Well, I suppose it’s about time a little perspective is proffered from the other side of the footlights, as it were. Bear in mind, this is my first attempt at “blogging,” and if there is any sort of structural stream-of-consciousness protocol involved, you can safely surmise that I’ll do my utmost to violate it. After all, as pretentious as it may sound, I have always embraced the Brechtian adage that theatre should “disturb the comfortable, and comfort the disturbed.” It’s a communal experience, with an ebb and flow that makes us all collaborators in the process, regardless of which side of the footlights we happen to be on. It requires an investment from both perspectives – from performers to audience members alike.To that end, I have always felt that there is no such thing as the “safety of the seats,” particularly with material of this nature. When I first approached the character of Kurt Gerstein, I was interested in finding the character in myself and myself in the character. But even more importantly, I was interested in finding the Kurt Gerstein in all of us.
A lot of times, people make the erroneous assumption that “acting” is about creating a character divorced from who we are as individuals, but the reality is that we all share similar impulses, inclinations and reactions to various hereditary and environmental circumstances, and as a result, we are not all that far removed from the characters we see depicted on the stage, regardless of how complicated and contradictory they may appear to be. In fact, it is these very contradictions and complexities that make us human, and in this sense, like Kurt Gerstein, we are all witnesses, and we are all accomplices. It’s not about detaching, as in, “I would never do that”; it’s about sharing in the culpability of the human condition, as in, “Who is to say I wouldn’t behave in exactly the same way, given such unique and overwhelming circumstances?”
Thus far, this experience has been one of exhilaration and frustration. Theater J audiences have been savvy, perceptive, informed and compassionate. The story is powerful, important, and like most everything in life, rife with contradictions and controversy. There is a potent and palpable ambiguity at the core of the story, hence the “either or” of the title. Much has been made about Gerstein’s failure to actually “save” any Jews, and yet, he struggled to do all he could do under virtually incomprehensible circumstances. What makes any character or person “heroic”? Success? Failure? Unflagging effort? Good intentions? I think it’s very easy to wallow in the temptation to judge exercising the 20/20 vision that hindsight brings. It’s easier and safer to detach and dismiss oneself from culpability and responsibility, and to draw the line between good and evil or black and white. What happens when we embrace and analyze conflict and contradiction from all perspectives? Must sympathy be an ingredient in heroism? Isn’t empathy a far more human and realistic trait? Ultimately, it becomes about putting oneself in the same position; what would we do as individuals under those impossible circumstances?
One of the challenges for the theatre-goer is to enter into this experience from a point of innocence. The story of Kurt Gerstein is not the story of Oskar Schindler, despite the inevitable comparisons between the two. They were both flawed and conflicted men, yes, but in many ways, the similarities end there. Whereas Schindler “succeeded” in saving a number of Jews (as well as himself), Gerstein’s “failure” should in no way diminish his courageous and relentless attempts to sabotage the Nazi “killing machine” from the inside, at a considerable risk to himself and his family. His legacy, “tainted” or not, remains indelibly etched in the papers and documents he left behind – documents that went a long way towards authenticating the Holocaust from a man who witnessed its savagery and inhumanity first-hand.
Obviously, the “role” of the actor is not to judge, editorialize or step outside of the realm of the character in order to engender sympathy or perspective. Those choices are not mine to make. The more I inhabit the character of Kurt Gerstein, the more I embrace and appreciate and applaud his story and his journey. I take the criticism and judgment of his efforts personally – not from an acting standpoint, but rather from the human perspective of who he was. I try to see the world refracted through the prism of his eyes. What would I do in his shoes? What would you do? Either? Or? As in life, there are more questions than answers.