'Good Acting Always Hurts'

Keren Tsur feels freedom, genuine freedom. She is liberated, freed from being pretty, in the role of Anda in Hillel Mittelpunkt's new play. The lovely actress does not conceal her disgust for the worship of beauty. "I don't want to sound like a nasty person, because I'm not, but in our profession, external appearance assumes a central place, and talent is pushed aside."

In her case, the talent has not been pushed aside. On the contrary, it is hard to ignore it. It could be her convincing body language, precise hand gestures or the mild accent she adapted for herself as a Hungarian Holocaust survivor. They help her make an impression, move the audience, create solidarity and stir emotions. Recognition of her talents includes the most promising actress award for her performance in "Madeleine" at the Haifa Theater several years ago, but, without a doubt, in "Anda" she is revealed as a star.

Anda, the fictional heroine of Mittelpunkt's play, is a survivor of Bloc 10 in Auschwitz, which was part of the Nazi experimentation with mass sterilization by injecting poison into the ovaries. She wants to testify at the Eichmann trial, which is underway when the play's action takes place. She wants to tell the world about the crimes done to her. But the Ben-Gurion-controlled political establishment disqualifies her from testifying.

Anda had been a member of Herut for a few months and protested outside the Knesset against the reparations from Germany in a demonstration organized by Menachem Begin. Secondly, she was from Hungary. Some people sought to limit the number of witnesses from there because of the Kastner trial several years earlier. So 110 witnesses testified at the Eichmann trial, and Anda was not among them.

Anda powers the plot of the play that bears her name, which depicts a judicial system that capitulates to the intervention of the political branch, which draws comparisons between then and now. No wonder the play is sparking public debate in the media. There was heated debate at the play's premiere.

Tsur says that even on stage she sensed the opposition: "I felt the vibes of opposition from the politicians in the auditorium. They weren't interested in the personal human story, in which a Holocaust survivor leaves the country with a slam of the door, but only in what is being said about them, what they did or did not do. That is what the play is about actually."

How do you prepare for such a powerful role? Tsur: "I read this moving play and realized that for me it would be the closing of a circle, and that it was the role of a lifetime. Four years ago, I started interviewing my grandmother, Yona Weinberger, a Holocaust survivor, who is now 91, who was born in Hungary, was in Auschwitz and was taken from there to work in an airplane factory in a village in Germany. I videotaped her over a period of months; every session started with a protest on her part - why is this necessary? The video I recorded became part of my preparation for the role.

"I also read books, including "Judgment in Jerusalem" (Yisrael Bemishpat) by Pnina Lahav, "The State of Israel Vs. Adolf Eichmann" by Hanna Yablonka and "Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil" by Hannah Arendt. There is also a lot of material to be found on the Internet. Of course, Anda is a figment of Hillel's imagination, but that's his job as a playwright, he must tell the human story without which it is impossible to put on the play. These things took place; there was intervention. Mapai was the state, and the state was Mapai."

Do you think a playwright is obligated to the historical truth?

"As I see it, the basis of the historical truth must be there, but a performance or a play is not a documentary film."

How did you create such precision in your body language on stage?

"The subordination of the body was born out of the knowledge that the character underwent medical experiments in the area of the womb. The gripping of the arms and hands I apparently got from my grandmother; there's something very Hungarian about it.

"The search for the right accent was a process. I didn't want to imitate Grandmother Yona, who has a heavy Hungarian accent because a heavy accent is acceptable in comedies and satires. During the rehearsals we tried all kinds of accents, such as emphasizing the 'r.' But Hillel didn't like it. He said gently that he didn't recall writing so many 'r's in the play. In the end, we decided on a veiled accent. In general, Hillel indicated that he was confident he could rely on me, and that is also how he was with all the actors. He believes in the actors he chooses. Thanks to his trust, I didn't doubt what I was doing."

Tsur, 34, was until a few years ago in high-tech. Even when she started acting, she alternated between working at Amdocs and at the Haifa Theater. Most of the plays she appeared in there, including "Tofrot," "Madeleine," "The Taming of the Shrew," "Mishpahat Yisraeli," were performed during this period of alternating jobs, between 2001 and 2004.

She started working in high-tech during her military service. She trained at the Computerized Data Processing Center and worked in the field after the completion of her military service as well. At the same time, she chose to study communications and political science at the University of Haifa, "because communications is a form of acting" she says now, explaining that decision, "and political science was supposed to fill in some gaps in my knowledge as someone who did not go to high school in Israel."

After completing her studies, she got an offer from Amdocs and for six years worked as a computer programmer. "If I had continued there, I would now be a senior manager," she says. "My husband, Gil Israeli, whom I married 11 years ago, has a senior position there."

But her dream was to be an actress. Why did she not seek to realize it?

