Times of Israel: Jaffa setting for ‘An Iliad’ a push for open dialogue

Times of Israel: Jaffa setting for ‘An Iliad’ a push for open dialogue

Times of Israel: Jaffa setting for ‘An Iliad’ a push for open dialogue

June 24, 2014

American Jewish actor Clayton Fox plays The Poet in the English National Theater’s politically charged production

 

By Suzanne Selengut


JAFFA — American actor Clayton Fox paced back and forth on stage, leaping in the air and occasionally breaking into song during the July 11 premier of the English National Theater’s play “An Iliad” at the East-West House in Jaffa.

 
With contemporary language and moments of humor, the play is thoroughly modern even as it retells the ancient tale of the Trojan War with a deeper message about the harmful nature of war. In Jaffa, a city famous for its mix of Jewish and Arab-Israeli residents, the well-worn story took on new meaning as ancient history blended into current events.
 
That’s precisely what Fox had in mind when he first conceived of performing the play here. After a successful off-Broadway run at the New York Theater Workshop, the play, written by Lisa Peterson and actor Denis O’Hare, of the series “True Blood,” is currently being staged internationally by various theater companies. Fox thought it would be a great fit for an Israeli audience.
 
A graduate of NYU/Tisch with several theater credits and a recent role in the film “The Green” with Julia Ormond, Fox is hoping “An Iliad” will inspire open dialogue about social and political issues in Israel.
 
“I love the energy in Israel. I like the feeling I get from working on art here. There is a sense that it matters to people. Everything is heightened in Israel and creating art in a heightened environment is always exciting,” Fox, 25, told The Times of Israel.
 
Fox spent the past year living in Jaffa and volunteering in marginalized communities in Jaffa and Tel Aviv through the Masa Israel program Tikkun Olam in Tel Aviv-Jaffa, and also informally mentoring youngsters at the Arab-Hebrew Theater in Jaffa. He knows enough Hebrew to enjoy Israeli theater and claims Jaffa/Tel Aviv as his own, biking around to his favorite hangouts like a native.
 
Aware his year in Israel was drawing to a close, Fox planned on performing before heading home. At the Masa Israel Leadership Summit, he met Johannah Jolson, a recent immigrant from England with plans to start a socially-conscious English theater in Tel Aviv, and he shared the idea of staging “An Iliad” with her. Jolson loved the idea and took on the job of producing.
 
Next came Yaniv Rozenblat, a graduate of the Ben Zvi School of Performing Arts with a native’s feel for Israeli culture, who joined the team as director. Naomi Kern, a Dutch jazz singer, composer and viola player stepped in to play a key musical role.
 
Playwrights Peterson and O’Hare originally conceived of the show as an artistic response to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. They reached back 3,000 years to Homer because they saw the Greek tradition of storytelling as natural match for the stage and also because it provided a way to talk about the topic without becoming “preachy and simplistic,” said Fox.
 
 
The play centers around one central figure, The Poet (Fox), who enters the theater from the back of the house, looking world weary and battle scarred. He has a story to tell the audience, but he struggles, frustrated as he tries to form his message. Eventually, he is joined by The Muse (Kern), whose beauty and musical talents allow him to break through his storyteller’s block.
 
His tale will sound familiar to those with basic knowledge of Homer’s “Iliad” as Fox animatedly describes scenes such as bloodthirsty Achilles heading to battle and Hector parting from his wife during a break in the fighting. But even for those unversed in the Greeks, the theme of war’s cruelty will resonate.
 
Fox’s virtuoso performance – he inhabits different characters with a range of accents and matching physical movements – makes the experience engaging. He exposes the human heart behind the political hype.
 
“I have to switch in and out of characters, which is a technical and emotional challenge. I really have to push myself, but it is really rewarding,” he says.
 
Fox not only inhabits different characters but also moves through different places and times. For example, he will depart Ancient Greece to narrate World War I and then track back to the Crusades, all within the space of a few sentences. In one memorable scene, as The Poet describes the scene of thousands of soldiers heading off to fight the Trojan War, the local production pays homage to the many wars fought by Israel.
 
In the NY production, The Poet, played by O’Hare, named cities and towns in the US to help the audience picture the way war touches people’s lives on a personal level. In the Israeli production, Fox mentions places such as Herzliya, Jerusalem, and the names of specific kibbutzim and moshavim, naming each locale in Hebrew.
 
