actor and singer Enrico Fink performs at a seminar in Prague where actors
explore Judaism on stage.
ARTS & CULTURE
Artists examine how Jewish lifeis reflected on the European
By Ruth E. Gruber
PRAGUE, July 6 (JTA) - With a theatrical sense of timing, Jonathan Metzger
gestured ironically to an empty chair in a crowded Prague conference room.
"Here´s a chair for Shylock," the young Swedish playwright
and director told the gathering. "He is so present in our discussions."
Shakespeare´s villainous moneylender from "The Merchant of
Venice," perhaps the most famous - and infamous - Jewish character
in theater history, was indeed a looming presence as an international
group of actors, directors, playwrights and producers met recently to
explore how the complexity of Jewish life is translated onto the contemporary
European stage. "We´re obsessed with Shylock," Metzger
said. "We are casting ourselves in a marginalized role rather than
a pivotal one. It saddens me, as I find myself acting the same. Can we
get out of it?" Called "Jewish Spaces in European Theater,"
the mid-June meeting was a two-day seminar convened by the London-based
European Association for Jewish Culture, a grant-making organization founded
in 2001 to encourage artistic creativity that reflects the Jewish experience
in Europe. "This was a think tank seminar, with 'Jewish spaces´
being a metaphor for Jewish culture and creativity on contemporary European
stages," said the association´s director, Lena Stanley-Clamp.
The 30 participants came from France, Italy, Britain, Germany, Scandinavia
and Central Europe. There were also representatives from Israel and the
United States. Almost all of the participants were Jewish and many have
produced works with specifically Jewish themes or content. But all of
them work primarily on productions aimed at the general public. The Paris-based
historian Diana Pinto coined the term "Jewish space" in the
1990s to denote the place of Jewish culture and experience in Europe,
regardless of the size or location of the Jewish population. "The
discussions were so fascinating because there were many different voices,"
Stanley-Clamp said. "But at the same time there was a commonality
of language, a shared set of references." "Some felt the main
challenge for theater practitioners addressing Jewish themes on European
stages was to address prejudice and stereotyping," she said. "Others
were ready to move further by seeing the Jewish minorities with their
millennial diasporic experience as a bridge to cultural minorities in
Europe." It became clear, she added, that "the forces that drive
Jewish creativity are the constant need to explore one´s identity,
to challenge perceptions of what being Jewish means and to take a stand
on ethical and political issues of today." Among the main discussion
questions at the seminar: To what extent are we responsible for the impact
of the images of the Jews we project? What difference do we make to the
audiences´ perceptions? How do we deal with the real or imagined
pressures of censorship and self-censorship? How should we engage with
events in Israel? What insights can we gain from the experience of the
Israeli political theater? "Jewish directors and writers often face
a dilemma: 'Is it good for the Jews?´ " Metzger said. "There
is sometimes a fear of voicing self-criticism in public, so to speak,
washing dirty linen in public." But, he added, "if we acted
as if anything we write could be used against us, then we would have to
close shop." For many, these issues loom with particular importance
at a time when anti-Semitism is perceived as a re- emerging threat and
when, in some countries, Jews and Jewish institutions have become targets
for anti-Israeli attacks. It was perhaps no coincidence that four participants
in the seminar are currently confronting the issues of stereotype and
anti-Semitism in separate productions of "The Merchant of Venice."
Isabelle Starkier, director of the Paris-based Star Theatre, said her
staging of Shakespeare´s play focuses on its ambiguities and contradictions,
and looks at images of Shylock as a victim of anti-Semitism as well as
a villain. "If we understand how anti-Semitism works, we can avoid
the vicious circle," she said. "Also, through the play, other
people will be able to understand why they themselves are anti-Semitic."
The issue of Jewish identity and the way one´s own identity - or
perceived identity - influences his or her work was also central to the
debate. The Italian actor and singer Enrico Fink has built his career
on projecting a stage presence that clearly identifies him as Jewish.
To do so, he said, represents a public admission that he is "different."
He explained: "There is nothing really comparable to the admission
of a Jewish identity on stage than outing as gay, at least in the Italian
environment. Normally, being Jewish is private. Once you do this, you
step out of the group." In addition, he said, audiences in Italy
- whose Jewish population is just 35,000 out of a total population of
60 million - know so little about Jews and Judaism that he had to include
basic "Judaism 101" information in his pieces. A centerpiece
of the Prague meeting was the first reading of a new play by the London-based
writer Eva Hoffman. Called "The Ceremony," it is based on the
World War II massacre of Jews by their Catholic neighbors in the Polish
village of Jedwabne. Revelations about Jedwabne three years ago touched
off a wrenching debate in Poland over Holocaust memory and complicity
that culminated in July 2001, when Poland´s president making a public
apology for the massacre on its 60th anniversary. The play is the first
dramatic work by the Polish-born Hoffman, a former editor and writer for
The New York Times and the author of several books, including "Lost
in Translation" and "Shtetl." The play´s theme explores
how contemporary characters and the audience itself relate to the story
of a horrific event that happened more than 60 years ago. Characters include
living people - local Poles and visiting Jews - at the 60th anniversary
memorial ceremony, as well as ghosts of the victims who make their presence
known in Greek-chorus fashion. "Although the play is grounded firmly
in the specific facts of a particular history, I hope it will have reverberations
for other events of a similar kind, of which, unhappily, we have seen
so many," Hoffman said.
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