Israeli Stage continues its tradition of bringing notable Israeli playwrights to Boston for two-week residencies. This month, award-winning actor and playwright Dror Keren will workshop his new play, “What Life Wants,” as well as give related lectures from March 17-31. Keren is also the author of another original play, “On the Grill,” which explores the notion of shared history and cultural identity in Israel.
Keren recently completed an acclaimed run as the lead role of the theatrical adaptation of David Grossman’s Man Booker-winning novel, “A Horse Walks into a Bar.” Keren stars in and directs the play, which was co-adapted with Micha Lewenson and Avner Ben Amos. He is also a stand-up comedian who is inspired by the late George Carlin. Keren, who has an impressive acting resume that spans over three decades, spoke to JewishBoston just before his trip to Boston.
How did your residency with Israeli Stage come about?
Israeli Stage director Guy Ben-Aharon saw me perform in “To the End of the Land”—an adaptation of David Grossman’s novel of the same name. We had coffee and became friends. A year later we met again, and Guy saw me perform in the play “A Horse Walks into a Bar.” It’s adapted from another novel by David Grossman, which won the Man Booker Prize.
Guy asked if I was writing anything new since my play “On the Grill”—the first play I wrote and directed [which won the Israeli version of a Tony award]. Five months ago, “On the Grill” had its world premiere in Cleveland. When Guy asked me to come to Boston, I saw it as a great opportunity to intensively workshop my new play, “What Life Wants,” with wonderful American actors. Hopefully, after this experience, I’ll come back to Israel with a better play.
What was it like to work with David Grossman?
One thing to know about David Grossman is that if he has full confidence in you, he lets you create. He gave me a free hand to dig into his book and come up with something I felt worked for the stage. We talked a lot, and I called on him often. Before the performance, he gave me some great ideas. In the end, he liked the play very much, and it was a big hit in Israel. We’ve also been to Croatia and Slovakia with this production and had great success.
Is this your first visit to Boston?
I went to Boston for the first time two years ago. My son was in summer school at Berklee College of Music. He’s a wonderful guitarist. I spent 10 days in Boston and met with the Jewish community. I had excellent discussions about “To the End of the Land.” At the time, the play was quite new in Israel. People asked challenging questions and it was very interesting.
You’ll be giving a talk at Brandeis University and other venues called “What Is Home.” Tell us about that.
The lecture will deal with some of the themes I wrote about in “On the Grill.” The message of that play was that Israel was a great dream, and still is in some ways. My grandparents were Holocaust survivors who came to the Jewish homeland. Israel was their hope, their safe place and their home. My father was in the Israeli Air Force. I’m the generation after that, and for me my country is not always going in directions I’m happy about. I’m not alone in my opinion.
I wrote “On the Grill” after Israel’s last conflict in Gaza. From a leadership and societal point of view, I feel we are going back to tribal behavior. It’s like we’re the 12 biblical tribes again.
I set “On the Grill” on a kibbutz. The kibbutz is a metaphor for the dream, of being together and the fact that this has been blown away. That’s what happened to us as a country. The play takes place at the end of Memorial Day, which ties into a celebration of Independence Day. The timing reflects Israelis’ inner conflicts. It’s our illness and our medicine, it’s our cure, and it’s the bleeding wounds we’re still dealing with.
The play has 10 characters that are on a kibbutz in the north of Israel. I didn’t live on a kibbutz, but I’m from Afula, also in the north, and know the kibbutz way of life. Mordi, the main character, comes back from Berlin, where he lives, for Independence Day to be with his family. He’s 30 years old, and it’s a tough time for him. There is a war, and Mordi’s young friends are fighting on the border.
Mordi is a veteran and suffers from PTSD, which he experiences on this visit home. The wound starts to bleed again. The celebration goes completely the other way. The play is a mixture of humor and compassion, featuring people that I really love. All of them contain a part of me, including the grandmother who is based on my Holocaust survivor grandmother. The grandmother is from Berlin, and Mordi brings his German girlfriend to meet her. I’ve had a lot of response over the last few years from soldiers, ex-soldiers and families.
I also want to discuss the idea of what someone’s original home means to him or her. “What Life Wants” shows that the main battles in life are within the walls of your original home. These are the battles we have with parents, siblings and children. It’s also about the toughest role ever—parenthood.
You’re also an actor and director. What are those experiences like together?
I’ve directed three theatrical productions. I wanted to be more responsible for telling my stories. It was not exactly a career decision; it’s something that came about after my frustration as an actor. I didn’t come across the way I thought I should. That’s why I’m also sitting in the director’s chair.
I read you do stand-up comedy too?
It’s great medicine. I can be very silly, and I use my humor as a vehicle. Like many stand-ups, I say not-so-funny things. George Carlin is an inspiration. But stand-up is not so easy to do in Israel. People here want their humor to be comforting. They don’t want to bring up politics—they say they have the news for that. I brought my stand-up experience to “A Horse Walks into a Bar,” in which the main character is a stand-up comedian.
You’ll be workshopping “What Life Wants” here in Boston. What do you think that experience will be like for you?
Once again, I’m dealing with family. I’ll be 55 in April, and I have four children. I think a lot about the role of a father or a mother and what it means to fulfill your own dreams—your own potential at the same time. It’s about being a good parent and the conflict that arises because of it. As I look around at friends and family, and this new generation, I see parents’ failures and the price the children pay.
I wanted to observe a family that thought about a mother after she’s gone. The father who left them many years ago comes back, and he’s ill. I wanted to explore if he really is the cause of this family’s problems. Who is really there for the children?
I’m looking forward to meeting my wonderful American actors. It’s a great opportunity to see my material realized in a different language and a different culture.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Find more information about Dror Keren’s Boston residency here.