The Worst Times, the Best Poetry

by Jessica Lewis

in Artistry & Artistic Innovation,Global Citizenship

Post image for The Worst Times, the Best Poetry

(Photo by: Stan Barouh. Pictured: Brian Hemmingsen, Maboud Ebrahimzadeh.)

Katrina: I hate this time of day. When the light fades, the winds begin to blow and the house gets filled with the stench from the factories.
Yehuda: It’s not stench.
Katrina: No?
Yehuda: It’s the smell of industry.
Katrina: Thanks for reminding me.
Yehuda: It gets caught by the winds that come out of Eshel City.

-From Boaz Gaon and Nir Erez’s “Boged: An Enemy of the People”

Israeli playwright, journalist and activist, Boaz Gaon has co-written Boged, an adaptation of Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People that recently received a production at D.C.’s Theatre J.  But that’s not where the play began.  Ok, well, it began in Norway in the late 1800s, but the adaptation began in Be’er Sheva in Southern Israel, inspired by their own and the community in Be’er Sheva’s concerns over the environmental and social impact of a nearby industrial zone called Ramat Hovav.

The first question that strikes me as I read the lines above from Boged is “What does Gaon and Erez’s Eshel City Industrial Park look like?”  Going into this, I remembered years ago visiting an industrial park in China, Suzhou Industrial Park, a miniature model of the buildings and geographic features sitting within a visitors center.  As we drove around some of the factories in a tourist bus, the day was overcast and the surroundings didn’t look quite as vibrant as the miniature yellow, white and blue lights would suggest; which wasn’t concerning to me, because it seemed as though this park was, if not a bad financial investment for Singapore, China’s partner in the venture, at least a place for job growth, learning and tourism.

Jessica Lewis: There are some differences between the industrial park miniature model I have in my head and your play setting.  What does the exterior of your Eshel City Industrial Park look like?

Boaz Gaon: First of all, thank you Jessica for your interest in this play, which is significant to me on many levels.  The “Eshel City” of the play is loosely based on an enormous industrial zone located in the South of Israel, called “Ramat Hovav”. Both (the real Ramat Hovav and the fictionalized Eshel City) cannot have looked more inviting and lovely. Just like – to quote one of our characters – a “country club”. Of course, the pleasant exterior is there to hide the toxicity of the interior – namely, the fact that in our “Eshel City” the industrial waste has been trickling through cracks in the evaporation ponds, which were supposed to contain them. This pollutes the ground and eventually, the drinking water of the nearby town. In addition, and this is true even today in towns that neighbor Ramat Hovav, twice a day a cloud of acid sweeps from the desert and through the residential areas. I smelled it. It is awful and everything in your lungs cry – “I shouldn’t be breathing this”.

Lewis: You’ve collaborated with Nir Erez to write the play text for Be’er Sheva Theater.  Can you tell us about Be’er Sheva Theater and how it came to be?

Gaon: Sure. “Boged” is actually my second collaboration with Nir, who directed a previous play of mine called Prime Time, at the Beit Lessin theater of Tel Aviv, several years ago. Nir is a member of the artistic committee at the Be’er Sheva Theater and he was the one who invited me to work on this exciting adaptation. To the folks down in our South, all these issues of political corruption, environmental negligence, the selling out of reporters and more – is very much a daily concern. Which is why, I think, they supported the idea of creating an Israeli adaptation, desert based, of the Ibsen classic. More than a year after we opened in Be’er Sheva, after a good run of the show in DC, The Norwegian Ambassador to the US was generous enough to state that “Ibsen is smiling on this Israeli production”. So somehow, I guess, the fjords and the dunes have married. Strange but true.

Lewis: How does the play speak to the community in Be’er Sheva?  What is the political reality that the piece is commenting on?

Gaon: Be’er Sheva is the biggest city in the Israeli desert, in an area called The Negev. It is blue collar, hardworking and originally an immigrant community with Jews who emigrated to Israel from Morocco, Tunisia, Yemen, Iraq, Iran, Ethiopia, Russia, and more. Also, there is a strong and dominant Bedouin population though the elite, still, is mostly Jewish and mostly Ashkenazi. So first, the play spoke to the local population in the way we structured a hierarchy of ethnicities, colors and accents. Also, the local population is very much aware of the fact that they are living next to an industrial mega-park and once every month or so another story breaks with concerns about how that park affects the well-being of the town – in terms of air, ground and water. Even though, just like in our play, many of the inhabitants of Be’er Sheva work at the park – and their livelihoods depend on it.

Lastly, I think that timing played a role in the way local audiences reacted to the play – and not only location. The Israeli “Boged” opened just as the Israeli Social Protest movement was gearing up. Our audiences were clearly angry and fed up with what they called The Situation and were ready to do something about it. In the Summer of 2011, six months after we opened, 500 thousand Israelis took to the streets and demanded a higher standard of living, and one of the bigger demonstrations happened in Be’er Sheva, not far from our theater. It was clear to Nir and I, when we opened in March 2011, that this play has a deeper resonance with the audience than we could have ever anticipated. By the way, we encountered the same audience response when we performed up North, in small towns that live in the shadow (or rather cloud) of Haifa’s gas refineries. When we showed our play in Tel Aviv, the audiences were moved – but not furious. It was different in areas where the reality portrayed on stage was identical to the tragedies of everyday life.

