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Beauty and TERROR,

Seen Through the Kaleidoscope of Jewish Theatre:

International Aspects of the World Congress of Jewish Theatres in Vienna, Austria, March 2007

  by Henrik Eger

Prologue

“To Jews and non-Jews in the audience, we must show not just a rosy picture, glossing over blemishes, but a picture as close and sometimes as painful to the truth as we can come.”  Theodore Bikel’s (Austria and USA) advice from his important keynote address represents one of the many powerful images in our constantly changing conference kaleidoscope where theatre people from around the globe contributed beautiful, thought-provoking, and sometimes even terrifying aspects of life, showing the strength and tremendous range of Jewish theatre worldwide.   

Looking into our conference kaleidoscope from an international perspective, I vividly recall dramatic beads, pebbles, and shards of many different colors, impressions, and emotions that terrified, challenged, but also nurtured me

 

Terrifying Images   

We were taken to the edge of human existence many times: Brenda Adelman’s (USA) My Brooklyn Hamlet relived her mother’s murder by her father (who then married the victim’s sister), a drama that created a classical Greek catharsis in a modern Brooklyn setting (at right, Edelman performing below a painting of her mother).

Dutch Puppeteer Coby Omvlee (Norway) presented Fusentast Theatre’s educational outreach to Scandinavian, Dutch, and immigrant audiences, including children from Africa and the Islamic world--a puppet-sized step toward counterbalancing the often vicious, relentless, and threatening verbal attacks on “the Jew” hammered into the children in many madrasahs around the world on an almost daily basis.  Coby describes two of the scenes: 

"Acting as a Nazi with an SS collar, I take one of the hand-sized paper puppets, Willem--whom the audience has grown to know quite well—set him on fire, and throw him into an “oven.”  Later, without any expression of anger or hate, I take the remaining characters out of the family portrait and throw them away, except Hetty, the main character--the only one left.  She then tries to find out if there are any family members left and reads from the lists of the deported and murdered on the miniature Red Cross building.  During those scenes, both children and adults tend to sit in an edgy silence."  

 

At the end of the "Theater of Genocide" presentation by Robert Skloot (USA), Susan Salms-Moss (USA and Germany), an American opera singer who has performed in Germany for the past 25 years, sang Maurice Ravel’s "Kaddisch" with a God-given voice that went under my skin as if it had been sung in a forgotten concentration camp--the last song of the last surviving Jewish woman on earth.  

Having secured the Bishop’s permission to perform in Vienna’s Votivkirche, one of the most important Neo-Gothic religious architectural sites in the world, our host Warren Rosenzweig (USA and Austria), artistic director of the Jüdisches Theater Austria (Jewish Theater of Austria), and his international cast presented his dramatic epic Die Judenstadt.  Centered around Theodor Herzl in the months before he conceived the Zionist manifesto Der Judenstaat (The State of the Jews), the play follows the psychological journey of Herzl, a frustrated bourgeois playwright, as he faces down his inner demons and, in particular, his self-hatred, to emerge at last with a grand vision of himself as redeemer of the Jewish people.

 

  This extraordinary event held in a sacred Christian place, three generations ago, would not have been allowed, and if so,  would have led to most audience members being carted off to Theresienstadt—a scenario that colored and haunted my perception of the entire conference.

  I felt this gnawing Henrik Eger holding up photo of his father, Alf Eger, and Mira Hirsch, holding up photo of Lily Spitzawareness very strongly during the performance of my docudrama Metronome Ticking (Germany and USA), where Mira HirschUSA), artistic director of the Jewish Theatre of the South and I, at the end of the scene, held up (poster-sized photographs of Lily Spitz, a young Holocaust survivor, and her contemporary, a Third Reich Warren Rosenzweig accepting photos of Alf Eger and Lily Spitz at Vienna Museum, March 2007propaganda officer, my father.  Neitherof us said a word, while a metronome was ticking mercilessly, until the audience broke the Third Reich spell and applauded, a cathartic moment in my life. 

