Between Shylock and the pivotal other
Lena Stanley-Clamp, Convener of the European Performing Arts
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'.
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 (www.jewishcultureineurope.org)
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