The characters: six Jerusalemites. The setting: the embattled city claimed by both Israelis and Palestinians. The point: to get people listening to narratives they didn't think they wanted to hear.
Jerusalem Stories is a series of dramatic monologues that are being performed in Jewish and Arab parts of the city, in Hebrew and in Arabic, with the aim of challenging audiences to empathize with the other side – or the "enemy," as many here would say.
On stage are stories representative of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the point of being cliché: A Palestinian man expresses anger over the Israeli army's killing of his nephew, an Israeli mother grieves for her teenage son killed in a Palestinian attack.
But the stories are told in a way that cuts through prejudice and hate. Director of Jerusalem Stories, Carol Grosman, chose two Israeli actors to do all six parts for Hebrew-speaking audiences to bring them face-to-face with the narratives in their own language. Palestinian actors performed for Arab audiences in their mother tongue.
It's having the intended effect, says Mohammad Thaher, the project's Palestinian director. "The issue is that for the first time ever, they're seeing something that is about the suffering of the [other] side, and it's a shock for them. People like to hear something about their own suffering and they're not used to getting beyond that. Suddenly they feel for the other, and sometimes it makes people a little bit angry."
The Jerusalem Stories project, which includes performances as well as educational programs and workshops aimed at fostering better understanding between Israelis and Palestinians, is the labor of several years of work by Ms. Grosman, an American who came to Jerusalem and decided to use her background in drama and storytelling as a way to get people to start really listening to the other side.
After collecting some 70 in-depth profiles of people who live in Jerusalem and recording the story of how the conflict affects them, Grosman chose six that seemed to capture some of the most essential and painful elements of life here – and largely, how they cope with the suffering they endure at the hands of the "other."
The debut series of performances in East and West Jerusalem has proven powerful and phenomenal. Now Grosman and Mr. Thaher are deciding where to take the show next. High on the list: Israeli and Palestinian schools, international audiences, and perhaps in the US, where Grosman studied storytelling as a tool of conflict resolution.
It's a journey, she says, that began 15 years ago when she attended a conflict resolution program in Jerusalem. "I saw how exposing audiences to real people and their narratives just opens them up, and their horizons widen," she explains. "So I started to play with getting groups together to tell their narratives." This included bringing together Jewish and African-American groups in the US, as well as groups of young Bosnians and Croats at the Seeds of Peace camp in Maine.
The journey led her to do a master's degree in conflict resolution at Eastern Mennonite University in Virginia – hardly a typical path for a Jewish girl. An Orthodox rabbi, she says, recommended she study there.
"The Mennonites talk about, 'Let's have a listen and learn.' The value of humility is very strong," she explains. "The attitude is, I need to listen, I need to learn. It's a humble stance."
The approach she took was to get people to avoid encouraging people to talk about politics or their opinions, at least in a direct sense.
"When people start telling opinions, they clash. The personal story is a safe passage through the minefield. Opinions tend to create more conflict," she explains in a discussion in her small Jerusalem apartment, which is filled with pieces of the set of the previous night's performance. The accompanying multimedia exhibit, shown between changes of actors, includes evocative black-and-white portraits of Jerusalemites taken by photographer Lloyd Wolf.
"We have a vicarious experience in our imagination: We can see the street, we can see a young boy selling gum. Imagining is something very powerful," Grosman explains. "When you have an imagined life experience of the 'enemy other,' it's a powerful form of communication. It gets past defenses that people have. Often, when we hear a story, we identify with the narrator."
For that reason, the performances are currently done either entirely in Hebrew or entirely in Arabic – which means that so far, it doesn't bring people together.
"It seemed to me that we wanted to do this in native languages, so that we would not just attract the usual people who are left-wing or tolerant," she says. "We know that there are people who support Hamas who were at the performances in East Jerusalem." But at the same time, she says, it's brought criticism from people wondering why a project aimed at building understanding is keeping people in separate spaces.
"People have criticized us, saying 'Why aren't you bringing them together?' I say, there's a need to sit separately and hear it in your native language and feel safe," she says. "We're trying to attract people who aren't comfortable sitting together [as Israelis and Palestinians]. We're already pushing them with what they hear."
Eventually, says Thaher, the Palestinian director, they plan to have joint audiences to get people talking afterward.
The three-hour program includes an hour of facilitated discussion groups after viewing the performance, in which plenty of sparks have been flying – even in the all-Arab or all-Jewish audiences.
Thaher says that Palestinian audiences sometimes express resentment at being made to feel sympathy for the Israeli side, saying that the stories were slanted. Israeli audiences complain of the exact same thing, saying that the Palestinian stories were more compelling.
"But we think there is a balance," he says.