Tuesday, 17 May 2016

Stories from the Professional Theatre Training Program: Elizabeth Thomas

Our Professional Theatre Training Program (PTTP) offers financial support for unique and flexible training with a chosen mentor in any theatrical discipline (except performance.)

Elizabeth Thomas is training in directing with Tanja Jacobs at Harold Green Jewish Theatre Company in Toronto 

(May 1, 2016)

How do you tell the story of the Holocaust?

In rehearsal, one of our resources is a book containing pictures taken before and during the second World War from the Lodz Ghetto in Poland. It is a mix of the ordinary life and irreconcilable cruelty. One on page, a portrait of a family celebrating a birthday, on the other, a child falling over from hunger. On the page after, workers in a garment factory, on the next: a group of people boarding a train for the concentration camps. The other day, I’m looking through this book, and our stage manager Nan comes up beside me. “I can’t look at this book,” she says to me. “I can only imagine these people as dead. I can’t help but feel like none of them survived the war.” She walks away.

The Model Apartment is a play that circles back on itself, eating its own tail. The play echoes; characters repeat themselves, earlier scenes are distorted and reflected, and throughout the text, always echoing is the memory of the Holocaust. Food cannot be wasted. Hoarding coupons. The characters don’t simply go somewhere, they run.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Anne Frank. “Anna Frank, from Amsterdam.” In the play, Lola tells an obviously false story of the of the time she and the most famous Holocaust victim shared together in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. She romanticises their suffering and pain, presenting Anne as a pure spirited martyr, peacefully dying amidst the suffering of the prisoners. Lola builds a gleaming white wall of nobility between herself and her trauma.

This play was written before the unedited version of Anne’s diary was released, one that did a lot to destroy the idealised image of Anne Frank. Her experience was molded in the first edition of her diary to be less controversial, her experience of her burgeoning sexuality and beyond rocky relationship with her mother were removed by her father. From the very beginning of Anne’s fame, she was used and reduced into something that wasn’t quite the complete truth. Anne was just a girl, nothing special, other than being rather good at writing. She was just one of six million.

What Margulies is trying to do in this play, is access the Holocaust with as little romanticism as possible. And its ugly. Its ugly, and uncomfortable, and really, really hard. Not just emotionally, but in creating this play. The moment anything like harmony sneaks into the play, the Holocaust raises its head, both in memory and its continuing ramifications as played out in the character Debby. Margulies asks us to look at this awful thing, and to keep looking.

This play is hard. Really, really hard. Its hard to memorize, its hard to block. Its hard to get out of your head. I feel so fortunate to witness this iteration of the play. Everyone has been working so hard to make this play work, and I believe it will be truly amazing. I’m not sure I was really ready for this play, and I’m not sure I could ever have been really ready. The barrage of this play is constant. It echoes outwards.

If there are two things I would take away from this play, it is the importance of bearing witness, and bearing trauma. There is little one can do, outside of the hurricane we watch onstage, but watch and listen. The people of the Lodz ghetto understood this when they hid their photographs for after the war. A way to bear witness to the mundane and the inhumane. Perhaps more difficult is acknowledging that people with trauma have a responsibility for how they deal with their trauma. It is difficult to ask, especially when such atrocities were committed against the Jewish people. But as the play demonstrates its circular nature in the micro interactions onstage, the greater question of the circular nature of trauma plays out in the action. Can this be stopped? Who is responsible for the monster Debby is, Hitler or her parents? Could anything have been done?

This weekend it is Passover, Pesach, just like in the final scene of The Model Apartment. During our first few days of tablework, the cast was trying to figure out if there was any sort of hope at the end of the play. I think the only way we can find hope is that Deborah, Max’s perfect, dead daughter, spends eternity waiting for him at Pesach. Just before dinner, where an extra place is laid for Elijah, waiting for a prophet who has yet to come, waiting for a messiah, waiting to return home. There is homesickness in this observance, but there is also the sweetness of possibility. Not quite optimism, but a glimmer of something in the distance. Because even if Elijah’s seat is empty, the seat is still set. Waiting to be filled.

Perhaps next year, Elijah will be there.

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The next application deadline for the Professional Theatre Training Program is October 3, 2016.

Theatre Ontario’s Professional Theatre Training Program is funded by the Ontario Arts Council, an agency of the Government of Ontario.

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