You have recently been involved in a production of Comedy of us Jews. Tell us a bit about the play and what your role has been in it
I became aware of the play late last year when a small group of us, including Simo Muir and Lisa Peschel met to update the grammar and some of the Yiddish so it was playable for a modern day audience. The play is a half an hour cabaret style piece, set in a 1940s clothes shop in Helsinki. For the most part, while dealing with the trifles of money and monogamy in a dysfunctional marriage, it comments on the terrible set up of the rationing system in limiting trade, in the context of needing money for Sabbath. To start with I was cast as a female non-Jewish customer, but by the time rehearsals started I had managed to acquire a male customer, a female customer, a porter, a family friend and a sexton! Playing so many roles in a half an hour piece gave me a slightly more rounded understanding of the unique situation for Jews in Helsinki during the war. While all of my characters were comic, my purpose on stage in every role was to financially threaten the trader (Joseph Kleiderman), either by taking money for a French mannequin as a porter, or getting his hopes up for an affluent purchase, but not having the ration punches to close the deal.
This hasn’t been your first show with Performing the Jewish Archive. How did you first become involved in the project and what other productions have you taken part in?
Lisa Peschel is a lecturer at the Department of Theatre, Film and Television, University of York, and taught my scriptwriting module in my first year. It was during a seminar that Lisa shamelessly plugged auditions for the show ‘Harlequin in the Ghetto’ based on a script by Zdeněk Jelínek. In my first year I had next to no confidence at all when it came to auditioning, so I very nearly didn’t show, but my goodness I am so glad I did. It was at this day-long workshop style audition with Lisa, and director Mark France, also from the university, that we learned of the project, Lisa’s research into the Terezín Ghetto. We were able to work with some fragmented Czech scripts by Jelínek in a short devising process to speculate what material had been left in its birth place.
I was cast as the communist agitator Rarach in ‘Harlequin in the Ghetto’ much to my absolute shock, and from there the whole process began. The first week was for research; reading and discussing an abundance of survivor testimony, the communist manifesto, art, theatre from a similar time elsewhere in Europe, and writing melodies to the songs in the scripts. Also, our co-director Alan Sykes gave us an in depth walk through Marxism as a system, and not as a philosophy which was largely what the agitprop piece was all about.
In week 2/4 we were told that we were to devise the piece we had been working on already, but also perform the Jelínek’s original text alongside it called ‘A Comedy about a Trap’. Let me tell you, learning a commedia dell’arte piece of communist agitprop whilst devising a piece of verbatim theatre to explain how it came about was no easy job, but it has changed my political outlook so much so, that I’m ashamed of my old views. The show was an enormous success, and hosted talk backs with the audience gave us a change to reflect on the process with a community unlike any other I have worked with. Unlike commercial theatre, this project really does make you feel as though your audience are routing for you and in turn the performers have the utmost respect for the artists and their communities.
During this show, another audition came up for Jac Weinstein’s ‘Mother Rachel and Her Children’ with Mark France. By this time I had PtJA fever and so much confidence than I’d ever had, so I went for it. Although this time I did not get the role straight away it was a great experience, as Mark’s style is one of energy and exploration. Mark asked me to fill the role of Mother Rachel and so the story continues! Rachel was representation of the mother of the Jews as well as a physical mother of a child with whom I was on stage with, as they enter a concentration camp.
‘Mother Rachel’ was a far cry from ‘Harlequin in the Ghetto’, as (originally in Yiddish) its style was relentlessly heavy ballad style poetry, taking the audience through the movement of the Jews from the Land of Israel up until World War Two. It was neither comic nor easy to play, however it was eye opening in many ways. On the one hand it put into context some Zionist attitudes toward settlement in the homeland, and made me sympathise like never before with the struggle through pogroms and exile, centuries prior to the Holocaust. On the other hand, it highlighted how the Jewish community are not one to be thought of as victims, but as people of incredible spirit and dedication, who throughout the ages of abuse, hold the love of family and tradition at the very core of their existence.
