Rachel Neiman
December 14, 2008, Updated September 12, 2012

Cancelled at Sukkot for the first time in its 25-year history, the Israel Fringe Theater Festival at Acco has now been rescheduled for the Hanukah holiday break.

Every year at Sukkot, a wonderful event takes place in Israel that most tourists never know about. The Israel Fringe Theater Festival at Acco is a four-day encounter between audiences and the country’s alternative theater community – actors, designers, musicians, playwrights, painters, poets, and students, along with established members of the profession wanting to try their hand at something new – and everyone eager to discover the next big thing. The Acco Festival is a delight for its followers and an important source of creativity that feeds talent, energy and young blood into the commercial theater scene each year.

But for this year. In October, for the first time in its 25 year history the Acco Festival did not take place during Sukkot. Ironically, a festival devoted to coexistence in one of Israel’s few true mixed Jewish-Arab cities was canceled because of riots sparked on Yom Kippur eve that spiraled out of control. Thirty people were arrested, and with November elections looming ahead, the city council decided to shut the festival down citing security concerns.

The cancellation was a logistical nightmare for the organizers who – as they do every year, had begun working on the 2008 festival the day after the 2007 festival closed. On Yom Kippur eve, stages were already set within the historic Crusader halls, lights hung, lines memorized – an NIS 2.5 million expenditure gone down the drain.

Cancellation an artistic nightmare

It was also a nightmare on an artistic level, explains Acco Festival artistic director Daniella Michaeli. “It was a great shock. Up until the night before, the municipality and the mayor said the festival was going ahead and the troupes were already on their way up to Acco. It was very disheartening,” she tells ISRAEL21c.

Michaeli declined to join in the political blame game that ensued after the cancellation, but says: “The way in which the decision was made was mistaken, as neither I, the Ministry of Culture, nor the steering committee was consulted.”

The good news is that at the end of November, newly reelected Mayor of Acco Shimon Lankri announced the festival steering committee’s decision to hold the event during the Hanukah holiday break, from December 22 to 25th.

“The Acco Municipality made its utmost effort to enable the Acco Festival to go on, after concluding with creators and actors to hold the festival at a new date,” Lankri stated. “I have every hope that this important festival will continue to provide a platform to art and dialogue in Israel in general, and Acco in particular.”

Due to the possibility of rain, street performances – usually held around the old city walls outside the festival grounds – will be held in covered spaces within the grounds, but will still be free-of-charge.

Nine out of the 10 plays originally in the competition will be performed. The 10th play will be on tour.

“The minute that the cancellation was announced, the groups had to decide what to do next,” Michaeli explains. “The creators decided they wanted the competition to go on and I’m happy about that. It brings in some prize money and also leverages a show’s chances of commercial success. Another thing I insisted on was that the artists be given assistance; we can’t ask people to work free-of-charge twice in a year – and here the mayor and the authorities provided financial support.”

Riots lead to intense soul-searching

The riots and the cancellation also demanded some soul-searching on the part of the organizers, says Michaeli. “We held an internal panel about the event and a lot of important and interesting questions were raised about the festival’s place within the city.”

One issue raised was public perception of the festival among Acco’s different populations – running the spectrums of Jewish and Arab, Ashkenazi and Sephardi, religious and secular, educated and not – and to what extent it served the local audience. Michaeli, who is concluding a decade-long tenure adds, “In this sense, I think it’s good that the new artistic directors are from Acco.”

The new artistic directors, Smadar Ya’aron and Moni Yosef, are co-directors of the Acco Theater Center which is committed to social action and forging alliances between Arab and Jewish artists. For 2009, “the idea is to get the festival out from behind the walls,” says Yosef, “We want to make Acco-ite theater that will happen in authentic spaces, leave the performance halls, and put on shows in the old and the new city. We’re already planning a play about the riots that will take place in the very neighborhood where they happened.”

The festival’s future is yet to be written, says Michaeli. “I hope it will never become establishment and will always be a place of discovery.” Adds Yosef, “We want it to truly continue to be alternative theater, showing a different language, presenting things that can happen only in Acco.”

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