 

  Shortly before the reading of that scene, I had asked our host, Warren Rosenzweig, whether he would like to have the two large photographs from our presentation.  He told me that he would feel deeply honored and that those historical images would hang on the walls of his Jewish Theater of Austria--a permanent reminder of the work that still had to be done. 

  I am deeply grateful to Warren and to everyone in that audience, especially those who said, “What a powerful play,” and urged me to write more.  I am doing just that, bearing in mind the advice from my father’s final letter, written after he had witnessed a mass execution in Russia in 1944 (and shortly before he got killed, too): "Lies mehr als meine Buchstaben, lies was ich nicht schrieb, lies was mein Herz zerspringen lassen möchte."  (“Read more than my letters, read what I did not write, read that which could shatter my heart.”)

  Challenging Ideas

  A century ago, the Moscow Art Theatre developed revolutionary new acting methods under Konstantin Stanislavskyand became the topic of heated discussions in Europe, ranging from actors and directors reviling to revering this new method, so much so that during a tour through Germany, one playwright called Stanislavsky and his troupe "artistic divinities."  In Vienna in 2007, few groups sparked more discussion than young theatre artists Boris Yukhanonov and Gregog Zeltserof the LaboraTORIA ensemble from Moscow (Russia).  From their study of and their traditional and mystical Jewish texts, they presented a radical concept of Jewish theatre. 

 

  Their purist, if somewhat combative approach, seemed to exasperatesome conference participants--especially those in the US facing the reality of unsubsidized theatre—while captivating, even mesmerizing others, including Daniel Kahn (USA and Germany), whom some considered “our young Jewish-American revolutionary.”  This multi-talented Michigan native, who left the United States for Berlin, walked through the streets between conference events, playing Yiddish music on his accordion and singing in the rain—charming some Viennese, challenging others--an unforgettable experience. 

 

  Eva Brenner (Austria), the outspoken artistic co-director of the Fleischerei (the Butchery),one of the very few Austrian theatre people actively participating in the conference program, presented one of her company’s action-oriented political theatre pieces, "Robert Blum, der Aussenseiter" (“Robert Blum, The Outsider”)

 

  In a performance at the store-front sized Jewish Theater of Austria, the audience was taught some warm-up exercises by Sun Sun Yap (Singapore and Austria), which slowly transformed into a protest rally where we imperceptibly became part of a revolutionary scene.  Marching along, singing “Wir sind die Arbeiter von Wien(“We are the Worker’s of Vienna”), a Socialist song written by Fritz Brügel, aJewish Viennese activist, we became totally integrated into an old documentary of marching workers now flickering on a large screen in front of us. 

 

  Theperformance forced even the most ardent capitalists (if they were in the audience) to join this historic workers’ protest movement--probably the headiest and most physically involving theatre experience I had in Vienna, making me both conform and rebel at the same time.

 

  Gaby Aldor (Israel) represented The Arab-Hebrew Theater of Jaffa, where two theatrical groups produce plays,together and apart, in both Hebrew and Arabic, and in which Israeli and Arab actors and directors work collectively, provoking controversy for many in the region as they challenge notions of the cultural and political divide.  They often engage in heated debates and arguments, but out of the pain can come good theatre: Tikun Olam at its best, or, in Aldor’s words, “sharing and working together in the theater makes us forget our different origins.  It makes us become and stay close friends.” 

  Motti Lerner (Israel), just as the legendary Theodor Bikel did before him, presented deeply challenging ideas aboutthe prospect of Jewish culture and identity in his speech on “The Politics of Jewish Theatre” at the palatial Theatre Museum of Vienna: 

  It is still unclear whether [. . .] the globalization process will actually weaken nationalism in the world.  If it does, thenthe centrality of the State of Israel in Jewish culture will become weakened, and Jewish culture will have to define a particular identity for itself that is not based on nationalism, and apparently not on religion either.  On what, then, will our future particular identity focus?  I hope that the focus will be on the same aspiration towards progress, depth, and universal justice – on the same "Tikun Olam."

