a marriage should be like, and so the fruit is lost. It is also the story of a journey, Yerma’s journey, which starts in a small cottage and, then, goes out into the fields and ends up at the shrine in the hills.

It is a physical journey, but also a mental one. And I felt that, if the audience could follow her along that journey, they would be able to remain alert and aware of what was happening to her at each stage.

It is also a journey into the desert, which, somehow, goes along with her name, which means “barren land” in Spanish. You know, many people who came to see the play told me afterwards that they had never envisioned the play as taking place in the desert, because there is an assumption in the text that the village where Yerma lives in is abundant and fruitful, and that she stands out in her barrenness, but, after they saw the production, they could not imagine the play in any other kind of landscape, with the magical moonlight shining over the desert.

Yerma in the Moonlight. Photo: Amnon Dan

It seems to me to me, from observing your work, that, since you moved to the far South, your work has developed in several ways. On the one hand, you have once more moved away from the social and political themes that you were interested in when you were working at Habima. Your work has distanced itself from the narrow preoccupations of Israeli society and its ongoing struggles. It has become more philosophical and universal.

Yes, almost as if we are on a different planet. You know, they say that Eilat is as far as you can get from Israel without actually leaving the country. It allowed me to look at life from a more philosophical perspective. In fact, the children’s show we created last year was called Beyond the Sea: Philosophical Tales for Children. It is a show which consciously emulates the style of performance of Peter Brook and his company during the period of their journey to Africa, with the whole show taking place on a large carpet and the actors using minimal props and costume changes to take the children on a spiritual journey to many distant lands, and playing the music they create with instruments they bring with them from afar.

On the other hand, there is a new focus in your work on the relationship between the actors and the audience. If, before, you were mainly focused on the work with the actors and the textual material, now, the audience has become an important part of the process. In Yerma, you took them out into the desert and made them a part of the landscape that surrounds your characters, but, in your latest piece, The Old Man and the Sea, the process is reversed. You’ve taken them back into the theatre space, but you have placed them there with their eyes covered, so that they have to experience the performance only through their ears. How did this concept arise?

You know that, in Eilat, there is very little theatrical activity. There are shows that come to town from the North, maybe five or six times a year, and most of them are very conventional, if not to say boring. . . . So, from our point of view, we are not just setting up a new theatre, we are trying to create a new theatre community. From that point of view, for the audience we found here, almost anything is theatre. They have very few preconceptions. If you take them for a walk in the desert, that’s a theatre. And if you bring them The Breakdown and do it out on the seafront, that’s theatre too. Strangely, this process works on us too, because it makes them hungry for more, and they keep asking us: “What’s next?”

The Old Man and the Sea. Photo: David Kaplan

The idea of the doing an adaptation of Hemingway’s story The Old Man and the Sea came about because I felt I had to do a piece about the sea. I mean, the two dominant physical attributes of this region are the desert and the sea. So, after I went into the desert with Yerma, I felt I needed to find a text that would take us out into the sea. My good friend, the dramaturge Shahar Pinkas, suggested that I read Hemmingway’s book, and I was captivated by the story. I got really attached to the old fisherman, as if he were my own grandfather, and I couldn’t stand the idea of leaving him out there all alone on the great ocean.

Then, the question arose of how to translate all that richness of text into a theatrical idiom. I mean, you could try and translate the sea and the great fish into metaphoric elements, like a large cloth waving about that symbolizes the sea, and some kind of puppet that symbolizes the fish, but this didn’t seem powerful enough for me. I wanted the audience to be immersed in the tale, and, so, I said that all it needs is the text, the music and the sounds of the sea. In the final analysis, what I wanted to offer them is a much more private and personal experience than we usually get in the theatre. That was how the production was born, with the idea that the audience would experience everything aurally, like in a kind of radio-play.

Video 4

The Old Man and the Sea

But, on the other hand, I wanted to make sure that it is a real, live performance that we are experiencing; so, all the actors are acting their roles like in a regular performance, acting fully . . . and they even wear costumes . . . and the musicians and the actors who make all the sound effects are standing around the audience, so close that you can feel them behind your back. And all the sounds are created live, using all sorts of improvised instruments. We don’t use any pre-recorded electronic sound effects. All this tries to emphasize the idea that this is a live performance, and, if the spectator peaks out from behind his blindfold, he can see the whole thing being created in front of his eyes.

You know that many audience members have asked to come and see the show twice. Once, so they can experience it with the blindfold, and once, so they may see the skill of the actors and the musicians, and enjoy the show like a kind of complex concert. In fact, one of my experiences with this show is how quiet the audience is. There is a kind of total concentration in the air, without anybody moving or coughing or making any kind of noise. It is really quite amazing.

And what next? What will be your next project?

Well, I don’t like to talk about future projects, because you never know how things may develop. However, at the moment, I am doing research on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, which I hope will also become the basis for another unusual interactive experience. A kind of invitation to the great ball of the Capulets where the audience and the actors can mingle together, and the story of the star-crossed lovers can unfold. This project is being developed as a joint project with the Israel Festival in Jerusalem.

I also have a production idea that we are working on, which is meant to take place in a small cube-space placed on the beach-front, where some actors will come together as if they are old fans of the rock-group ABBA, who like to dress up and perform as their heroes.

We believe that our theatre can also appeal to some of the foreign audiences that flock to Eilat as tourists every year, so we are also working on producing translated versions of our shows.

[1] Yerma in the Moonlight is a site-specific production based on the text by Lorca that takes place in various locations in the kibbutz of Eilot and outside the perimeter fence of the kibbutz in the paths leading up to a small grove situated in the middle of the desert, where the final mystical scenes take place. The audience follows the actors around from one location to another, and can see their interactions both at extreme close-up but also from a distance. The performance, which premiered in 2016, received great critical acclaim and has also won popular approval, being staged more than a hundred times to date. Some audiences have travelled down especially from Tel Aviv by plane to see the show and return to the north the next day.

*Shai Bar Yaacov is a theatre critic, teacher and director. He lectures in the Hebrew University Theatre Studies Department and has also taught at Haifa University and the School for Visual Theatre. Since 2000, he has been the theatre critic of Yedioth Ahronot, the largest circulation daily newspaper in Israel, and he also does reviews for Galei Zahal radio station.

Copyright © 2018 Shai Bar-Yaacov
Critical Stages/Scènes critiques e-ISSN: 2409-7411

This work is licensed under the
Creative Commons Attribution International License CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.

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Making Theatre Between the Desert and the Sea: Interview with Shay Pitowsky
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