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What Happens Next?

You see, it all begins with Mohammed. Not the prophet… The baker. Mohammed the baker. This guy that I met… What happens next? It’s a question any storyteller is desperate for the audience to be asking itself. But at the … Read More

By / February 1, 2006

You see, it all begins with Mohammed. Not the prophet… The baker. Mohammed the baker. This guy that I met…

What happens next?

It’s a question any storyteller is desperate for the audience to be asking itself. But at the same time it’s a question that I as a writer and performer ask myself before, during, and after the creation of every new show. After the performance – the next day, next week, next year – how will my show have affected the behavior of the audience, its beliefs, the way it lives? What happens next? After I have performed this show, what kind of job offers am I likely to receive, what festival will invite me, what theatre will I play, what might my income be? What happens next?

I have always romanticized those artists who don’t play the “what happens next” game – those true artists who just stick with their own internal integrity. Their show may or may not strike a political chord, change lives, make a million bucks – but it’s a case of luck or cosmic positioning, and not as a result of a conscious effort on the part of the artist. And hey, if the artist ends up poor and unappreciated, that’s just the way it goes. At least they are true to their vision.

When I sat down to write “The Situation Comedy” that I realized that all of the shows I’d created over my sixteen years in the business had always been influenced by the ”what happens next” consideration. Recently, I had toured extensively with a play that challenged the role of women in Judaism through the Talmudic tragedy of Bruriah as well as a solo show that had exposed the pain and violence of Israel’s secular-religious strife. It wasn’t as if my past shows had always been cheerful. It wasn’t as if I was the community’s yes-man. “The Situation Comedy,” though, was something else. Writing it taught me what it really meant to be “true” to a vision, and to hell with the consequences.

To be honest, I’d been trying to avoid writing a show about the Israel-Palestine conflict for two years. “The Situation” as it had come to be known – the oppression of Palestinians, the suicide bombings, the pain and terror of everyday life in our region – was a subject that kept screaming in my veins, and that I tried desperately to dodge. After ten years of living in Israel I had nothing wise to teach, I certainly had nothing commercial to sell – all I saw when I looked into the topic was a howling black hole that gave me the shivers. But I couldn’t escape it.

When I started writing, we in Israel had just lived through a crazy month, leading up to the violence of Pesach 2002. Over 100 people had been blown up in suicide bombings throughout the country, culminating in the blood-curdling attack on a communal Seder at the Hotel Park in Netanya. It was a terrible time. From the small to the large, from the way in which one phoned home more often when in town, took more taxis than buses, said a warmer thank you to security guards, our daily lives had changed.

It had become impossible even to mourn bombing victims properly, since one knew that the next attack was following fast around the corner. The radio stations had run out of sad songs to play every other day, as we Israelis tuned in every half-hour for our death-fix of the news. And more and more we found ourselves readjusting the circle of our existence, adapting sophisticated economic jargon to our emotional state: “How am I? Macro or micro? On the micro level, the kids are fine…”

The BBC World Service once asked me whether I had begun writing the show for “therapeutic” reasons. It was only in answering that I realized my purposes had perhaps been, if anything, anti-therapeutic. I was driven to create the show not in order to process the pain, nor necessarily to understand it. I had sat down at the computer in order to try to feel the pain. The only way to survive day-to-day life in Israel had seemed to be to muffle the cries. In our house at least – and I know we weren’t alone – we’d begun turning off the TV with news of bombings. We’d stopped listening to the broadcasts of choked eulogies by friends and families of the deceased. The only way to stay alive, it seemed, was to work very hard at ignoring the death all around. It had begun to suffocate me. Not out of masochism, but out of respect for the victims and their loved ones, I needed to delve into the pain.

And so for the first time in my professional life I found myself beginning to write with the brakes off. Like driving down a winding mountain road (we have lots of these where I live in the Galilee, so the image kept cropping up) with your foot only on the gas. Exhilarating, powerful, and somewhat suicidal. I began to create a show that demanded loyalty only to my sick screaming vision of a one-man tragic comedy about a suicide bombing.