One more point and I’ll move on I promise… we worked with two choirs which sang intermittently with the acting, whilst projections of artwork depicting the movement of the Jews played behind the action. The synagogue choir were breath-taking. They appeared to capture the sound of the ‘Eastern desert’ and deliver it in a church in Leeds — I can do them no justice with my examinations. Alongside them where the Chamber Choir from Leeds University Union Music Society. The contrast between the cultures was apparent, but more so, beautiful that they sang side by side in perfect respect for one another in the service of the piece.
Tell us what you have learnt from being involved in the project? For example, what did you know about the playwrights, the plays, the historical context in which they were written etc. before taking part?
I only knew what we were taught in schools about Jewish history. The playwrights and inner working of Jewish ghettos were a mystery to me beyond what AQA publish in their textbooks before now. In British history, a huge chapter is missing. Yes of course we are taught that Jews were forced into ghettos in the war period, but what happened in them nobody knows! Anomalies to the trend also, such as Terezín, where an active cultural life sprang up are certainly not spoken about. Since being involved with the project and assessing the treatment of comedy in these plays, It appears that the ‘happier’ or at least more free parts of the story of Jewish history are not known, to keep the respect of the victims of the Holocaust as a priority. While this is of course important, I fear that this way of looking at historic events allows people to think of the community as something other than humans, with talent, careers, families, language, laughter, humour and a voice.
The research into the play-writes and musicians, felt like getting to know them personally which completely broke down the way I thought. For example, at the start of the project I explained what I was doing to friends with phrases such as ‘group of Jews in ghettos managed to perform comedy you know!’, later it became ‘Gideon Klein and Zdeněk Jelínek were musicians and play-writes, they wrote agitprop together to mock the Nazis without them knowing — can you imagine how the laughter got them through tougher days? What incredible people.’
I would urge any modern person who believes the arts serve no purpose in society to delve a little deeper and attempt to understand that bank notes and misery did not get people through persecution.
What impact (if any) has the project had on you? Please feel free to talk about changes to your professional practice, your knowledge and wider opinions/beliefs, as appropriate.
The largest impact on me is by far my outlook on modern politics. I was just eighteen when I started with project almost three years ago now, and I was just becoming interested in where my vote would be cast. I was brought up in a conservative part of the South Coast and took what I heard from family and older siblings as gospel, but never once delved into our own system or what policy meant for the individual. When I was researching for the first play, it was so clear that the commitment to Marxism was truly the only thing that kept so many people going throughout life in the ghetto, and this complete belief that this system was going to save them was dedication I had never considered in the context of my own country. One day it clicked in my head that thing don’t have to be the way they currently are; we vote, we choose. I am not saying that there will ever be a Marxist revolution in England any time soon but opening my eyes to an alternative way of thinking in the context of other countries, certainly made our current system seem ludicrous and pathetic. Although it seems like I fit a common stereotype of a left wing artist, there is strong grounding in why this happens. Art exposes the deepest wounds in the most honest of ways; these are wounds that people will never know about on mass because suffering is easy to ignore when it isn’t at your doorstep. However I will never un-see, unread or un-speak to those worst hit by political injustice which is governed by systems with the aim of keeping money and possession at the forefront of its practice. This will never be my outlook.
Re-entering the workplace with this new mind-set of social justice rather than being a cog in a money-making-machine for someone else, has also relinquished me of any fears I had to speak up when something wrong was happening. Years prior to the project, I almost felt it my duty to work all the hours under the sun at a very young age to be wanted and valued by employers, when really my priorities should have been with my own education and aspirations which did not fit the system into which I was born. Thanks to PtJA I am hot on the heels of social injustice and will not be passing the battle on any time soon!
Learning about politics out of the context of your own country allows you step back and assess what you see when you return to it. I cannot honestly say it is easy to hold the beliefs I have in a part of the world where left-wing politics is unheard of, but I will never stop having the same conversation with people I encounter. My confidence in the subject has grown and I am more steadfast in my beliefs than I had ever imagined possible. Inevitably it does not matter if you differ in extremes from the way your parents think and vote, if anything it is telling of a new generation of voters who may have finally learned from the past.
What’s next for you and will we see you again in any future PtJA productions?
I am going into my final year at university and hope to graduate next summer! I am sure there will be more Performing the Jewish Archives opportunities brought through the doors of Theatre, Film and Television at the University of York, and you will have tough job to keep me away from them.
By Libby Clark