Photo by Stan Barouh. Pictured: Mark Halpern, Michael Tolaydo.

Lewis: Boged was recently presented by Theater J at Georgetown University.  How did you form a relationship with Theater J?

Gaon: Ari Roth, the artistic director of Theater J, who is truly one-of-a-kind, first showed interest in my work when The Return to Haifa, another adaptation of mine of a Palestinian classic novella, opened at the Cameri Theater of Tel Aviv. Return to Haifa was then produced, in Hebrew and Arabic, at Theater J in January of 2011. To my good fortune, Ari followed the response of Boged in Israel and decided to produce an English speaking version at Theater J together with Georgetown University. It was quite an experience to watch American actors portraying Israeli characters who were adapted from a Norwegian classic. And I am deeply indebted to Ari for this voyage, as well as to Derek Goldman, the artistic director of the Davis Center for the Performing Arts at Georgetown U.

Photo by Stan Barouh. Pictured: Brian Hemmingsen, Sarah Marshall.

Lewis: Did you meet Derek Goldman at the International Theatre Institute’s (ITI) World Congress in China?  What was it like to attend the ITI World Congress?

Gaon: Yes! Derek and I met in Xiamen, of all places, and it was a joy to reunite with him at Georgetown since it also allowed me to watch a final run of Our Class, a wonderful play he masterfully directed there. The ITI congress was fascinating in many ways, but mostly, to me, in allowing for a global debate on the power of the purpose of theater. We playwrights are mostly restricted to a pretty confining locality and suddenly an entire world opened and it was exhilarating. By the way, one of my Chinese contacts from those days has just informed me that the Shanghai Dramatic Arts Centre will be producing their own adaptation of An Enemy of the People this Summer. So there you have it.

Lewis: As a writer, what did you learn about adapting a text for one community and translating that adaptation for a new community?  What did you keep from your original adaptation in the performance at Georgetown and what changes did you make?

Gaon: That’s a very good one – and we’d need a Seminar to cover it. Audiences are different everywhere and the trick, I think, is try to sound both local and universal at the same time. There was brutality in the Israeli dialogue that did not go well with American audiences, though we did keep it pretty harsh – and on purpose. We also played around with the ending since we did not want our Tommy – Thomas in the original – to come across as an Israeli know-it-all preaching to, and insulting Lesser People; though you do have some of that in the Ibsen original. We aimed, and sometimes succeeded, in ending with an alarming but also hopeful note which corresponds with what happened in Israel with the Social Protest movement and in other parts of our region, with the Arab Spring. All this was different from the Israeli original, where Tommy ended the play with looking straight at the audience and telling them that “they stink”. He was applauded for that, in our crazy little part of the world…

Having said all that, it was a pleasure to going back to writing in Hebrew. And I wouldn’t replace it. It’s easier to mold. You should try it.

Lewis: You mentioned you have an upcoming project in Hebrew – please tell us about this and how we can track your work.

Gaon: For several years now, I’ve been interested in the question of Heroism – and the conflict between living for one’s sake, and dying for a Greater Good. I am now in the final stages of a play which has been a long time coming called “Michael Danziger”, about a 16 year old Jewish poet on the eve of the Holocaust, who finds himself in Israel just before the end of the British Mandate. He is swept into becoming a fighter for one of the militant organizations and eventually sentenced to hang by the British. He is a hero to all; only he realizes that he has yet to live, and write, and love. But it is too late, as all tell him, (and especially one young woman). So it is pretty tragic. But has a lot of poetry from the 30′s and 40′s, in Polish and Hebrew, which I did not know and was completely blown away by. The worst of times, they say, produces the best poetry. And those were evil, evil times.

Boaz Gaon is an Israeli playwright, journalist and activist. His plays have been produced by all of Israel’s leading theaters, including “Prime Time”, “Argentina”, “The Israeli Family”, “The Return to Haifa”, and most recently, “Boged”. Boaz’s first play to be produced in the US was “The Odessa Branch”, a play about three businessmen and a prostitute, at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, in 2002; “The Return to Haifa” was produced, in Hebrew and Arabic, by Theater J of Washington DC in January 2011; an American version of “Boged” opened at Georgetown University, in collaboration with Theater J, in January of 2013. In 2007, Boaz published “Where American Ends – an account of an Israeli in New York” which summarized his travels in the US as a correspondent for the Israeli daily Ma’ariv, between 2004-2006. He is a graduate of the Tel Aviv University and of the London School of Economics and Political Science.

Jessica Lewis is an Artistic & International Programs Associate at TCG and a recent graduate of NYU’s MFA in Dramatic Writing.