In theater, a new life : At-risk teens hone acting skills

Yitshak Cohen attended 11 different schools from seventh grade onward, and was thrown out of the Israeli army after being transferred from unit to unit. “I’ve always found it difficult to settle,” the 21-year-old confesses.

Cohen is one of 12 young adults, aged 17 to 22, from difficult backgrounds who have received a new lease on life as acting students at the Basement Theater — many of whom receive scholarships from the Jerusalem Foundation. Located beneath a large derelict house in Jerusalem’s fashionable German Colony, the theater is providing a unique last chance to talented but troubled young Jerusalemites.

“Here at the Basement Theater I feel totally committed,” Cohen says. “I’ve been coming here for nearly a year and a half and I love it. It’s always been my dream to be an actor.”

Hagai Aharoni, director of the Basement Theater, stresses that the program is first and foremost about instilling excellence in acting and only after that about helping young people at risk.

“We make no compromises in what we demand of our students,” he insists. “Even though they come from problematic backgrounds and many have criminal records, we feel that they could all become fine actors, capable of taking on lead roles in quality drama.

“We are unique in Israel,” adds Aharoni, “and there are only a few such drama schools around the world. We take in students who have not even finished 12th grade and would certainly not be accepted by more conventional drama schools.”

Located beneath a hostel for at-risk teenage girls owned by the Ministry of Welfare and run by the Einav nonprofit organization, the Basement Theater building is made up of a series of large basement rooms used as studios and a theater. The building itself was constructed in the 19th century by the German Templars and is today owned by the Government Housing Administration.

“If we could renovate this building,” explains Aharoni, who has extensive experience in fringe theater production, “I think it would not only raise the self-esteem of our students but also serve as an attractive arts venue for music and drama in the city.”

Liat Rosner, spokesperson for the Jerusalem Foundation, agrees. “Above and beyond our scholarship support of the students,” she says, “the Jerusalem Foundation is hoping to find the funds to transform the basement into an attractive theater. We think that such a place, in such an ideal location, has the potential to become a viable business which ploughs the profits back by supporting youth and young people at risk.”

Students at the Basement Theater are currently in their second year of studies and are required to study at least 12 hours a week for two years. This includes acting techniques, scriptwriting and performing both scenes the students have written themselves and classic dramas.

“We began with 20 students all referred to us by the social services,” recalls Aharoni, “but eight quickly dropped out. The 12 who have remained are very dedicated and hardworking, as well as talented.”

Yefim Rinanberg, who teaches at the Basement Theater, thinks that the students in the program have impressive potential. ” They “have an extra something that young people from so-called ‘good homes’ lack. They have lived through so much more, and this gives them a greater and more thrilling inner power, which is reflected in their acting.”

The anguish that the students have experienced is expressed in a play they wrote together in the first year of the program. Titled “One Man’s Family,” the play includes scenes from each of the student’s lives and has been performed by the Basement Theater throughout the country.

Mendy Bakish, 18, who has a criminal record, says acting is therapeutic. “In the play I argue with my mother about everything,” says Bakish, who lives at a residential school in Jerusalem. “She won’t let me go out and won’t give me money. So in the end I steal money from her and go out and buy drugs.”

No, he explains, “I get up in the morning and for the first time in my life I feel that things have meaning and that I have a sense of direction.”