The mensch in charge

Director Moshe Kepten is now working on some children's classics for the Israel Festival, and the list of what he'll do next is long.

Moshe Kepten 88 248 (photo credit: Eyal Landsman )
Moshe Kepten 88 248
(photo credit: Eyal Landsman )
Time and place for the interview dithered between morning and afternoon, from the Cameri to a cafe, but he's finally in place and on time, fresh from planning a TV birthday special to honor Rivka Michaeli. Oof! Director Moshe Kepten is kept ultra busy these days. Since the runaway success at the Cameri of Fiddler on the Roof - the Israel Theater Prize for Best Musical didn't hurt either - everybody wants him. He's planning for Yentl, which he'll do at the Cameri in October, then it's Funny Girl at Habimah, followed by a new play for the Beersheva Theater by Ruby Porat-Shoval, after which it's Spring Awakening for Beit Lessin. "I like to keep busy," he says without irony. Right now, Kepten is working on a couple of Israeli classics, The 16th Sheep and The Soulbird, for the Israel Festival for Children and for the Holon Mediatheque Children and Youth Theater where he's artistic director. Soulbird, based on Michal Snunit's book, is about a little boy who says he has no soul-bird, and some good folk show him that yes he does, he just has to listen for it. "It's a metaphorical tool for evoking the emotional world of children," says Kepten, adding that it teaches a lot about parenting too. The 16th Sheep, by Micki Gurevitch with music by Yoni Rechter, is based on stories by Yehonatan Gefen. It's a quest in which a group of kids go looking for their lost friend, "or the child in us that we need to rediscover," Kepten says. When offered a play, Kepten will direct "only if it speaks to me, only if I can find a key to the material that will open a door that nobody has gone through before - if the work isn't new. The first thing I ask myself is what does the playwright have to say, and just as important, what story do I want to tell?" Offering Fiddler as an example, Kepten relates that when he and designer Roni Toren were discussing the meaning of tradition, Toren asked, "'What is tradition for you?' and I said the picture of my great-grandfather that was on the wall in Grandma's house, and from that came the portraits on the proscenium wall through which events unfold." He winces when asked how he likes being directorial flavor-of-the-month, preferring to think that he's finally gaining recognition, even though he doesn't deny that it's Fiddler that got him there. KEPTEN IS nice, a good kid - even at 38. He's got a round, unlined face with kind eyes and a ready smile. He's tallish, walks with a wee bit of a stoop and likes to hug. He's married to actress Maya Maoz and they have a daughter. Kepten grew up in an observant home in Bat Yam. His father was a foreman for Military Industries and his mother was a school secretary. His brother Gil is a Cameri actor and his other brother is a broadcaster at a religious radio station. Kepten himself took off his kippa at 27, "but I still lay tefillin daily, I eat kosher, I believe; it's more that my career took me away from the religious life." He played piano for 11 years, reads music, "which helps when I do a musical. Sure I'd love to direct an opera, and Hanna [Munitz, head of the Israel Opera] knows it. Opera is the tops." His career started at 15 when he organized and performed with his Bat Yam Entertainment Troupe. In the IDF he was a soloist with, and ended up as commander (a sergeant) of, the rabbinical choir. Post IDF, in 1993, he went to work as a producer for Yehuda Talit, working on shows like Avenue Q and Evita and rock shows; that wasn't enough either. It was the always talent-aware Gary Bilu at Beit Zvi who gave Kepten the chance to direct in 1997. He did an evening of Broadway songs that was a hit. He followed that with the musical Pippin, "a huge flop. My inexperience showed, but Gary just said 'try again,' and I did. Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat was a huge hit for the Sifria Theater." Kepten worked with Bilu until 2003 and then went to study at Tel Aviv University, finishing with an MA in theater. He has paid his directorial dues over the years with shows like v, the Israeli Oscars and the Israel Theater Prize broadcasts for Channel 2, to name just a few. Directing for the stage "is more exposed than directing for the screen. A film director can absolutely direct the audience's eye to where he wants it to go. On stage there are many more visual stimuli, yet despite all that, the director must know how to concentrate his audience's attention." If he has a credo, it's that "it doesn't matter who you are, how famous or successful; in the rehearsal room you're among your peers, and the more you're a mensch, the better a director you'll be."