Undercover Tel Aviv – The Prologue

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Undercover Tel Aviv/Photo: Markus Kaesler, all rights reserved Heidelberg Theatre

On a hot Friday afternoon about a year ago, three young Germans on assignment took a break at a café in Florentine to discuss their project with Midnight East. This coming weekend, the results of their research will come to the stage as “Undercover Tel Aviv.” A co-production of the Beit Lessin Theatre and the Heidelberg Municipal Theatre, written and directed by Stéphane Bittoun, the docufiction will have its Israeli premiere as part of the Beit Lessin Open Stage Festival on Thursday, September 2, with two additional performances.

Research is not a word most people would connect to theatre. Most people, when going to see a play, assume that it all started with a writer and a script, but this is a very different kind of play, and a unique project. Family Ties is a long-term collaboration between the two theatres that was launched at the Beit Lessin Open Stage Festival in 2009, to create a series of six plays with actors, writers, dramaturges and directors from both theatres. Undercover Tel Aviv includes writer/director Stéphane Bittoun, dramaturg Kerstin Grubemeyer, actors Franzisca Beyer and Paul Grill – all from Heidelberg, and actors Dan Kastoriano and Michal Shtamler from Beit Lessin. The Heidelberg team (minus the director) shared their thoughts on Israel and the project.

No script? How does that work? Kerstin Grubemeyer said that although “it is customary to work without script in Germany it is not so much in Municipal theatres.” Usually, the dramaturg or director conducts the research; in this case, the actors have been involved from the start. The research in this case involved interviewing people in Tel Aviv, and listening to their stories. Some of the interviews were set up in advance; some were spontaneously conducted on the streets, asking people: What do you like about Tel Aviv? What do you hate? The material collected – videotaped interviews and scenes of the city, forms the basis for creating the text and visual images for the performance.

Grubemeyer and Bittoun had conducted some preliminary research in Tel Aviv, last August the actors joined them to experience the city for themselves and take part in the interviews. To get the feel of life in the city, they did not stay in hotels, but were housed in apartments in various neighborhoods.

For Paul Grill, this was not a first visit to Israel: “Last time I was here I experienced Tel Aviv and visited Jerusalem and Haifa. I had the impression of two sides. On one hand the really liberated people, really open minded, forward thinking, and on the other hand – my experience in Jerusalem was of really religious people with strong feelings, like people are really into their religion, its not like ok just go to church. Coming from a Catholic family, we go to church on Sunday but the rest of week we just like live our lives. Judaism has a great religious energy but on the other hand some kind of…I’m at a loss for words…”

Grubemeyer suggested, “tension?”

Grill continued, “Yes, you can feel the tension there and I saw all these young people in their army suits and their machine guns this is so unfamiliar. In Germany you don’t see young people walking around with an M16 in their everyday life. Having their flip-flops and their Dolce Gabbana sunglasses… beautiful young people. It’s kind of like a fashion show, most of them look like models. When my artistic director asked me if I wanted to take part [in this project] I didn’t hesitate for a minute of course, sure I want to go back. I was curious to see if I would experience the same thing. I wasn’t afraid or worried, but curious if I would experience the same tension and contradiction. And I must say I do.”

Franzisca Beyer was seeing Israel for the first time, after a year spent travelling through many European cities. She was staying in an apartment in Florentine, a part of the city she found “young and stylish.” Tel Aviv in August was “Too hot,” said Beyer, “I don’t like this icy thing – inside it’s too cold. All this changing is not good for an actor’s voice.”

Talking to the actors it was clear that in the research process their own personal stories engaged with the stories they heard from people in Israel. Grill recalled, “We went in Jerusalem to the wall and for me that was quite a weird experience. I’m from Berlin, and my mom emigrated from East Berlin to the West. I had to cross the wall to see grandparents, I was seven and a half, and for three years I did that. We talked to this man [in Jerusalem] who had a garage there. He was sitting on a sofa, 20 meters away from the wall, telling us that his wife is across the wall living in Jerusalem.”

“Now I’m thinking about it – I have this history with the Berlin wall, it’s my personal view – other people might come and would not have an emotional connection. If you have some kind o f connection to this symbol, the wall…all those memories from 20 years ago came back. I thought people – don’t do it. Of course you cannot compare the two and I really put an emphasis, you cannot compare. I wish… knowing how many bad feelings, how much hurt, how much division come from that…you think God,  can’t you just talk about it and get it over with. I know it’s really naïve to think that way.”

The starting point was the issue of being an “outsider”, asking themselves and the interviewees to consider – where do I come from? What are my roots? When do I feel like an outsider?

As we sat in the café that afternoon, they recalled some of the day’s encounters. Beyer said, “What really amazed me today was we met a Tel Avivian actress and her story here was kind of parallel to mine. She came from a small village… and we break out. She went to the army then moved to Tel Aviv and life began then. She felt like an outsider growing up, not knowing to which group she belonged. This theme also for me – after moving, going into bigger city or metropol, life starts and you find out what you want to do with your life, and before you felt like an outsider. I think lots of actors try to find an identity and so we do our job because we have this option to do lots of identities and be part of so many relationships.”

Although they worked as a team, they usually split up for the interviews, to retain a sense of comfort and intimacy for the people who shared their stories. Each interview is a different experience, as Grill said, “Some don’t want to talk in front of the camera, they say we’ll talk, but off camera. Others are really open and willing to talk to us, some of them are of course more colorful than others.” Beyer added, “There are not so many really good deep stories. Always on the top of…it’s so nice, everyone wants to tell us good things, but we want to hear BAD things – good stuff for the play.”

When we began our conversation last August, Grubemeyer said, “What is interesting is what we’ll say in a year and a half.” The performance of “Undercover Tel Aviv” can be seen as part of this ongoing dialogue – it will be interesting to hear what they have to say.

Undercover Tel Aviv will be performed at ZOA House, 1 Daniel Frish Street, Tel Aviv on September 2 at 20:30, September 3 at 21:00 and September 4 at 18:00. Tickets: 03-7255333, or, on the day of the performance 03-6959341

Family Ties is supported by the German government, the Baden-Wirtemberg Regional Government, the Municipality of Heidelberg, the Goethe Institute, the Minister of Foreign Affairs – Kashtum and private donors.