Guy Ben-Aharon started out to build a bridge, “but I had no clue it would become as big as it has.”
He was a 20-year-old Emerson undergrad when he started Israeli Stage in 2010, hoping to bridge the gap between people in his native Israeli and Boston by presenting staged readings of Israeli plays to local audiences.
He’s still going strong four years and some 50 events later, as he turns 24 at the end of this month. He has branched out to other cultures and looks forward to presenting his first two full productions next season, both of which he’ll direct.
“It’s pretty amazing,” he says. “The audiences are always full. When we did ‘Hard Love’ [in February] we had to add a second showing — of a staged reading! — because the first one sold out. I couldn’t be more grateful to this audience, who will chew up anything I give them.”
Ben-Aharon’s latest and most ambitious effort is bringing Israeli writer Savyon Liebrecht to town for a two-week residency that includes public lectures at Boston University and Emerson College and readings of two of her new plays by some of Boston’s best actors.
“He’s really a type of ambassador,” Liebrecht says of Ben-Aharon. “It’s important for Israel to have somebody who is really keen on its theater and does things to promote it. He is doing something very important, and he took it on himself, voluntarily.
“It is important for the Israelis living in Boston — there are many at the universities — and it is [important] for the Jewish people to stay in touch with Israel,” she says. “It is important for people who are neither Israeli or Jewish to get to know Israel not only from the news, that usually shows soldiers, and understand there are people who are not soldiers in Israel as well.”
Liebrecht, the child of Holocaust survivors, is one of Israeli’s most respected fiction writers but in recent years has focused on writing for the stage. “It’s a real sort of coup for us to connect with somebody of her caliber,” Ben-Aharon says. “She is very well known in Israel. Every high school student reads her books and her short stories.”
Her play “Dear Sigmund and Carl” explores the correspondence between Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung as their sons, Ernst and Franz, meet to discuss publishing the letters. It will be presented at Brandeis University’s Spingold Theatre on March 27, and at Babson College on March 29 and 31. Her “Freud’s Women,” exploring Freud’s unusual relationships with his wife, sister-in-law, and daughter, will be read at Boston Playwrights’ Theatre on March 30.
Liebrecht will be present for a Q&A after each performance.
Israeli Stage presented her play “The Banality of Love” in 2011. It will do so again as part of a Holocaust commemoration at BU’s Morse Auditorium on April 28, with Karen MacDonald as Hannah Arendt and Thomas Derrah as Martin Heidegger. That performance is also free to the public.
Ben-Aharon has taken a special interest in Liebrecht’s work. “Whenever I go to Israel, I meet with her for coffee at least once. It’s become sort of a tradition. And I always ask her what she’s working on,” Ben-Aharon says.
She was initially surprised to “realize how young [Ben-Aharon] was when he told me what he has achieved,” Liebrecht says. “But it doesn’t make any difference, if you’re interested in the same things, then there is very good common ground.”
Ben-Aharon went to see her again when he was in Israel last June. “I said, ‘What are you working on?’ And she sent me these three plays about Freud. One was already being workshopped in Israel, and these two others had no buyers yet. And she said, ‘I need some time to develop them.’ So we started back and forth editing a little bit, and we decided on March for a workshop period.” Boston University signed on as a supporter, followed by the other three schools.
Israeli Stage has now produced readings of 16 different plays by nine different playwrights in its four seasons, totaling about 50 performances, many on college campuses. As word of Israeli Stage spread, Ben-Aharon has been tapped to create similar cultural exchanges under the banners German Stage for the Goethe-Institut Boston and Swiss Stage for swissnex Boston. He also has French Stage and Quebec Stage in the works.
“Guy has impressed me as somebody whose actions are way ahead of his talk, and his talk is pretty exciting,” says actor Will Lyman in an e-mail.
Ben-Aharon has also consistently attracted some of the city’s best stage talents for his programs. “Dear Sigmund and Carl” will feature Lyman, Richard Snee, and Rebecca Schneebaum under his direction. The cast for “Freud’s Women” includes MacDonald, Paula Langton, Miranda Craigwell, and Obehi Janice, under the direction of Melia Bensussen, who was also Ben-Aharon’s faculty adviser at Emerson.
Lyman says Ben-Aharon succeeds both as a director and as a producer who knows how to motivate other artists: “It is exciting to work with people who combine all those elements of the ‘arts business,’ and the fact that he is still in his early 20s is both extraordinary and promising.”
Sonnet readers wanted
The sixth annual Boston Shakespeare Sonnet-thon, presented by Shakespeare Now! Theatre Company, is set for 5 p.m. on April 7 at the Boston Public Library in Copley Square. The master of ceremonies will be Shakespearean actor, director, and teacher Jonathan Epstein. Linda Lowy, founding artistic director of Shakespeare Now!, hatched the idea for a sonnet-thon, with local luminaries and members of the public reading all of Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets aloud. The event is firstname.lastname@example.org.