I was looking for the laughter of shame. What if a clown tried to imagine how a baker might become a suicide bomber? What if this innocent baker has his house demolished – by accident?

YOSSI: [clambering over the rubble] Hold it right there, terrorist! MOHAMMED: But I’m not a terrorist. I’m a baker. YOSSI: Says here you’re a terrorist. MOHAMMED: Noooo…Next door. Next door! Mohammed the Terrorist? Next door. I’m Mohammed the Baker. ..You just knocked my house down… YOSSI: Ooops. Sorry about that… CLOWN NARRATOR: And then the next morning, Mohammed receives a letter. Official Army notepaper:” “Dear Mohammed the Baker. We the Israeli Army would like to apologize for the accidental demolition of your home. We are terribly sorry, and it won’t happen again…”

Could we laugh at that? Could our laughter express our shame, or would it deny it?

I was looking for the laughter of pain. I envisioned a clown telling the tale of the bombing itself: of how Mohammed the Baker, explosives belt strapped around his waist, tries to get on a crammed bus. He doesn’t take into account the traditional push and shove of Israelis standing in line.

CLOWN NARRATOR: He puts his foot up onto the crammed bus but the driver yells out, “Full up! Fuck off!” [presses button] The doors close [whoosh!], smacking Mohammed [smack!] on the forehead, and he falls, cracking his head on the sidewalk [crack!]. Mohammed is out cold. But the driver notices! “Casualty in the field!” he cries, and jumps out of the bus to look after Mohammed. Several other people get out of the bus because they once met a doctor… Others jump off the bus just to tell the others that they’re doing it wrong! And all the rest of the passengers come out, but only to watch… So when Mohammed begins to come round he finds himself entirely surrounded by over 50 well-meaning, queue-hating Israelis asking him if it hurts, and beginning. To loosen. His clothing… QUEUE-HATING ISRAELI: Oh my God, it’s an explosives belt. It’s a terrorist!

They run away, and Mohammed runs after them. I wondered how I might turn the whole scene into a Benny Hill sketch, together with silly music and a cartoon chase. They run round in circles, Mohammed pointing and giving chase, and a whole string of characters run from him – the fat man, the sweating man, the juggler, the elephant, the giraffe…

I imagined it all funny. Terribly, painfully, funny. I imagined a clown trapped by his own desire to make others laugh, destroyed by his search for the philosopher’s stone that might conjure humor from horror. Could we laugh at him? Could the laughter be an expression of our pain, or might it belittle the pain?

These were questions I knew would only play out in a theatre, in front of an audience. I tried not to ask myself what might happen next. I tried not to imagine the damage the show might do my career, the enemies I might make, the money I might lose, and the emotional wreck I might become. If I had, I might never have done the show.

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I went full out. I worked on the script and my performance with Peta Lily, a Britain-based director who is a master in a sick kind of physical comedy. I needed her to help me be funnier than I normally am. I can be witty, but I needed to be a clown. I employed her to do battle with me, to make sure I didn’t go “educational.” “Oh God, I hate you for that!” she once exploded at one of my re-writes. “Stop looking for balance! This is theatre, not a fucking news broadcast. It has to be true to the character and anything else makes you a big fat liar.”

And so “The Situation Comedy” turned into a solo show blending three stories into one. The Story of the Baker, where a simple baker falls into terrorism through the incompetence of the Israeli army, and with the help and encouragement of his neighbor, Mohammed the Terrorist. The Story of the Medic, where our clown unwittingly ends up giving the kiss of life to the terrorist himself. (His response: “Doh!”) And The Story of the Father: After having tried, and failed, to save the terrorist’s life, our clown learns that his own daughter had been at the bomb site. Still making jokes, still quipping away, he confronts a “Son of Frankenstein” forensic pathologist, and ends up having to identify the remains of his murdered daughter by only a fingernail:

CLOWN: What is that? PATHOLOGIST: Exactly. What is it? CLOWN: What is this, a test? It’s a, it’s a, it’s a flake. It’s an almond. It’s a broken. It’s a. [horror] It’s a fingernail. PATHOLOGIST: Correct! Very good… CLOWN: It’s someone’s fingernail. PATHOLOGIST: [prompting] “Someone’s”? CLOWN: Someone who’s lost a fingernail. Why I am looking at this? [realization dawns] Where’s my daughter? Where’s my daughter! PATHOLOGIST: [apologetically] It was a very big bomb… The clown breaks down, while still trying to make the audience laugh.

