Orna Porat (Irene Klein) was born on June 6, 1924 in Cologne, Germany to her father Willi, an accountant who instilled in her a love of nature, and her mother, Elise, a lover of the arts who had to give up her career in order to raise the children. Though her father was a Catholic and her mother a Protestant, the adolescent Porat chose neither, but instead became an atheist interested in socialist ideas. She attended primary school in Cologne and high school in Porz, a city to which the family moved when she was ten.
Drawn by the flags, nature trips and uniforms of the Hitler Youth, she joined the organization despite her parents’ objections. In 1938, under the influence of Friedrich Schiller’s William Tell, which her class was taken to see, she decided to become an actor. Her parents did not treat her desire seriously and her father even objected to it, but she insisted and applied to the Opera, where a small role became vacant. She won the role due to her claim that she knew how to sing and dance, though she had no experience of either. After a brief, improvised rehearsal, she was measured for a costume and told to come to the next day’s performance. Having no theater experience, she arrived only a quarter of an hour before the performance. She was immediately dressed in a costume, shoes and wig that did not at all fit her, hastily made up and told what was her entrance cue—which she missed. Finally onstage, she was unable to perform the dance steps she had been taught, and during a moment of silence her mother’s voice was heard from the gallery announcing: “That’s my daughter!” Following this fiasco, Porat decided to abandon the idea of performing in opera, but persevered in her desire to pursue a theater career.
After graduating from high school in 1940, she studied for two years at a drama school in Cologne and while still a student was cast in theater performances. Upon completing her studies she began her career on the professional stage with a one-year contract at a repertory theater in Schleswig on the Danish border, which presented a different play every two weeks. During the two years she spent there, she became acquainted with the writings of Thomas Mann and Franz Werfel and the poetry and plays of Bertolt Brecht, and discovered the truth about the atrocities of the Nazi regime. In 1944 the theaters closed and the male members of her company were conscripted into the German army, while the women worked in factories and in casual employment. Her experiences during this time led to her decision to leave Germany at the end of the war.
Because of her socialist views, Porat initially planned to go to Russia but changed her plans on meeting her future husband, Joseph Proter (1918–1996). Born in Cologne, he had immigrated to Palestine, joined a Ha-Shomer ha-Za’ir kibbutz and volunteered for the British army when World War II broke out. Posted in Germany as an intelligence officer, he was at the end of the war alloted the task of inspecting the lists of all the Russian and Polish forced laborers who wanted to return to their fatherland. Irene Klein’s name was also included in these lists: an actor wishing to travel to Russia. Thus they met for the first time, fell in love, married in 1946 and immigrated to Palestine.
They arrived there in November 1947 and Porat was placed in a quarantine camp, sprayed with disinfectant as was customary, and released two days later. The newlyweds searched for a kibbutz that would accept Irene, a Christian, and chose Kibbutz Merhavyah. Wanting to resume her acting career, Porat asked for permission to do so, but was informed that kibbutz members received a free half day per week for their creative craving. The couple left the kibbutz and arrived in Tel Aviv in dire financial straits. Porat worked as a cleaning woman during the day and studied Hebrew in the evening.
In January 1948 she auditioned at Habimah, but was told she had to learn Hebrew. Shimon Finkel (1905–1999), then the theater’s manager, promised to invite her for another audition upon the return of the company from a United States tour. When their arrival was delayed, Porat approached the Ohel theater, which rejected her on the grounds of unsuitability of style. Undaunted, she tried the Cameri Theater, auditioned and was accepted. Just a year after she came to Palestine she mounted the Hebrew stage in John Van Druten’s adaptation of I Remember Mama by Kathryn Forbes (premiere November 1,1948). Since in the Cameri’s early days the actors were obliged to forgo pay in their first year of employment, Porat continued work as a cleaning woman. After a year she was accepted into the theater’s collective and received a salary. The first production in which she already thought in Hebrew, free from the tension of acting in a to her incomprehensible language, was Lady Precious Stream (1952). She quickly moved on to leading roles, became one of the Cameri’s major women actors and continued to work there until her retirement in 1984.
