Even during the bleakest years of Communist rule, the arts occupied a beloved place in Russian culture. Ironically, it was after the Soviet Union’s collapse that the great theaters of Moscow, St. Petersburg and Kiev went dark. Fortunately for us, a group of actors, directors and technicians came out of this darkness and made Aliyah at the pinnacle of their careers with nothing but Russia’s great theater tradition in their carry-on.
21 years later, Tel Aviv’s Gesher Theater continues to dazzle audiences at the world’s most famous stages.
“Theater was dead in Russia,” says Lena Kreindlin, general director of Gesher Theater, a now globally-renowned company begun in 1991 by a handful of Russian immigrants and The Jewish Agency. “Nobody was interested in coming to the theater when they had nothing on the table to eat.”
Once in Israel, these theater professionals found a receptive audience to what they had to offer. “We didn’t know how to promote in Israel,” Kreindlin recalls. “We didn’t know Hebrew when we came. A few people saw something different, so they stated to come.”
At first, Gesher’s superior work resulted in a small following. Then, word of mouth and well-known advocates like former Tel Aviv mayor Shlomo Lahat eventually led to a partnership with The Jewish Agency. With increased support, Gesher was able to build a foundation for viability.
“Israeli society is good in this way—first you don’t have a mattress and 21 years later you are connected to the Prime Minister and celebrating your anniversary at the President’s house,” Kreindlin laughs. “In fact, Shimon Peres is a good friend of our theater and a regular audience member. People say Gesher Theater has inspired all of Israeli theater.”
The troupe recently returned to New York for its eighth visit—this time to perform a Hebrew adaptation of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s Enemies: A Love Story at Lincoln Center.
“The stagecraft is visually striking and inventive, with much intelligent use of live video projections. Added to this the visceral acting, riveting even with a man translating all the parts in your ear, and ‘Enemies: A Love Story’ made me feel longing for a visit to Russia or Israel just to see their theater,” wrote New York Theater’s Jonathan Mandell.
Such acclaim is critical for Gesher, which, according to Kreindlin, still barely gets by from season to season. “The moment people at Lincoln Center who have seen everything say ‘Wow’ it’s like you’re getting an injection of energy and encouragement for the next three years.
“We still have problems with finance. A theater without financial problems is not a theater. Before every production, we always worry. When it is successful, it’s great.”
For Kreindlin, Gesher’s success represents more than just a personal triumph. “We are the best example of how Jews can come to Israel, start something—even in another language—and become a success. We are a small group of immigrants who now represent the country as a national success.”