I GET up in the morning," says Shmuel Omer, "and I open the newspaper. Stones, bullets, more people killed, Arabs this, Jews that, economic problems, immigration problems - as a citizen of this country what keeps me alive? Theater, music, a book. Culture. This is the only thing that gives me something to withstand all the problems that we face here." Mr. Omer heads the Habima, Israel's national theater, in Tel Aviv. His views are widely shared, particularly when it comes to theater. The arts flourish to an enviable degree in this country. Almost a third of the people attend theater regularly, a proportion thought to be the highest in the world. And the number is rising.
Unlike other industrialized regions where television is king, on this small strip of sand and strife, the stage reigns. "It's very strange," remarks Shmuel Hasfari, one of the country's leading playwrights, "but people here actually run away from television to the theater." Beset with so many troubles - "it's like we're sitting on a volcano that at any moment is going to erupt." The appetite for the stage is seen in near-spiritual terms. "We need it for our souls," says Omer.
A group of 16-year-old boys are leaning against a railing during the interval of the Habima's performance of "A Small Family Business," a recent darkly moral comedy by British playwright Alan Ayckbourn. Clad in jeans and an assortment of sportswear and leather jackets, they look like typical teenagers anywhere. A conversation with them about the first half of the show makes it clear, however, that they have a shrewd eye for production values well beyond their years.
Although the play has been a tremendous success and the cast is headed by one of Israel's top actors, these boys are not fully persuaded. "I'm liking the production," says Dori Kais, "but the acting isn't so good." His friends concur.
Dori and his pals, along with the rest of their high school classmates, are regular theatergoers. They are encouraged by their teachers to see a minimum of five shows a year at the Habima. State-subsidized theaters scattered around Israel have special arrangements with local high schools. "No one is really forcing us to come, though," explains Dori. "There's no punishment if we don't. But I really enjoy coming."
His friend, Oren Silbiger, adds: "Israeli TV [two channels with restricted transmission hours] only gives you a little choice. There's much more competition in the theater. Before I went, I thought it would be really boring. But when I saw my first show, I liked it a lot. Now I go on my own."
Israelis take their theater seriously indeed. Through an agency called Arts For the People - well-supported by the state - productions tour extensively throughout the year. "We don't wait for people to come to us," notes a director. "We bring the theater to the people."
All the stage companies have cultivated strong ties with Israel's many trade unions to help ensure that their theaters do not become bastions of the white-collar elite, as is the case in most Western countries. Israeli government ministers, including the prime minister, regularly rub shoulders with the blue-collar workers who also go to the theater. "We talk with trade union leaders every day," says Omer. "We have many schemes specially aimed at [cultivating their patronage]. We make them friends of the theater."
To encourage the habit of theatergoing, trade unions and schools get cheaper tickets if they buy seats in bulk. But Omer, along with the Habima's resident director, Hanan Snir, who is generally considered one of the best in the country, insist that they do not compromise their artistic standards. In their current repertoire, for instance, Strindberg's "The Father," directed by Mr. Snir, is an austere production that has had full houses for the last two years. Workers' unions are still clamoring for tick ets.
ANOTHER recent hit, and not an easy work, was Lorca's "Blood Wedding." "So you don't have to put on a cheap comedy," avers Omer. "Time and again we have proven that if you have a very good production, everybody goes and enjoys it."
There is no better evidence to support this maxim than to look at the tiny town of Beersheba (pop. 120,000). Located smack in the middle of the Negev Desert, surrounded by little more than bone-dry scrub, windswept wadis, and the occasional Bedouin encampment, the town has nonetheless fashioned itself into a blossoming arts oasis.
The Beersheba Municipal Theater, looking more like a friendly local library than an imposing center of culture, has led the way. Founded in 1973, its artistic director for the last nine years, Tsippi Pines, could not be more surprised at the theater's efflorescence. Ms. Pines, the first woman to head a theater in Israel, recalls that no one initially understood the need for a theater in the desert. Beersheba has a mixed population made up of Sephardic Jews hailing from Iraq, Syria, Libya, Morocco, and E gypt, and is surrounded by a Bedouin community - where theatergoing was last on the list of pastimes.
Yet after 18 years, the Beersheba Theater now regularly plays to capacity houses, which include a small but steadily growing Bedouin contingent. We're talking here of sheep and goat herders, as well as technicians and teachers. They've sat through Shakespeare, Chekhov, and Brecht - usually for the first time in their lives.
One of Pines's highly persuasive methods of audience recruitment is to simply ask when she meets an unfamiliar face, whether Bedouin or Jew, "Why don't you come to the theater?" The tone of the query is a mixture of good-natured chiding and infectious enthusiasm. More often than not, they come. She finds they invariably return.
But perhaps the most curious feature of Israeli theater today is the seriousness of purpose that underpins it. Musicals, for instance, are a rarity. "I'm personally not interested in doing them," Habima's director Snir says bluntly, echoing the sentiments of his many colleagues I talked to around the country. "Good theater is always political," emphasizes Oded Kotler, artistic chief of the Haifa Municipal Theater. Pines put it succinctly: "An Israeli playwright wouldn't dare to write just a comedy; it's not important enough."
Earnestness was set at the birth of Israeli theater on an obscure Moscow side street in revolutionary Russia. A band of young Jews decided to form their own underground drama company. This was the original Habima, meaning simply "the stage," which decamped to Palestine in 1929.
The group decided from the start to perform solely in Hebrew, considered a dead language at the time; the troupe subsequently played a major role in turning it into a living tongue. This, plus the ideological issues that the early Habima explored, made it political to the core.
"Theater here is the most social of the art forms, because we have always used it to cope with very painful issues," says Dr. Shoshana Avigal, drama critic and theater methodology teacher at Tel Aviv University. "For instance, theater critics in this country, when reviewing a play, almost always [assess] it within an ideological context: What does it say to us about Israeli society? Our expectations are very much that theater will not only provide a pastime, but also educate us 201&gt; or show us how to cope with problems."
THE central problem is an obvious one: the Palestinian situation. Many theater people view this as the paramount leitmotif of the present drama; either implicitly or explicitly it crops up repeatedly, whispering or shouting from the Israeli stage. Indeed, however rigid Israelis may be viewed outside their country, their theater reflects a very different picture. Most Israeli directors and playwrights strive hard for a moral awareness. They do this with homegrown drama, which makes up a quarter to half o f what's mounted, depending on the troupe. They are perhaps several steps ahead of the society as a whole in this regard.
"Israeli theater is like a laundry," explains playwright Hasfari, who described it best, "in that it cleanses the conscience. Half of the audience, for example, are Likud Party supporters, the rightists. And we in the theater are all, without exception, leftists. So for two or three hours of a performance, those rightists experience [our view of] what it is to be a 'good person,' a 'moral person' - because, to be an oppressor, you have to step on your heart in order not to feel. I do think the theater e levates. And maybe, in time, when confronted with similar situations in real life we will as a society, one day, behave in another way."