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Playwright Sobol on ‘Polydrama’ as Political Theater

Award-winning Israeli playwright and activist Joshua Sobol took centerstage at the Semel Theater on Thursday, March 30, to talk about his early life experiences, “polydrama,” and use of social justice in his plays.

Sobol was touring Boston-area colleges, universities, and other institutions as part of his two-week residency at Israeli Stage, founded by alumnus Guy Ben-Aharon ’12. The event was sponsored by the Institute for Liberal Arts and Interdisciplinary Studies, with the Performing Arts and Writing, Literature, and Publishing departments, and the President’s Office,

“The arts bring people together, they connect diverse ideas and different disciplines,” President Lee Pelton said in introductory remarks. “The arts help us understand the world, and they also connect us to life’s most enduring themes,” said Pelton.

Sobol told his audience about how in 1971, a group of young directors, actors, and playwrights, including himself, came together to start a new trend in the Israeli theater.

“The Israeli theater was reproducing plays that were successful in the West End in London or on Broadway,” Sobol said. “The theater did not preoccupy itself with the problems of the Israeli society. So, this group in Haifa decided to go into the Israeli society to research and find out what we can do to bring to the stage the voiceless elements of our society.”

One of the results of this new movement was Alma, based on Viennese composer Alma Mahler, who stole Sobol’s attention while he was reading intensively about her husband, famous composer Gustav Mahler.

As a polydrama, Alma took place throughout an entire building in simultaneous scenes, and audiences could choose to follow events and situations as they wanted. Later, the audience came together for dinner to discuss the different scenes, their experiences, and perspectives.

Sobol said he felt that polydrama is an appropriate form for political and social theater since it does not tell the members of the audience to think in a certain way. Instead, it gives them an opportunity to explore the subject the way they want.

“In our time, we don’t want to be taught lessons. We don’t believe in people who teach us lessons. We want to learn by our own means, we want to make up our own mind without being directed too much,” Sobol said, calling polydrama the most democratic form of theater.

When asked whether the polydrama has been met with any backlash or criticism, Sobol said that interestingly, the audience had a different type of frustration with Alma.

“I have met audience members who were frustrated that they couldn’t see everything!” Sobol said. “Someone would say, ‘I just saw 10 scenes out of 50, and I paid full price,’” said Sobol, who added that the ticket was in the form of a passport, and admission got increasingly less expensive on return trips.

Sobol said Alma was not pure entertainment, but dealt with social and political issues.

“Alma had a political edge because it spoke about right of women to have sexual freedom among other things,” he said.


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