Lee Perlman in conversation with Marine Furet

I met Dr Lee Perlman by a happy coincidence last August, as we were both waiting to see a show at the Edinburgh Festivals, in the bustling hallway of the Traverse Theatre. We started chatting and he introduced himself as a researcher from Israel, who had just launched a book in Edinburgh. The book was But Abu Ibrahim, We’re Family!, an extensive study of joint theatre productions by Jewish Israeli and Palestinian teams, published by the Tami Steinmetz Research Centre for Peace Research, based at Tel Aviv University, where Dr Perlman is a research fellow. The book was presented at the Shalom Festival as part of the Edinburgh Fringe, and Dr Perlman agreed to discuss some of his findings with Plays to See.

MF: First, can you please tell us a bit about yourself?

LP: I live in Tel Aviv, and emigrated to Israel 35 years ago. I contracted the theatre “virus”, as my late father called it, in my teens, growing up in Manhattan. The virus has taken on all sorts of forms, as a student, stage director, educator, researcher and in various public roles, like, most recently, the chair of the artistic committee of Isra-Drama, the International Spotlight on Israeli Drama Festival. I also served as the Executive Director of the America-Israeli Culture Foundation, a group that identifies, supports and cultivates Israel’s future artistic leaders in both the performing and visual arts.

I’ve spent these last 35 years, as an engaged citizen and researcher, fostering models and approaches to understand and address the thorny human and practical dimensions of Israeli-Palestinian cross-border relations and Jewish-Palestinian relations within Israel.  I’ve had the opportunity, in a number of my professional roles, “on the ground” in Israeli civil society groups to actively promote policies of shared society and equality within Israel. During the Oslo II period (Mid-1990’s – 2000), as part of the broader Oslo Accords’ People-to-People strategy, I founded and directed an Israeli-Palestinian Encounters Unit in the Melitz Centers in Jerusalem. I also served as a member of one of the Negotiation Support Teams, in the most recent, but now distant iteration of earnest, public Palestinian-Israeli negotiations, in the Annapolis peace process in 2007-2009.  

MF: What inspired you to study the role of theatre in peace-building?                   

LP:  It’s a natural fit – due to my interests and life choices. In the 1990’s, while pursuing my Master’s degree at Tel Aviv University, I was involved in theatre in peace-building programs and through non-profits like Peace Child, which brought together young people to devise and perform original works. I also viewed various theatre productions of adult Jewish-Israeli and Palestinian non-actors in mixed cities, like Jaffa and Ramle. Some of these were produced in seemingly impossible circumstances, amid very intense internal discord. I often asked myself – what was the glue that sustained these groups and what was the significance of these productions?

Another inspiration has been a decade of participation in Acting Together, an international network developing and sharing knowledge about the arts as powerful resources for addressing social conflict and promoting reconciliation. There is a growing field of arts, culture and conflict transformation anchored in a number of universities, like the Tami Steinmetz Centre for Peace Research at Tel Aviv University.

MF: How did you conduct your research? Your book focuses on very recent productions, from 2000 to 2010: what made you choose this timeframe?

LP:  I chose to research professional productions that were part of the organic life of various repertory and fringe theatres in Israel. I was fascinated with how professional Jewish and Palestinian theatre artists, in what I call “joint productions”, experienced, represented and reflected the conflictual relations between these two national groups, both in their creation processes and on stage. I was curious to understand how they navigated power dynamics and relations between them while working together to overcome external forces, which ran counter to their work.

As part of my PhD dissertation, which served as the basis for But Abu Ibrahim, We’re Family!, I discovered that there were over forty such joint productions during the period. The first productions coincided with the Al-Aqsa Intifada and the October 2000 events, when Palestinian/Israeli relations became acutely conflictual and the rift between Jewish and Palestinian citizens in Israeli society deepened. More productions were brought to the stage up to and after Israel’s military incursion in Gaza, known as the “Gaza War” or “Operation Cast Lead,” in early 2009. Forty seemed like quite a lot to me, considering the worsening situations. Yes, there were more professionally trained Palestinian actors in Israel who wanted to make a living here, but remember, this was the very sobering post-Oslo period, where hope and talk of a “new Middle-East” had essentially evaporated, and yet all these plays were being produced. This intrigued me.

I ended up writing four case studies – each production was produced, to varied degrees, by mixed Jewish Israeli and Palestinian teams, contained various degrees of bilingualism and came into being through a conscious attempt on the part of the initiators and artists to include and to represent both national groups.

MF: Can you give us a brief outline of the productions you are focusing on in your book?