And so it was, for the first 20-odd performances of “The Situation Comedy:” This lovely clown stood in front of his audience and told them in as entertaining way as possible how his beloved daughter had been blown to pieces by a suicide bomber that he himself had kissed. Even writing this now, I’m quite appalled by the idea. But at the time I knew I couldn’t write anything else. The extremes of atrocity and absurdity had to be as intertwined on the stage as I felt they had become in real life.

The response to my performances was extreme Audiences laughed a lot for the first half hour, and by the end were wiping away tears. After the show people talked of how they felt like they’d been beaten up. Like they couldn’t breathe. Couldn’t speak. That the show was too much. Excruciating. And those were the people who liked it. The more critical used words like “appalling” and “disgraceful.”

In the non-Jewish world, there were critics (mainly in left-leaning publications) who couldn’t accept the show’s political nuance: though the show touches on the evils of the occupation, it mainly focuses on the horrors of terrorism. For some Brits this was too even-handed. As Amos Oz admonished audiences at the same festival in Edinburgh: Europeans ridicule the simplistic morality of Hollywood movies, but they can’t cope with complexity in the Middle East.

More disturbing to me was the response of the Jewish world. Some communities were brave or foolhardy enough to book the show: San Francisco was a friend, campuses around the world, Vancouver’s Chutzpah Festival, and leading Jewish theaters in the States. But many educators and community leaders steered well clear. One man saw it as his duty to send group emails round the Jewish communal establishment, warning people never to book the show. Though the “P” word was never mentioned, I know that the play’s sympathetic treatment of a Palestinian made me no friends.

But I believe that the show’s love/hate reception was less to do with politics and more to do with the way in which the Jewish community copes with pain and shame. Sometimes it felt that the greatest opponents of my show in the Jewish educational world were immigrants from the US and UK living in Jerusalem, maybe because Jerusalem and its surroundings have paid such a dear price during this latest Intifada. Living in Jerusalem, one is far more likely to meet people who have lost loved ones, and to fear for one’s own safety and that of one’s children, more than in Tel Aviv, more than in the Galilee – and certainly more than in Edinburgh or New York. Given this daily reality, there are perhaps certain core questions that the heart of the Jerusalemite or perhaps any immigrant to Israel asks every moment of the day, but that the head is desperate not to hear. Was it worth it? whispers the heart. Maybe moving to Israel was just a terrible mistake? weeps the soul. The Jewish world’s difficulty in facing the complexities of the Israel-Palestine conflict isn’t only due to political conservatism: the problem is also spiritual.

And so in my isolation I found myself in the role I had romanticized for so long: the pure artist, who operated without asking what happens next. I felt terribly brave. And also rather lonely. I couldn’t work out what had changed. As I said, it wasn’t as if I had been the community’s yes-man. But this show had clearly stepped over a line. Now, again, but differently than ever before, I asked myself, what do I do next? What happens next for me?

I could have held strong. I could have continued to blame the community for being unable or unwilling to swallow the pill I had prepared for it. Or I could have washed my hands of the community entirely, and of (my perception of) its need to face “The Situation.” But too many people I respected were beginning to criticize not only my intentions, but my methods. They felt that the show itself was too cruel – in particular its ending. They felt that to expect an audience to fall in love with, and to fully empathize with, a man who subsequently loses his daughter in a terrorist attack, was too much. Emotionally, it achieved the opposite of its intention. It was like taking someone’s hand to an open fire: they will pull away.