 

 

  Looking at Lerner’s theses and his many plays performed worldwide, I thought of Karl Marx’s “Theses on Feuerbach,” who wrote 162 years ago that philosophers have only interpreted the world, but that others must change it.  Lerner is one of those Jewish intellectuals and dramatists who, in his own way, may eventually do both--interpret and contribute toward a change of the world, at least by giving theatre back its ancient centrality in life.  I thought of Shimon Levy (Israel)--playwright, director, academic, and Beckett scholar--who brought up the Israeli saying that theatre is a secular synagogue.  Such a powerful institution, a synagogue-theatre without walls, already exists: Moti Sandak’s (Israel) comprehensive All About Jewish Theatre website, an influential, secular synagogue on the Internet, an Open University to which everyone, Jews and non-Jews alike, has free access, both as writers and readers. 

  Beautiful and Nurturing Experiences  


 

  Rafael Goldwaser (France) of Der LufTeater (Le Théâtre en l'Air) presented very colorful, multi-layered, awe-inspiring Yiddish Theatre through sketches based on the stories of Sholem Aleichemwith the kind of innovation, high energy, and humor only found in a few places on earth (or seen in photo of Goldwaser on right). 

 

  The wit of Robin Hirsch (Germany, England, USA), author of Last Dance at the Hotel Kempinski: Creating a Life in the Shadow of History, in spite of his terrible experiences in the 1940’s, kept the audience in stitches, showing  life through the lens of the upper classes, first in Germany, then, after escaping the Nazis, in England.  Yossi Vassa (Ethiopia and Israel) took the international viewers on a present-day Jewish odyssey in It Sounds Better in Amharic,reliving his painful experience of a 700 kilometer journey on foot from Ethiopia and starting a new life as an immigrant of color in Israel--a mensch who has come into his own as a theatre artist and educator, another ambassador of good will. 


 

  Witty New York dramatist Richard Orloff (USA) emceed the “International Playwrights’ Forum” at the Jewish Museum where, thanks to Norman Fedder and Diane Gilboa (USA), the eleven most promising new plays from around the world were presented through ten-minute sample scenes.  These included a piece by the visually stunning film and stage actor Eliran Caspi (Israel), whose well-built play showed old worlds and new worlds clashing in modern Israel. 

  The president of the Austrian Chamber of Commerce Brigitte Jank (Austria) had earlier welcomed the conference participants, telling them how important their presence was to the city of Vienna, and encouraging them to come back and enrich the city with their culture.  I was honored to have been asked to serve as her translator.  However, it was Moisej Bazijan, former artistic director of the Jewish Theatre of Lemberg (Ukraine), who now teaches and directs in Munich (Germany), who created one of the most international experiences for me when I served as his German-English interpreter while he presented his “Role Analysis through Action.”   

  Withina short period of time, he taught the American actors a kind of “Stanislavsky plus” method—training them to pay close attention to the subtext and the unspoken messages within a script, and showing them how to link the text to their own experiences in honest and convincing ways.  The actors then used all of these elements to generate actions for their characters while performing a scene from Anton Chekhov’s Seagull.  Bazijan then introduced the actors to a passage from Zilinski ist tot (Zilinski is dead) by Franz Mon--one of Germany’s most avant-garde authors, famous for his semantic turmoil and intricate acoustical pantomimes.  The acting by the young Jewish-American performers, rolling on the floor under a table, head to head, reciting Mon--was so persuasive thatduring those moments I actually thought my American friends had permanently and irrevocably transformed into Beckett characters on speed. 

  Similarly provoking was the dispossessed spirit in Dybbuk, presented by Irina Andreeva of the Teatr Novogo FrontaRussia) and Prague (Czech Republic), whose movement-oriented, non-verbal method of acting created physical expressions and images, even absences, that crawled and crept into my mind--some of the most hauntingly beautiful “fleurs du mal” from Eastern Europe that I have ever seen.  in St. Petersburg (


  Apparitions and spirits also followed us into the Imperial and Royal Wine Treasure Vault of the Piaristenkeller—an historically furnished, elegant, wine cellar, restaurant, and museum--where Deborah Baer Mozes (USA) presented actors from around the world in the “International Solo Program.”  Here, the past came back forcefully but also showed us a new spirit of hope, which surfaced again when Warren Rosenzweig introduced Ruth Schneider, a Viennese Holocaust Survivor (Austria and Britain), who spent some time incarcerated at Holloway Prison in London as an “enemy alien” during WWII.  We also met her son David Schneider,a former student of Yiddish at Oxford where he pursued a Ph.D. in Yiddish Drama, and who later became a writer, actor, and stand-up comedian.  When he told us with a poker face that he now speaks the “Queen’s Yiddish,” even the wine in our glasses giggled, chuckled, and laughed full-throatedly. 