LP: Ga’aguim (Longings) of the Arab-Hebrew Theatre of Jaffa (now called the Jaffa Theatre) premiered in 2001. It is a montage of dramatized narratives, largely based on the oral histories of a group of the Jewish Israeli and Palestinian actors’ family members. Ga’aguim personalizes, humanizes and ultimately grants legitimacy to various Jewish Israeli and Palestinian citizens’ experiences of exile. The audiences are invited to try to understand and empathize with all of the characters, their stories and their memories.

Plonter (Tangle) of the Cameri Theatre (Tel Aviv’s Municipal Theatre), Israel’s largest repertory theatre, premiered in 2005. It is a semi-documentary piece of socio-political drama in the format of a collage of fragmented, but often overlapping vignettes. Plonter’s major dramatic framework is the intertwining stories of a Palestinian family in the Palestinian Authority, a young couple, whose child is killed by an Israeli soldier serving in the West Bank, and the experiences of an Israeli soldier involved in the cover-up of the killing of the child, and whose pregnant wife loses their unborn baby as a result of a terror attack.

Ga’aguim’s text was developed by the actors in parallel, each consulting Jewish Israeli director, Igal Ezraty and conducting their own rehearsals with him. In the case of Plonter, the Jewish-Israeli director, Yael Ronen, facilitated an extensive six-month group building, learning and devising process with four Palestinian actors and five Jewish-Israeli actors. Significantly, the Jewish-Israel actors learned and performed in Arabic, some acting full scenes in Arabic.

Hummus Chips Salat (Hummus Chips Salad) of the Acco Theater Center premiered in the fall of 2008. 

MF: I understand that the title of the book comes from this play.

LP: Yes, Hummus Chips Salat is set in a Palestinian restaurant in Acre, at the heart of the trendy Acco Festival of Alternative Theatre – a much smaller version of Edinburgh Fringe – a central event in the Israel arts world since 1980. The climactic scene pits Michaela, the Festival’s comical, condescending liberal Jewish-Israeli artistic director from Tel Aviv, in direct confrontation with Abu Ibrahim, the usually indulging owner of the restaurant that Michael frequents. Abu Ibrahim, fed up with Michaela’s hypocrisy, blurts out, “We’re sick of you, Miss Michaela,” to which Michaela defensively responds, “…But Abu Ibrahim, we’re family!”  

MF: And the other production you focused on?

LP: Elef Laila V’Laila (A Thousand and One Nights) premiered in the beginning of 2009. It was a co-production of the Arab-Hebrew Theatre of Jaffa and the Habimah National Theatre – an interesting collaboration between a fringe and repertory theatre. It was the only production, under study in my book, or that was performed during this time frame, with a Palestinian director, the director-actor, Norman Issa. 

MF: Does this mean that the hierarchy of the casting and production team tends to reflect inequalities between Palestinians and Israelis in the productions you studied?

LP: Yes, definitely. Ultimately, all the productions with Jewish-Israeli directors and more Jewish-dominated productions teams replicated the power relations between Jewish Israelis and Palestinians, to one extent or another. This was not only a function of numbers – how many actors and how many designers etc. – but also of the producing institution. The Arab-Hebrew Theatre of Jaffa, for example, embodies the ethics of shared space through its equitable policies. On the other hand, Plonter, despite its edgy and disturbing messages (for Jewish audiences), was created in a culturally hegemonic institution – the Cameri Theatre, whose management structure and interests do not reflect the Jewish-Palestinian shared sphere and the sensibilities of the project they have initiated. In the case of Hummus Chips Salat, it was a little different. The director, Yoav Bartel and choreographer, Avigail Rubin, worked within the Acco Theatre Centre framework, casting four of the Centre’s Palestinian actors, and creating and maintaining a cohesive artistic family, amidst the violent Yom Kippur events in October 2008 and for close to four years. Bartel and Rubin were very sensitive to inequalities and their roles in challenging and trying not replicate them. At one point, Bartel told me “We came to identify with the guys from Acco. And at some point, we became one. Our fates were tied together.”  

MF: Each of these productions occurred at particularly tense moments for Israeli-Palestinian relationships: how has this impacted the creative process and the plays themselves?

LP: Yes, they all premiered amid turbulent extra-theatrical events, Ga’aguim, at the height of the Al-Aqsa Intifada; Plonter, as Israel’s disengagement from Gaza loomed; Hummus Chips Salat, weeks after the Yom Kippur riots in Acre, which prompted the town’s mayor to postpone the fringe festival; Elef Laila V’Laila in 2009, a few days after Israel’s military incursion into Gaza began.  And yes, all of these events, regular day-to-day tensions, even election campaigns, impacted the creative process.

At the end of the day, these Jewish-Israelis and Palestinian shared a stage and essentially waged the conflicts between them non-violently. This was particularly vivid when, after the production’s opening night, one of Elef Laila V’Laila’s self-defined left wing, pro-peace Jewish Israeli actresses shared with me, “You are doing a theatre production with your enemies.” Yet, this show performs till this day, over eight years later. Each of these four productions had a long run.

