Interview: Shmulik Ifrach, Director of the Beer-Sheva Theatre

Yitshak Heskia as Argan in Le Malade Imaginaire at the Beer Sheva Theatre/Photo: Elizur Reuveni

A new wind is blowing from the south – Shmulik Ifrach, the new CEO and Artistic Director of the Beer-Sheva Theatre, can already claim several ‘firsts’. Born in Dimona, he is the first director since the founding of the theatre in 1973 who truly belongs to the Negev and resides locally. The energetic Ifrach opened our interview with the announcement of another first; the Beer-Sheva Theatre took their award-winning production of “Piaf” to Hungary. Ifrach said, “This is the first time that the theatre is performing abroad. When I took on the job nine months ago I promised that it would happen, I didn’t imagine that it would happen so quickly.”

The Beer-Sheva Theatre is currently the only theatre in Israel to have an acting school under its wing – as one of the founders of the Goodman Theatre and Acting School of the Negev, and its director, Ifrach can claim that “first” as well.  The theatre has enjoyed considerable success in the past year, receiving four awards in the 2009 Theatre Prizes, including Best Play in Translation/Adaptation for The Count of Monte Cristo, and Best Actress for Yonit Tubi’s performance in Piaf.

A graduate of the Beit Zvi School of the Performing Arts, Ifrach returned to Beer-Sheva as an actor in the theatre, which was then under the direction of Zipi Pines (currently the director of the Beit Lessin Theatre). Ifrach is currently the director of both the theatre and acting school, with Rafi Niv also wearing two hats as the artistic director of the theatre and pedagogic director of the school. The close relationship between the theatre and school, nurturing and challenging one another, is part of Ifrach’s vision for the theatre, which extends far beyond the stage.

“I want to emphasize the connection between the actor and the place he lives,” says Ifrach, “I think the best material for an actor is the environment in which he lives. That is where he can find inspiration, in the place itself. It is a way of preserving integrity.”

“Sometimes in training an actor,” he continued, “schools take the fun out of performing When I, as someone who was born in Dimona, arrived at Beit Zvi, I tried to erase my roots, my materials and tried to be a kind of Broadway actor and dance holding a hat –
but it’s not part of my culture, it’s not who I am, it’s not part of me.”

“In our school we preserve the authenticity of the students. We don’t want them to lose that essential thing they have –which is their art. They need to study, to learn, they need to become acquainted with – everything, but they also need to preserve their acting core, the place they come from. That is what we really work on in the school.”

Ifrach’s belief in community expresses itself in the school’s commitment to volunteer work. “Every student of mine sets out every Sunday at four o’clock – it’s not a matter of choice – they spend three or four hours working in the community with different groups: youth at risk, children of new immigrants, children whose parents are in prison, handicapped children. There are no rehearsals allowed to take place during that time, no director or teacher can take them, they can’t claim that time – it is the holy of holies.”
The benefit works both ways; students at the acting school receive practical training in addition to studying theatre and receiving their teaching credentials. The vision of community extends to the artistic direction of the theatre as well, as Ifrach says, “That is what makes our theatre different – we have an arts department. It’s a dialogue of four people. We have a deep artistic discussion over the course of half a year talking about what we want, what kind of theatre why these plays what do we have to say, which actors we’d like to cast, and I am proud of this process.”

When asked about his personal preferences, Ifrach responded, “Well…I confess, Israeli contemporary drama, for the most part, doesn’t really speak to me. I mostly think there is some fascinating writing; there is a flood of material, but not a lot of good material. Aloni, or Hanoch Levin, or someone who was just born to be their successor, the next writer – I’m still looking for that person. But – it doesn’t mean that I don’t give opportunities to new writers and directors.”

