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Jewish Spaces in European Theatre

European Performing Arts Forum
Prague 14-16 June 2003




Between Shylock and the pivotal other

Lena Stanley-Clamp, Convener of the European Performing Arts
Forum, London

This was a think tank seminar on 'Jewish Spaces in European Theatre' - the spaces being a metaphor for Jewish culture and creativity on contemporary European stages. Prague is full of more tangible Jewish spaces: as we looked down on the ancient Jewish cemetery during the breaks from our debates about the future, we were reminded of our deep roots and multi-layered European past. The timing was perfect, too: it was exciting to be in Prague to witness the referendum and the fireworks on joining the European Union. It is also worth noting that the Forum took place during the 2-week Prague Quadrennial, the 10th International Theatre Festival, featuring many events and exhibitions on the theme of 'The Labyrinth of the World and the Paradise of the Theatre'.

The Forum brought together 35 theatre practitioners: playwrights, directors, producers, composers and actors from a dozen countries, most of whom met for the first time. The format of the Forum - sessions introduced by a panel of speakers followed by open discussions - ensured that all participants contributed to the debates.

We began by exploring the wider space of Europe's multicultural landscape and asking where Jewish themes fit in and how the cultural boundaries could be transcended in the theatre. The spotlight then turned to the politics of representation: 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 theatre?

The discussions were fascinating because there were many different voices: from east,west, north, south and central Europe as well as from Israel and the US, participants' ages ranging from mid-twenties to sixties. While their experiences of working in the theatre varied considerably, there was a commonality of language, a shared set of references which made the two days so rewarding.

The debates ranged very widely. I would say that two visions of the Jewish future in Europe competed with each other: it was between Shylock and the 'pivotal other'. Some felt the main challenge for theatre practitioners addressing Jewish themes on European stages was to deal with prejudice and stereotyping; others - spurred on by the French historian Diana Pinto - were ready to move further by seeing the Jewish minorities with their millennial diasporic experience, no longer on the margins, but as a 'pivotal other' and a bridge to cultural minorities in Europe.

The central issues related to the politics of representation, or as one of the presenters put it : 'Does it matter whether it's good for the Jews?'. A French theatre director felt that she had to exercise self-censorship in her work and wanted to discuss 'what is good for the Jews?'. But the majority of voices from Scandinavia, Britain and East-Central Europe stressed the importance of the freedom of expression, the need to portray the Jewish experience 'warts and all' as an absolute prerequisite of artistic creativity. A Polish participant said: 'Artists constantly break taboos. Only Jews themselves could really be self-critical and deal honestly with both the positive and the negative aspects of Jewish experience. It could be dangerous to stop doing this.'

Two workshop performances shed additional light on the debates: an extract from a one-man show 'Patrilineare' by Enrico Fink (Florence) and a 'world premiere' reading of Eva Hoffman's (London) new play 'The Ceremony: Anatomy of a Massacre'.

I would add as a post-script that it became clear 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.

Aims and outcomes of the Forum

The two principal aims of the project were to provide a forum for debate of some critical issues for theatre practitioners who address the Jewish experience in their work and to create a network of playwrights, directors, producers and actors which would faciliate new projects and collaborations.

The consensus in the concluding session and many enthusiastic messages received subsequently confirm that the Prague Forum fulfilled a real need and that it made a lasting impact on the participants. A network of people and a community of interest have been brought into existence.

The following outcomes were proposed:

1. The publication of the Forum papers and participants' biographies on the European Association for Jewish Culture website (

2. The setting-up of a discussion group on the internet

3. A collaborative play exploring the artists' relationship to Israel with a number of writers contributing individual playlets.

4. A second meeting of the Forum at which works in progress will be presented and discussed.