"I didn't dare. It seemed unrealistic to me. It seemed to me like a life full of elbowing. Even at home, they mark out a path for you. But the theater was always something I loved, ever since I can remember myself. I remember that as a soldier I saw Juliano Mer in "Othello." His acting hurt me. Good acting always hurt me."

The job at Amdocs didn't satisfy her and she started to study acting at the University of Haifa. "The two complemented each other," she says. "I went to study acting not in order to be an actress, but to supplement something that was missing in my everyday life. Actors' hunger for a role is not good thing in my opinion, because it creates pressure. But the passion for acting is a wonderful thing. I hung on to the high-tech job because the world of theater frightened me a lot. Working in high-tech provided me with a kind of security and quiet."

Her first role was in "Tofrot." Sinai Peter, then the artistic director of the Haifa Theater and Tsur's instructor at the University of Haifa, introduced her to Oded Kotler, the play's director. One role followed another and in 2004 Tsur left Amdocs and devoted herself exclusively to acting. A short time later, the Beit Lessin Theater took her in and she appeared in "Sinit, Ani Medaberet Elekha," "Honor," "Cafe Arabe," "On Golden Pond," "Seret Tsarfati" and now "Anda."

What did you discover when you fulfilled your dream of acting in theater?

"That the dream is reality. I was not disappointed. It was everything I had imagined. The interesting and stirring power. It completely engulfed me and became the center of my life. Little by little, I am sobering up."

Her partner, she says, "had to digest it all. He didn't immediately understand my need. The truth is that I myself didn't really understand this need. Perhaps a kind of running away from myself. Perhaps we actors are not interesting enough to be with ourselves all the time. Today he is complimentary. He really thinks that I am a good actress."

What fascinates you so much about being an actress?

"I am fascinated by getting to the bottom of the character I am playing. I like the process of rehearsals more than the actual performances themselves. Being another character and getting to know it fascinates me. I like to investigate periods, to question people, relationships between people. I think that I received as a gift a reservoir of pain and of humor that life does not always make possible.

"As a child and a young girl, life was good to me. The reservoir of pain I received perhaps from a previous incarnation, and I say this even though I don't know if I believe in reincarnation. I think I have the ability to identify with humans, which has no use other than in acting. Juliano Mer, who I performed with in 'Madeleine,' told me 'you will be a great actress, because you have the ability to identify with man.'"

For most of her life she did not live here. Her father, Eliezer Tsur, was an army man, an electrical engineer in submarines, and today runs a factory that produces batteries for weapons. Her mother, Rivka Tsur, is a literature teacher. Keren is their middle daughter. Her father was sent abroad and took the family with him, and Keren spent her childhood in the U.K.'s Lake District on the border of Scotland and her teenage years in Hamburg, Germany, where she attended the international school. In between those periods, she spent time in Israel.

When she returned to Israel from Hamburg, she went straight into the army and experienced what she says was severe culture shock due to the crowding, lack of manners and absence of friends. This combined to create the feeling of being an outsider, which she always felt and is still present. "But it has softened," adds Tsur.

"I learned to accept myself here, which means to concede certain things in your personality. I would like to be more polite, to talk more softly, to wear suits more often. I'm sure that I have changed, that I have adapted myself to the place and the time, but there are things that I won't give up, for example, attention to detail. I'm not willing to take any shortcuts, even though that is acceptable here."

She lives in Haifa and 22 months ago became a mother. "After the birth of Emma, I devoted myself to her totally," she relates, saying they were in symbiotic state where everything disturbed, light and noise. "I was engrossed in nursing. My roles in plays at Beit Lessin went to other actresses. And then Tzipi Pines, the theater's director, called me and suggested I come and replace Asi Levy in 'Cafe Arabe.' Then other offers arrived. Today I am grateful to her for this, because I returned to my identity and to my daughter. Suddenly she has a mother and a twin sister. She got used to her father giving her a bath and putting her to bed when mom is at work. One day she told him that Mommie works very hard."

Do you go to the theater?

"I don't have many free nights, and it also means another day to travel to Tel Aviv. This month I had 18 performances, and this is a short month with all the holidays in it."

She is not really planning her future in the theater. As far as she is concerned, Tsur can and wants to do every role, from Chekhov to Shakespeare and sitcoms. It is a lot easier for her to point to roles she does not want: "I will not do telenovellas or appear in reality shows, even if it comes with good pay, but I am not in this profession for the pay." And after a moment of thought she adds: "I'm also not the typecast of the kind of people who do the telenovellas."

Do you see a high-tech job as an escape hatch, should the need arise? "It's hard for me to believe that I'd go back to the lifestyle of a programmer at a high-tech firm. Even if it involved a situation where I needed to earn a living, I would not run straight to high-tech. I would first try to create myself, or direct. I think I did what there was for me to do in high-tech."