In the early 1930s, as anti-Semitism was clenching its fingers around Germany’s throat, the Nazi party issued an edict to the effect that Jewish artists were no longer allowed to perform in any of the country’s theaters, orchestras, concert halls, and opera. As you might imagine, artists (especially Jewish artists) were already living a somewhat marginalized life, so their abrupt dismissal from cultural institutions they’d helped build was upsetting on several levels. A small number left the country for other opportunities immediately, but for most, Germany was home.
Some of the artists who remained were (almost miraculously) granted permission to create their own parallel arts institution. The Jüdischer Kulturbund, as it came to be known, was an artistic smash hit: a huge subscriber base in multiple German cities and several seasons full of critically-acclaimed plays, concerts, lectures, and operas. For the Nazis, on the other hand, the Kulturbund was a completely different kind of success: propaganda. How bad can things be, the Nazis told the world, if the Jews are still free to make art?
But things were bad, as we know, and soon to get worse. Restrictions on the Kulturbund grew and grew. First, only Jews were allowed to attend performances. Next, the Kulturbund wasn’t allowed to perform the work of any German artists—Beethoven, Bach, Wagner, Goethe—and then they were only allowed to perform work by Jewish artists. Finally, as Jews were being rounded up all over the country, all but one of the Kulturbund’s venues was shut down, a few courageous artists managing to slip out of Germany before the doors of history closed… and then that last venue perished, too, as the extermination began in full force.
What was it like to make music and tell stories under conditions like that? How did the members of the Jüdischer Kulturbund even speak, let alone create art? How, for that matter, have artists throughout the world and throughout history—from Pussy Riot and Ai Weiwei to the Belarus Free Theatre and Salman Rushdie—managed to keep creating in the face of so much terror and repression, threat and tyranny? How do any of us, really, find the courage to express something beautiful in what can be a very ugly world?
These are the questions I’m going to be wrestling with as part of my newest project, PLAYING FOR LIFE, a difficult-to-describe, interdisciplinary, transmedia, ensemble-generated piece I’ve been working on now, quietly and behind the scenes, for a couple of months. I’m thrilled, finally, to be able to say more about what my collaborators and I are up to. Allow me to introduce them before I describe a bit more of what we’re planning.
My film collaborators include Mark Harris and Thomas Kaufman. Mark is probably best known for his work as the director of the Oscar-winning documentary film Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport. Tom is not only an accomplished director of photography, he’s also a published mystery author.
My theater collaborators include Shirley Serotsky and Renee Calarco, both of whom are probably at least somewhat familiar to many of my blog’s readers. Shirley is the Associate Artistic Director of Theater J, as well as a freelance director. Renee is a Helen Hayes Award-winning playwright and former Dramatists Guild representative for DC.
Of course, we wouldn’t all be together without Theater J. Gail and artistic director Ari Roth have been discussing the project for some time, and it was Ari and Shirley who introduced Gail to both Renee and me—two of the theater’s Locally Grown playwrights. Theater J is very graciously providing a home for the work we’re about to begin, furthermore, and we hope to keep working with them long into the future. We’re honored to have their support and encouragement.
So… what are all these fine people up to?
In the short term, Shirley and Renee and I are going to spend three days in early June exploring the subject matter I’ve described above with a diverse ensemble of actors and musicians. I’m going to serve as project director, providing high-level oversight of the work being created; ultimately, I’ll be collating whatever gets created into a finished script. Shirley’s going to serve as ensemble director and lead dramaturg, supporting the ensemble’s day-to-day efforts. Renee will act as devising ensemble lead, coaching the team in its devising efforts and ensuring best devising practices.
While we’re working, meanwhile, Mark and Tom are going to be pointing their cameras at us. They’ll be documenting our devising process, capturing whatever scenes and songs we develop, and when the devising work is complete, they’re going to conduct one-on-one on-camera interviews with all of the artists involved in the process. Earlier, Gail filmed a similar series of interviews with surviving Jüdischer Kulturbund artists; she’s also gathered the scant archival photographs that remain of the Kulturbund itself. Mark will then edit all the film they gather in DC, along with Gail’s source material, into a short trailer.
Why so much work for a trailer? Because the ultimate end game here is much larger than a mere weekend of devising. The trailer is intended to help us raise the resources necessary to create TWO even more ambitious pieces of art: a fully-devised, full-length interdisciplinary performance piece combining theater, music, and film AND a full-length feature documentary about the process by which that performance piece was created. Did you follow that? So our ultimate vision is to let the story of the Jüdischer Kulturbund inspire the creation of two interrelated pieces of art: a film about the making of a play, and a play that includes elements of film.
We have a long road ahead of us: not only the creation of the trailer, but also the big work beyond that, from fundraising and logistics to the actual effort of creation. But I hope you’ll agree this is a very vital subject: one that speaks not only to the middle of the 20th century, but also to our present world as well. I’m honored to be working on the project… and to have such powerhouse artists with whom to keep company. (More of whom we’ll be adding in the next few days as we cast the ensemble!) I hope you’ll stay tuned and support us in any way you can when the time comes.