They had a point. It may well have been that after entering into the world of “The Situation Comedy” and grieving the horrific murder of the daughter, the audience had nowhere to go. As John Dewey wrote in Experience and Education (1938), “Any experience is mis-educative that has the effect of arresting or distorting the growth of further experience.” The final full stop of her death might have locked doors of experience shut, rather than springing them open. However much I had tried to follow my individual artistic vision to its ultimate conclusion, in the end I realized that I was unable to leave the “what happens next?’” question unaddressed.

And so I changed the ending. The daughter now lives. The clown does try to identify his daughter by a fingernail, but it turns out there has been a mistake, and it is someone else’s daughter. Not the ultimate happy ending, I’ll admit, but enough to allow the audience to leave on two legs, not on all fours. In the end making the decision to change the ending was quite easy. Leaving the daughter alive paradoxically allowed audiences to grieve her more. I also changed the title of the piece to “About the Oranges,” less threatening, less raw than throwing the “situation” and “comedy” together in the title from the start. These decisions were part of my answer to the question “What happens next?”

With its new ending I performed the show to various Jewish educational and communal establishments throughout the world, for a grueling 24 shows in 25 days at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and at festivals, theatres, and campuses throughout North America and Britain. I even perform the show around Israel in its Hebrew translation.

I have known great moments with the show. The gig in Vancouver when the timing of every laugh and every silence fell into place like liquid. The encouragement of the social worker who counsels survivors of terror, and who applauded my attempt to break the taboo that chokes her clients. The young German man at Edinburgh who could not leave at the end because he was crying too much. The opening night in Hebrew, when the shared laughter of pain grew and grew as the show went on – deep loud cleansing Israeli laughter that reminded everyone of their commonality rather than their differences.

Rather than spoiling my “true artist” vision, I think I actually improved the show by asking the question of “what happens next?” I found that building a show’s climax upon the death of a loved one had been too simple. Almost lazy. After all, even a cold objective newspaper report about victims of terror is enough to reduce a strong man to tears – so why didn’t I just read them a news article? What did art have to offer that was greater than that?

But at the same time, “About The Oranges” destroyed me. It really was anti-therapeutic, as I’d joked two years previously with the BBC. There wasn’t enough space between me and the character. He wasn’t me, but he was close enough. I did make aliya like the character, and I have even been offered the job he is trying for in the play. I have a daughter, and I do fear for her in this mad part of the world.

Perhaps my biggest mistake was to cast myself as the actor. Without being aware of it, I’d been driven by the “what happens next” right from the outset. I had wanted an insider to be around to answer any questions that might arise after the performance. I had wanted the audience to leave with a mixed message: On the one hand the show is about the suffering of an immigrant to Israel, but on the other hand it is performed by exactly such an immigrant. I had wanted to force the audience to face the show’s challenges by enforcing its authenticity with an Israeli performer on stage. At the time, it had felt like the most natural decision in the world. But I now realize none of these were artistic reasons to cast me as the actor: They were all driven by the “what happens next.”

An actor from the outside could have approached the show cleanly. He might have been able to service the text without becoming emotionally enslaved by it. Perhaps the honesty, the ambivalence, the humor and the generosity of the play might have flowed better without the tortured writer getting in the way? With myself on stage I fear that sometimes the audience is watching some form of public self-exorcism, rather than a piece of theatre. Though I myself have, thank god, not lost anyone to a terrorist attack, nevertheless I do, like all Israelis, suffer from terrorism. My nightmares and my daily fears are driven by the satanic echo of the suicide bomber’s blast.

Recently the show has begun to scare me. It’s come to feel like some form of a monster, demanding my blood and pain, feeding on my deepest fear and anger. I’m reminded of how an Indian poet once described the art of acting as chakshuyajna – visual sacrifice. I fear that sometimes this sensation of going on stage to a sacrificial altar of my own making affects the performance, damaging the experience of the audience. I know that the audience can only be liberated from the pain of the show through their own laughter. But sometimes I worry the audience members might not laugh if they notice how hard the clown is crying underneath.

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