Jerusalem-born musician and performer Avital Raz talks to us about My Jerusalem, which streams on Applecart Arts from 19th July to 7th August. The show is accompanied by documentary Your Jerusalem, in which she interviews Israelis, Palestinians and people in the UK about the issues raised in the show.
What is My Jerusalem about?
My Jerusalem is about my childhood in the 1980s when the second Intifada was going on. A tale of child abuse, defiance and coming of age within a rigid society where religion and the military dominated. It’s also about a drunken one -night stand between an Israeli woman and a Palestinian man in Edinburgh. It started as a controversial song I performed for six years before I developed it into show. I wanted to present an intimate personal story to audiences that often only know about Jerusalem from what they see on the news.
The show is based a lot on your personal experiences, some of them difficult experiences – what’s that like for you as a performer?
My website says “Making people uncomfortable since 1996”. I love it. I love talking about subjects that most people don’t talk about. I have no shame. I find it healing and I hope that my audience finds it healing too. I’m currently working on a new show all about infertility and miscarriages. When life truly sucks, make art! I’ve been doing that for a long time and it makes the hard bits of life so much better knowing that they will be expressed, processed and sculpted (I hope) into something beautiful that can be meaningful to others on their difficult journeys. This show in particular was very healing. It was the first time I had discussed with my family my experience of being molested by the conductor of my children’s choir. The show brought up some really difficult conversations that needed to be had and making the documentary that accompanies it (in which my parents participated) enabled me to capture some of that. I can happily say, we’re all closer for doing it.
The show is accompanied by a documentary where you interview Israelis, Palestinians, and people from the UK about issues raised in the show – what did you find when you made the documentary?
I felt compelled to make the documentary because the song from which the show is derived and the show itself proved rather controversial. Most of the live shows either had a Q&A after them or a panel debate. It quickly became apparent that there was much to talk about after the show and I wanted to give people a chance to be heard, especially Palestinians as the show is very much from my point of view of a young Jewish girl growing up in political turmoil and not understanding what’s happening but feeling terrified. I made Your Jerusalem with Chris Davis who has never visited. He told me that what struck him was how lovely everyone was and how relatable even though some circumstances of their lives differ greatly from his. For me one of the most powerful things in the process was meeting up with Stefanie who is a character in my show and I hadn’t spoken to her in about 25 years. She was an American Israeli who was married to Ziad, a Palestinian she met whilst being an activist. She and their marriage left a huge impression on me as a kid and it was amazing to show her the film and interview her.
Tell us about the music and the projections in the show
The projections are either video by Chris Davis who I made some music videos with before this show or stills by my partner Jimmy McBroom who visited Israel with me. In the last bit, we used animal masks that we had bought in India. Jimmy filmed me wearing each one in the garden looking creepy and Chris edited it. The music, well there’s a lot to say about that. The show started as a 20 minute version I developed during a residency with Lancaster Arts and it was just the Edinburgh Surprise song broken up and infused with some stories. Then I wrote another original song called You Are My Jerusalem that compares the city to an abusive lover, and in the end, I sing a traditional Passover song in Arameic about a goat that was slaughtered by a cat that was bitten by a dog that was beaten by a stick etc…
When working on the film version of the show during lockdown, I realised that I really enjoy Sound Design so I added some background noises such as traffic, gun shots, background conversations and created a soundtrack for lots of scenes that are quiet when I perform the show live. It was interesting to see how things that work on stage, using the tension in the room, don’t work as well on a screen so I felt that adding a soundtrack made it more watchable.
Which do you consider yourself first, a musician or a theatre maker?
Hmm that’s a difficult question. The theatre I make will always be heavily reliant on music. In my next show, I use live looping so I’m constantly going back and forth between singing and talking. I’ve been making music professionally for over 25 years. I started out with Western Classical Music, then I moved to India where I studied the ancient art of Dhrupad singing for 6 years and started writing songs. It’s easy for me to make music but I’ve always wanted people to hear what I was trying to say, and as a musician I was often frustrated when people would chat over me and then tell me I had a pretty voice without having any idea what I was singing about. When I started performing my first theatre show I was amazed and overjoyed with the fact that the audience was listening to my every word. And I’m still buzzing off the fact that difficult thought provoking subjects are welcomed and encouraged, whereas my music was sometimes met with shock and there were occasional complaints from “people trying to enjoy a pleasant night out”.
What do you want the audience to leave thinking or feeling?
I want the audience to feel that if they didn’t know anyone from Israel, now they do. If they thought things were black and white, now they don’t – or perhaps they can just see some grey creeping in at the corners. That war tears people apart and that violence perpetuates itself for generations, with endless direct and indirect victims. I also hope they will feel satisfied that they experienced an engaging performance that might stay with them for a while.
For more information and tickets see here