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Arts

Theater director Yael Ronen breaks taboos

Instead of shying away from political conflicts, the Israeli playwright Yael Ronen confronts them head on in her productions, instigating reconciliation between people. How does she succeed where so many others fail?

On July 11, Yael Ronen's play "Third Generation" will be once again performed at the Berlin Schaubühne. It will be the play's 125th performance, after a tour through various German cities as well as in Prague, Reims, Parma, Lodz, Stockholm, Aarhus, Braga, Porto, Thessaloniki, Malmö and several stops in Tel Aviv.

Co-produced by the German Schaubühne theater and the Habima National Theater of Israel, the play turned out to be extremely successful. Yet it caused serious concerns before its premiere in 2008. "Third Generation" connects the Holocaust and the Nakba, the expulsion of Palestinians after the creation of the State of Israel. And this is taboo in Israel.

Stirring up debates

Young Israeli, German and Palestinian actors tackle all the taboos of their shared history in this play. They openly talk about everything their grandparents couldn't mention - and they do it without inhibition, in such a vivid, funny and charming way, that nobody's feelings could possibly be hurt. Instead, people are grateful to see long overdue debates finally being sparked. Critics also share this opinion: "Third Generation" was chosen as Best Play of the Year in 2010 by the magazine "Theater Heute."

Schaubühne Berlin Theater Third Generation. Copyright: Heiko Schäfer

The play "Third Generation" brings Israeli, Palestinian and German actors together onstage

Yael Ronen, born in Jerusalem in 1976, loves playing with conflicts. She makes it her personal challenge to bring on stage whatever discussions she's been having with the other members of her company. "The projects which make theater relevant to me are those where the line between reality and fantasy suddenly disappears," explains the theater director, "those where you cannot be sure whether what you are seeing is a really authentic moment from a person's life or just acting."

Theater as a therapy

She also demonstrated her strong tightrope walking skills in "Common Ground," a play she created in 2014. It has been selected as one of the 10 most notable productions of the year by the theater festival Berliner Theatertreffen.

Most of the actors who created "Common Ground" with her are originally from former Yugoslavia. Bosnians, Croats and Serbs who have been living in Berlin for over 20 years undertook a courageous expedition into their own past as part of their research for this play.

The result is extraordinary: It's a play which skillfully combines historical and biographical facts, personal feelings and skeptical views on the way Yugoslavia's history has been covered. It therapeutically deals with guilt, responsibility, anger and grief, while underlining the crucial role of reconciliation.

Common Ground, Maxim Gorki Theater. Copyright: Thomas Aurin

"Common Ground" is one of the year's most interesting plays

"Common Ground" was created at the Maxim Gorki Theater in Berlin. Yael Ronen became the resident director of the theater at the beginning of the season 2013-2014.

Like at least 20,000 other Israelis, Yael Ronen now lives in Berlin, together with her husband, the Palestinian actor Yousef Sweid, and their son. The director never came across anti-Semitism here. To her, Berlin is a place where her son can freely grow up without being harassed for having a Jewish mother and a Palestinian father. Ever since she has been living in Berlin, she's been increasingly irritated by Israel's shift to the right and the racism which appears to be growing there.

And yet, she misses working with Israeli actors in her own language. She would love to hold up a mirror to Israeli society once in a while.

Revisiting family history

Yael Ronen's grandfather was a Viennese Jew. In 1936, he emigrated to Palestine. In her play "Hakoah Wien," which premiered at the Schauspielhaus Graz in October 2012, Yael Ronen tells his story. The play portrays several generations of the family, from her soccer-crazy grandfather to his grandson Michael, who is asked to hold speeches in Austria to brush up the image of the Israeli army, unexpetedly leading him to deal with his own family history.

Berlin Maxim Gorki Theater Hakoah Wien. Copyright: Ute Langkafel

An actor salutes while facing the Israeli flag - a scene from "Hakoah Wien"

Yael and her brother Michael now both have an Israeli and an Austrian passport. Her grandfather might have had a problem with that, says Yael Ronen. Had he known that his grandchildren had left the Jewish Israeli State, his life project, it would have broken his heart.

At least there's more to the story, she says. Next year, Yael Ronen will also be producing a play in Vienna. "It would certainly have been a form of triumph for him to see me contributing to the culture of his hometown, and being accepted there."

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