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Itay Tiran was destined to be a musician. At least that's what everyone - including he - thought. Tiran, who has been called the James Dean of Israeli theater, is instead today's leading light of the local theater industry.
The 25-year-old presently holds the principal role in the Cameri Theater of Tel Aviv's production of William Shakespeare's "Hamlet".
Possibly the most discussed character in the world of drama, Hamlet is one of Shakespeare's greatest creations. Actors throughout the globe aspire to play this demanding role. And Tiran, though young, understands the implications of his part.
"Because he's such a legend and has so many facets, it was difficult to see where I fit in this marvel. Instead of trying to step into his shoes, I decided to throw away the shoes," says Tiran, who received accolades from local and foreign critics on his title role, among them the Tel Aviv Municipality award for Outstanding Actor. "I read a lot about the play. I also went to Stratford to research the character. I didn't like a lot of the productions I saw [on video]. I learned a lot of what not to do. There are a lot of traps when it comes to playing Hamlet."
A high school dropout, Tiran "wandered" for a year-and-a-half through nowhere jobs including working in a storeroom, telemarketing, and pushing the snack cart through trains before he got the theater bug.
A piano prodigy, he says that he was "sure I'd be a pianist." But by eleventh grade, he lost his attraction to tickling the ivories and took time off to find himself. One day, while watching television, he came across the Hollywood version of "Hamlet", starring Kenneth Branagh. "I always felt I wanted to act but for some reason I closed off that possibility to myself. I was so positive that I'd be a musician, I never thought of developing my acting desire," he says. "After seeing Branagh in 'Hamlet' I understood that I had to go into the theater."
To the delight of his parents - father, graphic artist; mother, bookkeeper - he returned to formal studies at Beit Tzvi (the country's foremost school for the performing arts). He was a standout from Day One. And before graduation, Omri Nitzan, artistic director of the Cameri theater company, who had seen him in a school production, scooped him up.
At the Cameri, in addition to "Hamlet", Tiran took the starring role in Yehoshua Sobol's "Eyewitness", appeared in "Caviar And Lentils", "Ootz Li Gootz Li", and "Shirat Hacameri". He has made television appearances and recently wrapped up his first feature film, "Forgiveness," by Udi Aloni (set for a summer release). He took three months of voice coaching to transform himself into an American.
"Film pressured me at first. I had to be something I'm not - a character to whom I do not relate, and in a language that is not my own. It scared me. I even felt I was making a mistake in accepting the role," says Tiran who is known for his charisma on stage but is quite subdued in conversation. "On the other hand the screenplay was fascinating. In the end, I enjoyed the process. It opened a new world to me."
So, film or theater? "At the moment I'd like to continue to do both. I can't give up on theater. It's sustenance for me," he says.
Earlier this month at the British Ambassador's Residence in Ramat Gan during a "Salute to William Shakespeare", Hanna Meron, one of the queens of Israeli theater, half-jokingly told colleagues and friends that they should catch Tiran while he's on home turf, as he'll likely head for Hollywood.
"I'm not looking for Hollywood," Tiran says, over a beer and croissant at a central Tel Aviv cafe. "There are a lot of opportunities here."
He has been named one of Y-net's top 100 people in the entertainment business and dubbed the "hottest kid on the block". One glance at the newspapers and it seems whenever Tiran's name is mentioned an admiring comment follows.
"Tiran's Hamlet was powerful and courageous, anxious and aching at the same time," reported Plays International.
"I accept the compliments but I immediately remind myself that I do a very simple job, I entertain. I can't get up on stage and say 'I'm a prize winner' or 'I got such and such a compliment'," he says. "The whole issue of prizes is restricting. I don't like honors that crown me, like 'newcomer of the year' or something of that ilk. These trophies push aside the essence of my work. Yes, it's nice to get a prize for something you've done. However, I don't think there's a prize that would fortify me to perform better. This is a job that justifies itself every day anew."
Not everything written about him is good. Tiran laments the "yellow journalism" that prevails in this country. He says there's a line between writing about what someone does for his or her job and writing gossip about his or her private life. "My private life is not relevant, it's not for the public to know. I don't like being a part of the gossip circuit. If it's not connected to what I do, why write about it? Moreover, gossip writers are mean and seem to be looking for a fight," says Tiran, who allows that he is dating someone.
While actors are meant to keep their roles fresh despite reciting the same lines in the same order day after day, not all manage to do so.
Tiran reveals that he tries to do something different every performance "Just as Shakespeare writes, 'to thine own self be true', one has to keep oneself from becoming automatic. The greatest danger is to be automatic. After just five performances, an actor can already find himself stuck in a singsong. I avoid this trap by making myself do something a little different. I take a step differently, or I change a nuance ever so slightly. I need to find a new twist. I make sure that I'm on guard all the time," he says.
And while a classic theater man, Tiran actually has his eye on participating in a musical. "I'm too busy with 'Hamlet' to be in 'The Producers'," he says, with a trace of disappointment. The local production of 'The Producers' is weeks away from launching at the Cameri.
"I love musicals," says Tiran, who in addition to musicianship and acting credentials also reached the music charts with his song, "Elohim Natan Lecha Bematana". "I'd be happy to sing, dance and act."
With his 26th birthday on the horizon, Tiran is still at the start of his career.
"I would like to portray Orson Welles at some point. I'm very flexible when it comes to roles. If something fascinates me, I'll bite. I have dreams for the future but I don't like singling them out as I prefer not to chase Holy Grails."
He need not worry about running after his dreams. Following Hamlet, roles will likely continue to appear before him.