By the time you read this, if all goes according to plan, there will be a permanent, stationary, "brick-and-mortar" place in Raanana that offers year-round professional English language theater, the first such place in all of Israel.
It will not be what Israel has already seen: amateur community theater groups that produce the occasional play – written and acted by local amateur playwrights and actors – but rather a full-time cultural hub that stages theatrical productions, musical performances, theater classes and workshops, youth theater, as well as dance performances and even stand-up comedy, all involving professionals. And that place will be called Center Stage.
Creating such a facility has been the dream, or shall we say the obsession, of Grant and Daniella Crankshaw, originally from South Africa, who have been making prodigious efforts to advance the cause of English language theater during their twenty-plus years here in Israel.
On the hot July day that I visit them in the midst of their work in progress, I walk carefully through the construction to see their newly built "box office," made – or as they say, "upcycled" – from parts of an old desk, parts of an old bed, some discarded plumbing pipes, and other odds and ends, all made by Grant from things given to them or found. We walk through two glass doors, found Grant says, "on the pavement," into what will be the main theater hall.
The Crankshaws are emotionally pumped from the recent arrival of 126 used theater chairs, bought for NIS 4,500 and brought to the future theater within three hours of their seeing them advertised.
We sit down in what will be a lounge bar and cafe, to be used after performances in the big hall for drinks, music, stand-up comedy, as well as workshops and rehearsals during the day.
Daniella explains her vision. "I want to create more than just a theater. I want to create a community, where people of all ages can come and do and belong. I have to look at it as a business, of course, but I think it's a social business, a place for people to meet, discuss, and become involved. It's got to have that crazy, warm, welcoming feel." And ultimately, it will be for everyone and anyone, she says.
"My main challenge, because I want this to be an English theater, is not to exclude people from other nationalities, and speakers of other languages. There will be Hebrew productions, French productions…it will be 80 per cent English. But I want Israelis to be comfortable coming in here."
Daniella and Grant's dream of "build it, and they will come" has been long in coming, probably as long as the couple have been involved with theater. And that was a while ago.
"It began when we met," Daniella says. "We met at the University of Witwatersrand theater department. We were studying theater. We did not like each other at all. But that's where it started."
"Israel essentially reignited the theater bug," says Grant, mixing his metaphors. This followed years of marriage, living in South Africa, being a parent, owning a home, and being "normal". Daniella adds, "civilized and normal. You're buried. You have the child, the house, the pool, the maid. The business and the cars, and the what-nots.
"We turned around and looked at each other and said, 'This can't be it'. Normal just didn't sit well with us, so we decided to move to Israel." Grant concludes, "It was as much for adventure as for Zionistic reasons."
Along with their son Jared, the couple landed in the Raanana Absorption Center for new immigrants, and were almost immediately in plays. This was in addition to their daytime jobs, contracting, carpentry, and general handyman work for Grant, and marketing consultancy with high-tech companies for Daniella. The skills acquired by each of them in these jobs are serving them well now as they turn some disused industrial space into a center for theater and performing arts.
The Crankshaws not only spent the bulk of two decades acting in plays, but four years ago began producing them as well, forming a traveling theater company called Desert Rose Productions. The company staged multiple productions of three plays throughout Israel, each with a cast of professional actors. Against All Odds is an original autobiographical play about the Crankshaws' romance and marriage; Broadway Babes is another original play, a Broadway-style musical that pays a sort of loose homage to the play A Chorus Line; and Arthur Miller's classic, gut-wrenching post-World War II drama, All My Sons.
Desert Rose Productions was, the Crankshaws explain, an attempt to broaden English theater in Israel from mostly amateur community theater groups to a platform for professional actors, who have studied their craft, and who are making, or trying to make, a living from acting. They note how people of other professions—doctors, lawyers, and accountants, for example—have been able to come to Israel and practice their professions. English language actors, however, have not. This, Daniella says, is largely due to the language barrier, and to their accents even when they do speak Hebrew. "So Desert Rose was largely about producing shows that paid the actors."
Which brings us to the creation of Center Stage. "It was an idea that was born of hardship," says Grant. "I'm the technician on these shows. I like to see that when we do what we do, we do it right. After years of amateur and traveling theater, where your theater is rented, your technical things all become reliant on other people. And that normally involves not being allowed to use their sound system or their lighting. So you walk into a space that you're paying rent for, and you've suddenly have all these challenges. Plus, you have to get everything there. It's very hard to master a craft when your tools are not maintained. So that was my first idea. We need our own space, so that we can build on our craft. When you're moving around in a nomadic way, it's almost impossible to get good theater out of that."
Daniella adds, "Aside from Grant's practical considerations, I feel that the English-speaking community here in Israel should have a theater. English professional theater in Israel needs a home. And, yes, we are a niche market, but the Russians have done it, there is a Moroccan theater, and there should be a home for us. There are a lot of us here in Israel."
There are indeed, and as far as theater is concerned, our time has come.