The Cameri’s method—the director’s initial discussion of the play with his actors—was new to Porat, who was accustomed to a system in which the actors came to the first rehearsal already knowing their lines, the director’s word was law, and the production was ready for opening night within two weeks.
Irene Klein’s name after her marriage was Irene Proter. When she joined the Cameri, Yemima Millo suggested she change her name to a Hebrew-sounding one, Orna Porat. The suggestion was accepted. Yemima Millo also worked with Porat on her diction, aiming to soften her German accent. After the major financial and artistic crisis in the Cameri in 1958, Porat was appointed to the theater’s administrative board.
Though Porat creates an impression of a tough, unyielding woman, she is easy to work with, neither recalcitrant nor stubborn, never offended and heeding the comments of others. While she is a versatile actor, she mostly performs women of strong, obstinate, determined and tough character.
Among her major roles at the Cameri Theater were the title roles in Lady Precious Stream by S. I. Hsiung (premiere February 18, 1952); Saint Joan by George Bernard Shaw (December 18, 1952); Shen Te in The Good Woman of Setzuan by Bertolt Brecht (June 15, 1955); Mary Stuart and, later, Queen Elizabeth in Mary Stuart by Friedrich Schiller (1961); the title role in an adaptation of Euripides’s Electra (1964) and Linda in Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller (June 9, 1979).
Although primarily identified with the Cameri Theater, Porat has also performed at Habimah, the Beer-Sheva Municipal Theater, Beit Lessin and the Yiddish Theater.
Because of her love of nature and the European winter landscape, she several times took a leave of absence to vacation in Europe, occasionally also performing there. In the 1950s she was sent to the United States and Canada to fundraise for Israel Bonds. At the beginning of the 1960s she spent three years in Paris studying children’s theater and also did additional study in that field in England. Upon her return to Israel she reached an agreement with the Cameri’s management to found a children’s theater, contingent on funding. The theater produced several children’s productions in the mid-1960s. Then-Education Minister Yigal Allon accepted her proposal to establish a children’s and youth theater, on condition that she head it. In 1970, the children’s theater separated from the Cameri Theater and became autonomous. Porat directed several productions for the Children’s Theater and after directing The King’s Daughter, based on Bialik’s The Legend of Three and Four, she was invited to direct children’s productions in Yugoslavia. She retired from managing the Children’s Theater after nineteen years. In her honor the theater was renamed the Orna Porat Theater for Children and Youth and she remains its honorary president.
Since her retirement Porat has continued working energetically, occasionally appearing in several productions simultaneously. Plays written especially for her include the one-woman Love Letter (Like a Chinese Torture) (1999) by the Spanish playwright Fernando Arrabal, which premiered at the Israel Festival and was later performed at Habimah, and Gadi Inbar’s Her Last Days (2000), which was produced at the Beer-Sheva Municipal Theater, as was Stolen Waters (2002), by her daughter Lital, which is based on the story of Porat’s life.
Porat’s first screen appearance (1973) was in the role of Korczak’s assistant, Stefa Wilczynska (1886?–1942) in a German film about Janusz Korczak (1878/9–1942). She also appeared in the Israeli films Into the Night (1985) and Sleeping Beauty.
Three documentary movies have been made about her life, one of them in German (1981) and two in Hebrew (1980 and 2002). There is a Hebrew biography of her, Three Weddings: Talking With Orna Porat, by Irit Amit (Hebrew; Tel Aviv: 2000).
Porat converted to Judaism in the fifties in order to adopt her two children,Yoram and Lital.
Porat has received many awards, among them the 1979 Israel Prize for Lifetime Achievement for founding the Children’s Theater and for her accomplishments as an actor, and the Kinnor David Prize in 1970, 1974 and 1980. In 2005 she was one of eleven people awarded the Emet Prize for excellence in academia and culture.