Such small touches work wonders at placing current Israeli conflicts into a much larger context. As the tragic events of war are recounted, Fox’s storytelling builds to a feverish pitch, and the play considers the origin of rage and the way it can morph into global conflict. But the narrative ends with no neat message and the audience is left with nothing but painful memories.
 
Uncomfortable though that may be, Jolson and Fox believe this kind of button-pushing art can play an integral part in opening up discourse about the realities of life in Israel. Both see themselves as part of a new generation of young Jewish artists no longer afraid to critique the status-quo, even when that touches on once-taboo questions about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
 
Jolson’s theater company, of which “An Iliad” is the first production, will, in future, stage plays which encourage the audience to think and question; and unlike many other English-language theater companies in Israel, says Jolson, it will also encourage dialogue about social and political problems.
 
“The previous generation used to be duty bound not to critique Israel and that’s not the case anymore,” Fox adds.
 
But he maintains that he is not interested in shocking political statements, or in displaying the horrors of war, but rather in using theater to open up space for new thought, and he cites controversial playwright Tony Kushner of “Angels in America” fame, as a master of the form.
 
“His plays teach us that you don’t have to accept reality as it is. You can imagine the reality you wish to see and show that on stage. You can spark people’s imagination and whatever comes out of that, comes out,“ says Fox.
 
Fox is a member of a NY-based group of American Jewish and Israeli American actors called 10J, led by noted playwright Anna Ziegler. The 12-member group meets monthly to write and stage short pieces about Israel.
 
Also, Fox says actors in the broad theater and film worlds are more receptive to the topic than might be expected.
 
“US artists, a code for liberals, have other fish to fry, like gun control and conflicts in which the US is more directly involved. They don’t know much about Israel and they sometimes say: ‘You’re a Zionist? Really?’ But even those who have heard of it in a negative way, don’t instantly dislike me for it. Artists are by nature empathic and want to seek truth, so there is room for discussion. It’s not verboten,” he explains.
 
Although Fox will head back to Chicago later this summer to work in theater and films, he expects to return to Israel frequently to perform in future productions. The English Theater is currently planning several new shows. Additionally, although “An Iliad” was planned to run just two or three shows, Jolson and Fox are now considering adding new shows in response to requests from those who didn’t get a chance to see the production.
 
Despite the challenging nature of the role, Fox would love the opportunity to reprise his run as The Poet.
 
“I have a special connection to Israel so it’s important for me to tell the story here. I don’t want to tell it in Rome or Paris. I want to tell a story I’m passionate about to an audience about whom I feel passionate. For me, that’s in Israel,” says Fox.
 
Photos: Courtesy

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May 5, 2014

Last month, Russ Finkelstein wrote about keeping alumni engaged and involved by offering career services.
Before we can tap into alumni communities for fundraising and volunteer requests, he argued, we have to provide them something of value, something that they want.
 
At Masa Israel we wholeheartedly agree, and have been experimenting in the professional development space for the past year. This year, we piloted individualized professional guidance for a select group of current participants through our “Masa Works” program, in partnership with the Jewish Family Services of Columbus. We also developed a long-term fellowship program to build pipelines for Israel program alumni to enter careers at Hillel, and are looking to replicate the model.
 
At the same time, we know our tens of thousands of alumni are dispersed around the world, and can rarely take advantage of in-person, in-depth career development opportunities. Just like Lisa Colton wrote back in January about building an online alumni ecosystem, we have recognized the need to create a more robust virtual network where we can move beyond the “likes” and start more conversations.
 
Several weeks ago, we made our first attempt to meaningfully connect those two strategies. On April 2nd, Masa Israel Journey hosted an online career expo for current participants and alumni of immersive experiences in Israel. The idea stemmed from our continuing efforts to enable Israel program participants and alumni to leverage their cross-cultural, immersive experiences in Israel for success in their desired field – both professionally and as leaders in their home communities. By running a virtual event, we hoped to reach a wider audience of participants and alumni than we’d previously been able to.
 
This sort of event has grown in popularity for university alumni associations, but as far as we know, ours was the first event of its kind in the Jewish community. We were fortunate to connect with a robust platform, Brazen Careerist, which has facilitated numerous events like these for university alumni networks and professional associations.
 
