Life & Culture

The Israeli puppeteers working with children devastated by October 7

Ahead of their London shows, meet the troupe behind an uplifting puppet show


While festivals lose sponsorship deals and musicians face pressure from anti-Israel groups to cancel their shows, JW3 is putting on a show by the only Israeli theatre company to visit the UK this year.

Once Upon a World is the most popular production from Israel’s Train Theatre, a puppet troupe that won awards at the Haifa Children’s Theatre Festival which offers storytelling shows for children. Non-verbal, the show is about bravery and is designed to make culture accessible to everyone while breaking down the barriers that boycotts seem so set on strengthening.

This is a hot topic for JW3’s programming director William Galinsky, given that not long before our conversation, Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood responded to a backlash against his collaboration with Israeli musician Dudu Tassa by publicly defending his decision to work with him, and investment firm Baillie Gifford cancelled sponsorships of literary festivals after boycotts. And since we spoke, events promoter Live Nation, which puts on festivals such as Latitude, severed sponsorship deals from Barclays after artists pulled out of performances.

“Cultural boycotts are very detrimental and they don’t really achieve anything,” says Galinsky. “If anything, you should be collaborating and working with artists and academics in Israel, because the majority of them have the same objectives as you, if you took the time to get to know them and work with them. Not having conversations doesn’t bring peace forward. It only creates othering and ignorance. So it feels massively important that we’re welcoming the Train to the UK.”

Kobi Frig, Train Theatre’s CEO, recently took a call from a Russian woman from Moscow asking whether she could come to their festival in Israel. “Of course it’s OK!” exclaims Frig. “It’s children’s theatre. We don’t talk about the war. We are trying to create a better future for children, and if we create a better future for children, for sure it will influence the wars around us. I really believe in that, and I believe that people sometimes forget what’s important. Art and culture should never be stopped, because it’s the only thing that creates talk and connection and thinking, and it’s an opportunity to solve problems and not create them.”

Frig says that Train used to take their shows around the world, but no one invites them now. “Someone told me that when the Jews are afraid to go out, afraid to go with a Magen David around their neck, it’s a sign of the worst thing that happened to the world, because the Jews are like a barometer. If there’s a lot of pressure, the first thing that we take it out on is the Jews, it’s their fault.”

He was looking forward to celebrating his wife’s 50th birthday when the horrendous events of October 7 turned their world upside down. Suddenly he found himself terrified and checking for places to which his family could run and hide.

“I never thought that I would think this way, but it did happen, and I went from peace and love to ‘Maybe I need a gun in my house.’ I slept with a knife because we didn’t know how far it would get… that maybe we were doomed.”

Plans to take Train shows on tour, including to JW3, were put on hold and its building closed. But then Frig cast his mind back ten years to the 2014 Gaza War when Train brought its puppetry artists to bomb shelters and schools in Israel’s south “to bring energy” to people in the war zone. Knowing what he needed to do with the theatre, having done it before, on Sunday October 8, Frig requested funds. And once families were evacuated, he paid Train’s artists to go on the road and perform their shows at the hotels where families and children evacuated from the kibbutzim were staying.

“We thought, children need something,” says Frig. “We sent artists just to be there at the beginning, in the lobby, to stay with a puppet, and let the children slowly come to them, because it was really catastrophic for some children. There are terrible stories.”

There the artists used their expertise in drama therapy through puppetry to work with children traumatised by the horrors that they had witnessed, and from being uprooted from their homes. Puppets created trust between children and artist, meaning that slowly the children approached the artists and the puppets of their own accord. “It was progressive, slowly waiting,” says Frig. “We heard stories, like the mother who said her son didn’t want to leave her side in the last three weeks, and this was the first time that he walked from her, like ten metres in the lobby. Or children who always stay under the table, and only when the puppet was there they’d go out from under the table and come to the puppet.”

He recounts how one of the artists, who was evacuated from the north, took a group of children from the south and together they created kangaroo puppets – which appeared at a Purim parade –  symbolising the mother keeping her child safe in her pouch. It enabled children as young as six in the group to open up and express how they had to travel from Sderot to Eilat and so on. “He’s talking about the art, but through the art he is talking about what he found as a child with his family as he went from place to place to place,” says Frig. At the beginning, Train’s work was solely about healing. And slowly they began to take full shows to children.

Eventually, after more than a month, they opened their venue and brought the displaced children there for daily creativity sessions and circus shows. “We made our theatre their home. Going out of the hotel was very good for them, like breathing. We tried to create a space where they could feel good, run, breathe, and also enjoy good culture.”

This continued for three months, although Frig stresses that the families still not back in their homes continue to be welcomed at their theatre and facilities for free.

Before the Hamas attack, the Train Theatre had big plans for 2024. It had planned a giant puppet festival to celebrate Purim in Jerusalem for the first time, for which they had secured an offer of funding from the mayor. At the end of December, they sat down with the mayor and said they wanted to go ahead. “I was hoping all the time that my parade will bring the peace,” says Frig. “I always believe when I do something, that it will make peace closer and make a better place. And the mayor told us, ‘OK, I want that.’ And we really hoped that the war would end before. But it didn’t.”

But the devastated families of the hostages still held in Gaza were harder to convince. They asked, “Is it OK to create a parade while our children are still in Gaza?” One man, whose brother was kidnapped, told him, “You will never walk with that parade. I will do a protest – I won’t eat. I won’t let you.” Frig explained what he wanted to do and why. His persistence paid off. “The hardest thing I did was to meet the families and to convince them that it’s very important for children. It’s very important to still do culture in a war zone and in a time of war. It’s very important for their family, for their loved ones in Gaza, that people will feel more energy to create a deal to bring their family members back. The energy here is so low. People don’t have hope. People don’t trust each other.”

Working alongside hostage families, Frig offered to find a more fitting name for the annual event traditionally known as “adloyada”, which translates as “until you don’t know”, to capture the custom of copious drinking at Purim. It became the “Walking Together Parade”, and on the night before the event, they rushed to change all the posters around the city.

The theme for the puppetry was “what is a hero child?” Behind a big yellow ribbon, the hostages’ families walked at the front of the parade, alongside the Train Theatre troupe and their iconic puppet of a child. A thousand people marched, while 50,000 gathered to watch the 30 giant puppets created by artists and the community as the parade was broadcast on live TV.

“I was so sure that I was doing the right thing for the children that I convinced them, and they walked with us,” says Frig. “And for a few hours it brought hope. Art is supposed to be part of the community, to be a tool for the community, to heal the community.”

Once Upon a World is at JW3 from July 11 to 14

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