The grand woman of Israeli theater

Orna Porat has been delighting audiences for decades.

orna porat 88 298 (photo credit: )
orna porat 88 298
(photo credit: )
"Orna Porat! I've been a fan of yours ever since the old days, the first time you ever came to Kiryat Ata," gushes a local resident. The veteran actress responds warmly, confiding as she walks away, "That's worth more to me than all the prizes - that people love me. I feel it coming at me, and it's wonderful." A 2005 EMET Prize laureate for her lifetime contribution to Israeli theater, Porat has won the Israel Prize in 1999; the Israel Theater Lifetime Achievement award in 1997; David's Harp (the local equivalent of the Tony) three times; a slew of honorary doctorates and, in 2004, the Key to the city of Cologne. In 1970 she founded the children's theater that bears her name, the Orna Porat Children and Youth Theater, ran it for 25 years and got recognition galore, including an honorary lifetime membership (2002) in Assitej, the international children's theater association she helped establish. However, the EMET prize is the biggie and worth $100,000. At 81, Porat has had some health setbacks lately. So she won't be going to Europe as the Rabbi when the Warsaw Theater takes The Dybbuk on tour, but she'll still do Light and Shadow, her one-woman show on Leah Goldberg, at Habimah and will go with Dybbuk to Bogota in April. Habimah is where it all started in 1947 for a young German actress named Irena who'd followed the love of her life to the nascent Israel. In spring 1948 she passed an audition at Habimah, even though she'd done her monologues in German, then for the Ohel Theater (now defunct), and that summer Yosef Millo took her into his young Cameri Theater and cast her as the young Catherine in John Van Druten's I Remember Mama. Years later, she played Mama. She doesn't care to remember the number of roles she's played. "What was, was. I'm always thinking of what will be, but I do remember Lady Precious Stream because in that I started to think in Hebrew onstage, and from then on it was easy." She has acted on stages all over Europe, including in Germany where she has done poetry readings, or her own one-woman shows, but never in a German company. She plays strong women, women who know what they want and how to get it, women that life has battered but not broken - formidable women whose souls are strong but whose hearts can shatter. There's always that moment in a Porat performance when emotion punches through, fight it though the character will. And there's always the charm, the sudden smile that could bend steel. She doesn't play to the gallery - not on the stage and not in life. After half a century of acting, she says, "I bring to the stage a lifetime of experiences, as well as the attitude that I don't have to prove myself anymore." Among her dozens of unforgettable roles were Joan in Shaw's great play; Rosalind in As You Like It; the mother in Bernarda Alba; Shen Te/Shui Ta in the Good Woman of Szechuan; the Rebbitzen in Sheindele; the grandmother in Born in Yonkers; a deranged mother in the play that Fernando Arrabal wrote for her, Love Letter; the sensible sister in Two Sisters, a play written by her daughter Lital that Porat performed in Yiddish; and Mary Stuart in Schiller's Maria Stuarda. It was a Schiller play that decided Porat's career. She was 14 and went on a school outing to see his William Tell. "I'm going to be an actress," she told her parents when she came home. Born in 1924, Porat grew up in Porz, a small town in the Cologne area. "Until I got my first contract with a provincial repertory company in Schleswig, I was unaware and apolitical," she says. "The Schleswig company was very socialist, and for the first time I was exposed to everything the Nazis has proscribed, like the books of Thomas Mann, Jacob Wassermann, Marx; but what really made me realize that I could no longer stay in Germany was when we found out about the camps at the end of 1944." At the end of 1944, the regime closed all the theaters and drafted all the personnel into the army or industry. Porat and Hanni, her best friend to this day, went to work in a factory where they put leather grips on steel rods. By April 1945 it was obvious that the war was all but over, and the girls decided to slip back to Schleswig. "As we still had friends among the Russians, we asked to be put on their repatriation list." That's how, on May 12, 1945, the pretty actress Irena Klein met Yosef Porat, an intelligence officer in the British Army who wanted to know why a couple of young German actresses wanted to be sent to the USSR. "I knew the first day I saw him that we belonged together," says Porat. "It took one month and five days for him to see the light. That was June 17." The Porats had three weddings - one civil, one military and one Jewish. The military one was so that Porat could get that precious British passport that would get her into her Yosef's Palestine. "I take thee for my awfully wedded husband," she'd said at the time. It took years for her to understand why everybody laughed. Understandably, the family wasn't thrilled that Yosef was bringing home a German bride. But once they arrived, the family accepted her with open arms. The Jewish wedding took place on the grounds of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, after Porat had converted in 1957 when she adopted her two children, Lital and Yoram. She had to learn Hebrew. Yosef had to find a job. Money was tight. At first they lived with Yosef's elder brother in Kiryat Bialik and loaded rocks onto a construction truck. They'd thought to go for a life on kibbutz, but that didn't work out because theater was not a working option and "Yosef realized that without theater, I'd have no life." When they moved to Tel Aviv, Yosef, a trained psychologist, worked with troubled youth. Porat studied Hebrew and cleaned houses. And so it went - Orna Porat to stardom in the theater and Yosef Porat to a brilliant career in Intelligence. Her wisest critic, most ardent fan and best friend, Yosef died of a heart attack in 1997. She misses him, dreadfully, and carries on with courage and laughter. Porat admits she has had an incredible life. Winning the EMET is icing on the cake. Although she knew she had been a nominee, when she heard the results she was in shock. "It's more than an honor. It's recognition of all that you stand for." She loves to spend time with family, with grandchildren, and not infrequently they join her for holidays abroad. But always she comes back to Israel "because I couldn't imagine living any place else. There's more intelligence here, more humor, more liveliness and quickness of mind than any place on earth. And there are lots of theatergoers who deserve good theater." Which they don't always get. There's room for frivolity in theater, of course, but it's the great meaty dramas that embody the art for Porat. There are roles that "I really wanted to do," such as Medea and Mother Courage; and for years she has wanted to do King Lear, "but everybody is afraid to do it with a woman. Why not? It's the stage, after all. If I speak the words and am approached as the king, what does my gender matter?" Then off she goes to get ready for the next day's performance. She'll take a flower to the theater like she always has, from the beginning. She'll put it in a glass of water on her dressing room table "so I have something beautiful to look at."