“In the theatre I love the classics,” says Ifrach, “on one hand, it’s a bit conservative, and on the other hand, I’m not afraid to interpret Chekov…and Ibsen.” That balance between relating to a wider reality while remaining rooted in the local culture, presenting the classics yet remaining open to new influences, is reflected in the theatre’s repertoire. The current season will include everything from Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing in a new translation by Dori Parnes, to Traitor, a contemporary local adaptation of Ibsen’s Public Enemy, created by Boaz Gaon and Nir Erez, set in Beer-Sheva.

“I love The Enemy of the People,” says Ifrach. Taking the industries of the south (Machteshim, Brom, Dead Sea Works) as the starting point for the adaptation, writer Boaz Gaon “researched the topic of pollution and spent a lot of time in the south.
Now, with Nir Erez, he is writing Traitor based on Enemy of the People. It’s inspired by the play, but it will be a very local story set in Beer Sheva with the atmosphere and life of the south, the place and the chemical industries in a way that I would even say is pretty daring.”

Traitor is scheduled to premiere in May, towards the end of the season. One of the more experimental projects does not yet have a date – “The Flower of the Neighborhood” by Kobi Oz, lead singer of the group Teapaks and author of Petty Hoodlum (2002) and Moshe Chuato and the Raven (1996). “Kobi Oz who is a wonderful writer,” says Ifrach, “I don’t know how familiar you are with his prose [not yet available in English], but if we take him, with a dramaturg’s artistic direction, we can bring something very local, from here – Sderot, Beer Sheva, Dimona.” The musical comedy which combines the songs of Teapaks, with the story of a young couple about to wed in Sderot, under the constant threat of a “red alert,” will be directed by Nir Erez.

Currently in rehearsal is Woody Allen’s Play It Again, Sam, translated and adapted by Eli Bijaoui, directed by Ilan Eldad, and starring Guri Alfi. Although many are familiar with the film version, “No one knows,” says Ifrach, “but Woody Allen wrote 11 plays,” adding that the role was “made for Guri Alfi, he was born to play this role. He is a witty and complex actor. When we had the first reading, we fell off our chairs laughing – he was so funny!”

When challenged regarding the choice to remake the film icon All about Eve, Ifrach nods, smiling, “There’s your answer: it’s an icon of theatre. What is it about? We’re playing with an icon. Actors, in a theatre, behind the scenes – a world of passions, dark and sinister, young ambitious actors a younger generation that comes to take the place of the older generation, displacing the great diva. We had to wait so long for the rights…its fascinating, and we look for dramatic material to challenge the actors too.”

“I am going to sound so pretentious here,” smiles Ifrach, who is anything but, “I have a role in this life, in the theatre, I have a mission. All About Eve, this classic icon – you and maybe ten other people know the film – to my great sorrow. Most people who come to the theatre – we are the ones who introduce them to Shakespeare and Moliere and Chekov. The living encounter with the actors – I think that is important. Part of my work as artistic director is to look for the things that make you feel…The audience likes to see good theatre.

If a play is good, it’s good, it’s good – period – and that is all. I don’t have to sink to a lower lever, I don’t have to produce soap operas or telenovela and I don’t have to produce any play that is written and entertains the audience. I think that we are making a statement and our repertory reflects it.”

“It is our role as artistic directors to recognize that the audience respects art and knows how to appreciate it, whether or not it is their personal preference. Whether they like it or not is a question of preference. You can never suit everyone’s preference and it would be wrong to try. We have to give a glimpse of a wide range of theatre in which we believe, that we love, and try to share that love with the audience.

The forthcoming season at the Beer Sheva Theatre will include:
Play It Again Sam, by Woody Allen, translated and adapted by Eli Bijaoui, directed by Ilan Eldad
Much Ado About Nothing, by William Shakespeare, translated by Dori Parnes, directed by Iddo Riklin
All About Eve, Adapted and directed by Aya Kaplan
Company, words and lyrics Stephen Sondheim, play George Furth, translated by Daniel Efrat, directed by Rafi Niv
Traitor, an adaptation of Ibsen’s Enemy of the People by Boaz Gaon and Nir Erez, directed by Nir Erez


This interview was originally published in All About Jewish Theatre.