“Organizations of all types are turning to virtual events to connect their audiences with employers or with each other on a global scale,” Ryan Healy, Brazen Careerist’s co-founder & COO, told me recently. “Five or 10 years ago, virtual events were considered hokey or weird, but today it’s a totally different story. The combination of people being connected 24/7 and technology maturing to a point that has made virtual events both easy to use and affordable has led to a huge increase in job seekers and employers, alike. It’s a very exciting time for anyone who wants to engage a global audience.”
 
Our experiment paid off – over 200 Masa Israel program alumni and participants logged on over the course of the three-hour fair and were able to chat one-on-one with any of 24 different employers. Even better, the individuals who attended represented a broad cross-section of professional sectors, types of Israel programs, and length of time since their Israel experience (from mere months to over 20 years ago). Not only were we able to provide a valuable service to our alumni community, we managed to “reawaken” many individuals who had not engaged with us in recent years by providing a service they valued.
 
It certainly helped that the companies and organizations who agreed to participate were top-notch: Hillel International, Repair the World, Jewish Federations of North America, BBYO, AIPAC, RAVSAK, J Street, Nefesh B’Nefesh, AVODAH: The Jewish Service Corps, Union for Reform Judaism, Teach for America, JDC Entwine, Tevel B’Tzedek, Acquis Consulting Group, EY (formerly Ernst & Young), Wells Fargo Securities and several others committed to spending those three hours chatting with members of our community who were looking for ways to channel their Israel experience into their profession.
 
Based on an analysis of traffic in the employer booths, Jewish communal organizations, particularly Israel-focused ones, were more sought-after. This makes sense, given that over 47% of our alumni consistently express the desire to pursue work in the Jewish community, and our fair was framed in the context of translating the Israel experience to a meaningful career.
 
“It’s important to stay involved with Masa, and Israel things as a whole, now that I’m home,” shared Barrett Deitz of Austin, Texas, who recently returned from his Masa Israel program and participated in the Career Expo. “At first, I didn’t want to work in the Jewish community. After coming home from my Masa Israel program, I absolutely do. I won’t feel fulfilled until my employer cares about the same things I do, i.e. Israel and the Jewish community.”
 
The event also served a dual purpose of helping Jewish organizations identify younger talent whom they might not notice through the traditional recruitment process, a point discussed last year by Masa Israel’s immediate past North American director.
 
After we first conceptualized the fair, we underwent an intense process of not only recruiting major Jewish organizations to participate as employers, but mobilizing them around the idea of experimenting in new forums. Hillel, the Schusterman Philanthropic Network, and BBYO were key partners in injecting momentum into the employer recruitment process. Those initial discussions have blossomed into an ongoing dialogue about our shared goals for providing innovative and valuable professional development opportunities to our respective networks.
 
Diane Klein, Senior Director of Human Resources at BBYO, told me, “The job fair was terrific! We interacted with many talented and energetic individuals and have numerous possible candidates who we will schedule follow-up meetings with. The technology was great and very easy to use. This is certainly a forum we can build upon.”
 
This reaction was echoed by many employers with whom I have followed up so far, and speaks to the imperative to use this pilot event in the service of the wider Jewish community. Similar opportunities in the future can be modeled for even larger groups of young adults like Hillel students, BBYO and other youth group alumni, and Birthright returnees, in addition to our own growing alumni network. I envision the Jewish community offering not only job fairs, but Israel program fairs, online networking events, global volunteer fairs, and even community engagement fairs.
 
Simultaneously, we plan on doubling down on digital, interactive events for the Masa Israel community as a way to engage a larger portion of our alumni – especially those that can’t or prefer not to engage with our local, in-person programming. Our next experiment in May will be a networking event on the same platform as the career fair, during which participants and alumni will be able to connect with each other according to interests and geography in order to build a stronger community and chat with other alumni who can help them navigate their career, or advise on leadership trajectory in the Jewish world or elsewhere.
 
The energetic conversations about alumni engagement these past few months inspired us to try something new for the Masa Israel community, but the real spark came at the nexus of multiple ideas – for us it was professional development and online community-building. For others, the golden combination will likely look different, and involve very different tools.
 
As Jewish organizations grapple with the challenge of adapting to new paradigms relating to technology and community-building, I hope we will all continue sharing both our successes and challenges as we internally experiment with new ideas for our constituents. We may just find that some of the most innovative ideas are not actually new, but are rather smart combinations of program elements that have already proven successful in their own right.