  The ambassadors of Jewish theatre from around the globethen rose from their chairs, walked a few feet and paid a visit to the Piaristenkeller’s “Emperor Franz Joseph Hat Museum,” and donned classical chapeaus, large feather boas, and old helmets from the Imperial Austrian Monarchy before sauntering into the Imperial wine cellar, where the theatre royalty drank more of those good spirits, toasted, sang together, and listened as the beloved Theodor Bikel, a native son of the city on the Danube, treated us to another song.  

 

  Finally, turning the kaleidoscope by 180 degrees, some conference participants lucked out and reached Tashmadada, the Jewish Theater Down Under, temporarily transplanted to the residence of the Australian Ambassador in Austria who had invited us and Deborah Leiser-Moore (Australia) to present aspects of her physical theatre.

 

  Concerns 



 

  Inspite of all the beauty and power of the emerging images in our kaleidoscope of Jewish theatre, a few glass splinters did hurt when one of the active participants wrote, “The conference was very monopolized by American Jewish theater,” and when another participant e-mailed, “Why were so few Europeans participating in Vienna . . . Is this a question of lack of communication?”  One participant suggested more follow-up and another suggested more personal, direct, and ongoing contacts with the Artistic Directors outside North America to enhance the mission of the AJT.   

  Michael Posnick (USA), writer, editor, academic, and Artistic Director of the Mosaic Theatre,a caring, modern Solomon who united everyone on the last day of the conference with his group meditation and singing, responded to these concerns by quoting the Haggadah which invites everyone: "Let all who are hungry come and eat.  Let all who are in need, come and share”—next year at the Jewish Theatre Conference, hosted by Evelyn OrbachJewish Ensemble Theatre (JET) in Michigan (USA), and the following year, we hope, in Israel.  Everyone is invited to come and share.  Everyone:
 


  איעדער. Ayeder.כולם; העולם כולו.  كل شخص, كل امرأ  Die ganze Welt. 

  Tout le monde.  Полностью мир.  Tutto il mondo.  すべての世界 

  Al wereld.  Всеки.  Todo el mundo.  Όλος ο κόσμος 

  All verden. Todo o mundo.  所有世界

  The whole world.


  Epilogue

  Hardly a day goes by without images from the Vienna kaleidoscope flashing into my mind, each of them--whether terrifying, thought-provoking, or nurturing--has encouraged me to continue my writing.  There are many others who seem to have been inspired by the conference, too.  One of them, Marcia Isaacs (USA) of the West Coast Jewish Theatre in California, created a DVD with a beautiful musical and visual tribute to Tikun Olam and all its participants in the spirit of old Vienna, a digital “laterna magica.”  

  Another participant, the Latin-American representative of the AJT, Leslie Marko Kirchhausen (Brazil), whose mother also escaped Vienna and the Holocaust like her contemporary Lily Spitz, chose a different route.  Following the advice of our keynote speaker Theodore Bikel, “Like all theatre, Jewish theatre is not one thing alone,” Marko Kirchhausentranslated the AJT conference poster into Portuguese, inviting people in Sao Paulo to come to a session on the highlights of the conference, encouraging playwrights, actors, editors, and academics to contribute to Jewish theatre--continuing the work that was shared in Vienna, in the spirit of Tikun Olam 

  Let’s celebrate theatre, let’s celebrate life, let’s interpret and change the world and with it, ourselves: L’Chaim, wherever you live, wherever you work.

 

   
 
 
 

  © Henrik Eger, 2007


 

   

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