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Arts Hub - Apr. 26, 2007

Tikun Olam – Repair the World


By Deborah Leiser-Moore

Australian playwright and theater-maker Deborah Leiser-Moore recently attended the International Festival and Congress of Jewish Theater in Vienna. She tells us about the experience.

The focus of ‘Tikun Olam’ (Repair the World) International Festival and Congress of Jewish Theater in Vienna, was the brainchild of the indomitable Warren Rosenzweig whose agenda is to re-establish a Jewish culture in a city where it once thrived, but since the Nazi era, no longer exists. He works tirelessly to reclaim and restore the Nestroyhof Theater – which was once a cultural home of the intellectual and artistic movement in Vienna for people such as Arthur Schnitzler, Sigmund Freud, Martin Buber, Franz Kafka, Theodor Herzl, Gustav Mahler, Max Reinhardt and Karl Kraus, but was seized in 1938 and made into a supermarket!

My reward for 24 hours flying and 10 hours waiting in airports came in the form of a concert given by the iconic actor-singer, Theodore Bikel. As I sat in an ancient vault like venue, listening to Bikel’s protest songs and hearing him speaking about and singing songs from films and theater, I felt as if I was privy to an extraordinary moment in history. The veteran, who has appeared in films such as The African Queen and The Blue Angel, was born in 1924 in Vienna, and was thirteen when he escaped Nazi persecution. The emotional impact of the moment was not lost.

The official opening of the Congress was the following day under the patronage of the Federal President of the Republic of Austria, Heinz Fisher with Bikel giving the keynote speech. His main premise was that the Arts have the ability to restore an atmosphere of faith and may be society’s last best hope for a meaningful existence.

I was there on the invitation and support of Rosenzweig’s Austrian Jewish Theater as well as the Australian Embassy in Vienna. The Embassy hosted my presentation (complete with Anzac biscuits) entitled Tashmadada – Jewish Theater Down Under? I gave a brief history of Jewish theater in Australia and then focused on my new company – Tasmadada - and my body of work. From my solo show Hungry (Adelaide Festival, Greece, Melbourne and Sydney) through to the latest pieces in development, Wasted Underground and A Jewish King Lear, the DVD/talk/performance highlighted the physical and visual nature of the work, which makes it intrinsically Australian.

For an audience largely unaware of Australia, let alone Australian theater, the response was overwhelmingly positive. The Israeli Ambassador to Austria said I had unlocked a door for him into Australian theater. The presentation has created strong possibilities for future international collaborations with Tashmadada, and has highlighted the importance for Australian artists to show their work in the international arena.

Two other Australians made it to Vienna. Journalist and playwright Dr Anne Sarzin was one of eleven playwright’s chosen from a competitive international field. An excerpt of her play My Green Age was read before a capacity audience at the Jewish Museum. For her, it was “an extraordinary experience that validated my play”. The other Australian was Ira Seidenstein - a regular member of Frank Theater in Queensland, who was there as a very vocal spectator.

The program that ensued over the week did not disappoint. Some of the highlights included South African performance artist, Steven Cohen, who showed footage of his piece Chandelier. Performed to the soundtrack of a Hebrew prayer, and wearing only a wrought iron chandelier reconfigured into a tutu, Cohen performed in a black squatter camp under a highway in Johannesburg while government employees evicted the squatters and destroyed their makeshift homes.

Atay Citron’s session on the Acco Festival of Alternative Theater in the ancient city of Acre, Israel, highlighted the festival’s focus of the collaboration of Hebrew and Arab productions. This is a city where there is peace and co-operation between the two cultures. But suicide bombs and the Intifada have tested the peace. Citron believes that the power of the arts is in re-building relationships. He talked of one Arabic piece in which there was no translation. So Israelis sat next to Arabs in the audience, who translated the piece for them in real time. The whisper of the translation resounded through the theater, softening the harsh politics of the piece. At the end, the writer turned to the audience and cried, and Arabs and Israelis literally embraced each other.

Another highlight was playwright Ari Roth. Roth is the Artistic Director of Theater J in Washington and is presently working with veteran Australian writer Tom Keneally on his play Either Or. The play, which, according to Roth, deals with the tragedy of the perpetrator, is a collaboration between Keneally and the Americans. Roth’s session in the congress included a reading of an extract from his own controversial play Peter and the Wolf (And Me), which challenges the fine line between good and evil. This turned into an emotional and explosive discussion.

LaboraTORIA from Moscow are an avant-garde company using contemporary radical artistic forms in conjunction with ancient Jewish scripture. Their cutting edge interpretation/workshop of The Golem was the cause of much discussion. Theater that can build bridges also needs to create dialogue. Their work is strongly connected and grounded in Russian theatrical traditions and, according to them, has developed in three directions – psychological theater, theater of play and a ‘mysterial’ theater.

In fact, each session proved to be full and provocative and true to the theme of Tikun Olam – Repair the World. From playwright and political theater lecturer at Tel Aviv University Motti Lerner, to a purely physical production of The Dybuuk; a reading from the daughter and grandson of famous Viennese Yiddish Theater actors who were murdered in WW2; to a simple, funny and moving solo performance by New Yorker and owner of the renowned Cornelia St Cafe, Robin Hirsch, as part of his six-part performance cycle Mosaic: Fragments of a Jewish Life.

It is always a great privilege to attend an event such as this one. The value of connecting with artists on an international level can’t be underestimated for Australians who live so far away from other cultures.

Copyright © 2007 Arts Hub
Legendary performer Theodore Bikel with some adoring Aussie fans. [Photo: Courtesy, Deborah Leiser-Moore
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