In the case of Elef Laila V’Laila, the imaginary storytelling space created by the plot – derived from The One Thousand and One Nights – and by director Issa was used as a space for healing and reflection, not only for the play’s characters, but for the production’s actors and the theatregoers. 

MF: Can you expand on the notion of shared space your study builds on?

LP: The shared spaces created in these productions were comprised of a number of elements. They enabled multiple, often clashing, truths and divergent voices to be expressed, amplified and respectfully occupy the same space in the rehearsal process and performances. Interestingly, the diverse views in these shared spaces were not always dominated by or only feature the hegemonic Jewish-Israeli perspectives. Significantly, these were shared spaces of public legitimacy, in which one was able to contain and express controversial approaches and voices, including Palestinian narratives and symbols, which lie outside the norm of, and are often excluded, from the social and political discourse in Israel’s Jewish polity. These productions thus served as vehicle for Israel’s Palestinian minority, which constitute almost 20% of Israel’s citizens, to speak and be represented in front of the Jewish majority, and often provided the Palestinian theatre artists a sense of agency.

MF: What is the role of multilingualism in these productions?

LP: The shared spaces sought to offer equal footing to the differing national, cultural and linguistic traditions. There is a lot of significance to how much Arabic was included in these productions – remember, most of these audience members are not Arabic speakers and would either have to read Hebrew subtitles, like in Plonter, or figure out the meaning of the lines in context, like in Ga’aguim, Elef Laila V’Laila or Hummus Chips Salat. What I found even more riveting, was the language of rehearsals – in Elef Laila V’Laila, the Palestinian director, who put together a production team that included a Palestinian choreographer and co-musical director, spoke Arabic freely, including with the Arabic speaking Palestinian and Jewish-Israeli actors, often at the dismay of the non-Arabic speakers, who were clearly very threatened.  This became the main expression of the battle over power relations in this production, which I describe and analyse in detail in the book.  

MF: How have these plays been received by the Israeli public?                                                           

LP: Artistically, they’ve largely been well received, though some critics and fellow theatre artists felt some of the productions could have gone farther with their artistic and political statements. As I previously noted, the four productions all had or continue to have long runs. Interestingly, none have generated too much conflict or controversy, even though much of their contents are actually quite threatening to Jewish-Israeli sensibilities.

MF: How is “the Arab” represented in Israeli theatre?

LP: This is a pretty big subject that has been researched quite a bit by my colleagues Dan Urian and Shimon Levy . Palestinian actors began to appear on the Israeli stages in the 1980s, performing in the growing amount of plays which introduced the Palestinian theme. Fully-fledged Palestinian characters only began to appear in the 1970’s, performed usually by Jewish-Israeli actors, something which is still common. Urian has claimed that the way Palestinians are represented expresses the desire of groups of Jewish artists and spectators to resolve the political conflict, while these very same representations simultaneously portray fear of the “other” and the tendency to reject the “other.”

MF: Are there many joint productions happening now?

LP: Yes, quite a few – both in the repertory theatres, but more so at the Jaffa Theatre, Acco Theatre Center and Acco Fringe Festival. There is more and more bilingualism and even, in a few cases, all Arabic language plays, directed by Jewish-Israeli directors. Many of the newer joint productions try and succeed in creating discomfort in their Israeli audience members, especially the self-defined liberal and left wing Jewish Israelis. For example, Shame is a performance of two consecutive solo pieces in which a Jewish-Israeli actress, Einat Weizman and Palestinian actor, Morad Hassan, each perform their personal experience of taking oppositional public stands in and outside of the theatre while seeking to fulfil their artistic aspirations. Another recent joint production at The Jaffa Theatre, written by veteran Israeli playwright and screenwriter Motti Lerner is The Admission, directed by Sinai Peter, which has drawn a lot attention and controversy recently. It is a play about memory and denial in the context of what Israelis call their “War of Independence” and Palestinians call their “Nakba” (Arabic for Catastrophe). I’ve seen both of these plays multiple times.

MF: Finally, you recently attended the Edinburgh Festivals: how does the British (and Scottish) theatre scene compare with theatre in Israel? Have you been particularly struck by any of the productions that you saw in the UK?

LP: I loved the Fringe, the International Festival and the stand-up comedy I saw in Edinburgh and look forward to returning. The quality and intensity of acting was consistently high – I saw some wonderful performances at Summerhall, including All We Ever Wanted Was Everything and at the International Festival – the delightful Meow Meow’s Little Mermaid and Minefield, a bilingual Spanish-English peace-building performance, with and about former Argentinian and British combatants from the Falklands War. That was a jarring experience, which made me feel like I never left home. It is still resonating with me.