Melbourne Press (edited)

Have sat for a couple interviews here. One, done before I left the States, came out with a great big wonderful photograph of Paul Morella and a full page story that was, alas, a bit of botch job by the editors of the Australian Jewish News. The restored edited version of the piece is copied at the bottom of this entry

But the piece done by the State Library of Victoria, also copied below, is quite lovely. The Library — absolutely gorgeous, stately, impressive as hell — is where the talk with Keneally will be held tonight. Will share much more in the days to come. More of last night’s presentation at the Holocaust Museum. More of my meeting with long-long never-before-seen relatives. More on tomorrow morning’s “Master Class.” For now, more electronic ink.keep reading

ARI ROTH: THE LIGHT, THE DARK

by Paul Bateman
State Library Victoria
5 July 2007

Ari Roth, playwright and theatre director, was born in Chicago but moved to Washington DC a decade ago where he has been, ever since, the Artistic Director of the city’s Theater J Company.

The theatre is housed a stone’s throw from the White House and within the local Jewish Community Centre – ‘at the centre of the Centre’, says Roth, with satisfaction.

Roth believes in theatre; he’s seen what it can do.

In the 1960s the introduction of national legislation outlawing racial segregation in the schools had the perverse effect of robbing Washington DC of much of its cultural diversity: Whites fled; all but the bureaucrats left town.

In the 1980s the city enjoyed something of a cultural renaissance: a mix of races and cultures returned once more; urban districts were regenerated and revitalised.

Today, Washington DC is the second largest theatre capital in the USA. Roth’s theatre has a broad mandate to represent and illuminate Jewish experience but, says Roth, not exclusively.

‘Theatres grow hand-in-hand with the local economy, spurring economic regeneration and helping to improve the fortunes of the city’, he says.

The way Roth explains it, theatres should sit squarely at the centre of communities, an integral component of everyday life – much like a supermarket, a chemist or a bank.

‘Good theatres’, says Roth, ‘fertilise the areas around them.’

Roth is in Melbourne for the week. Yesterday, he and his companion visited the BMW Edge Theatre at Federation Square. It was empty: no one on the stage; every seat vacant.

How did that make them feel?

He laughs: ‘We began to dream…’

After the dream, the work: the long and often winding road from vision to page to stage; a collaborative process described by Roth as ‘extroverted, proactive and constant’.

Enter, Thomas Keneally, author of such classics as Schindler’s Ark and The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith.

In December 2005 Keneally’s agent solicited interest from theatre companies around the globe in a script that Keneally had authored.

The agent invited theatre companies to collaborate with Keneally in the development of the work. Many companies expressed an initial interest; only Roth said ‘yes’.

‘They were most likely daunted by its sheer size and content’, says Roth.

The play – Either Or – is based on real events from the life of Kurt Gerstein, an evangelical Christian youth leader and SS officer during World War II who attempts to sabotage the Nazi military machine by alerting the Allies to what is transpiring under Nazi occupation.

Keneally has said elsewhere that the play ‘reveals the tragic nature of a man’s moral awakening’ and has described his work as a contemporary allegory about many of the bureaucrats and technocrats in the western world.

Roth has called the play ‘a cautionary tale for our times’ and says he was attracted to its detail, to its ambitious scope, to the horrors it made palpable and real: ‘it was utterly vivid, harrowing and precise…it was unique writing for the stage.’

Roth says the play’s protagonist – Gerstein – is a complex, complicated human being in a deep conundrum.

‘Gerstein is a man forced to make impossibly difficult choices. He is oppressed, depressed and beleaguered. And yet he has a kind of dreamer’s naiveté and optimism: he chooses to fight his fight within the apparatus of the state.’

Until, that is, he visits Belzec concentration camp and sees for himself the brutal and barbaric realities of the so-called ‘final solution’.

There follows a critical scene in the play in which Gerstein – a man utterly overwhelmed by the great, grim blackness of his last encounter – must return to Berlin by train.

Imagine it: the contrast between the dark, deepening horror of his consciousness and the prosaic, monotonous banality of the clattering carriage as it rattles across the countryside.

On the train, in Gerstein’s carriage, there are two other men, both strangers: one who will befriend Gerstein and influence his future; the other, a man asleep.

Roth says this man – the man asleep – is the key to staging the scene successfully (Roth gives credit to the play’s director, Daniel DeRaey, for the inspired notion of adding the extra passenger.) This man says nothing: he is a point of contrast; the dramatic counter-point. Light flickers and flares within the carriage as the train speeds through the night.

Roth says it was his job to encourage Keneally to think less like a novelist and more like a dramatist: ‘to create in the work a dramatic trajectory that could evolve from A to Z.’

In return, says Roth, Keneally brought to the collaborative process a ‘serious writer’s [work] ethic’ and ‘a genuine openness…he was a willing, humble, eager student of the form.’

Roth and Keneally corresponded for the most part by email, a process that is hard to imagine but one that positively animates Roth even now.

His recollections are bright and energetic; each story has a certain earthy quality that implies he and Keneally went about their business with a minimum of fuss.

Keneally travelled to Washington in August and September 2006 for workshops at the Kennedy Centre and a public reading, too. In May this year, Either Or opened at Theater J.

After such a prolonged association with themes and subjects so dark and difficult, so troubling and potentially traumatic, how does Roth remain so essentially upbeat and pragmatic?

He laughs again: ‘You embrace it all – you’ve got to – the light and the dark.’

And then he tells a story about his own experience as the child of parents who survived the Holocaust, a story populated with several shadows but one that concludes in the light of simple truths: that it is good to remain open to life in spite of its pain; that it is good to be grateful for what is good about life.

‘That’, he says, ‘is built into who we are and into our sense of life’s larger purpose.’

Roth returns to the USA this weekend. Before he goes, he and Keneally (with a moderator) will discuss the nature of their collaboration and the themes of the play at a public event to be held tonight at the State Library.

Roth reckons it’s Keneally you should be going to see. Roth says Keneally’s a 71 year old man who’ll never retire and always be young.

‘He’s an extraordinary spirit. I kept pushing, and he gladly went along for the ride! He embraced it. He fully invested in it, emotionally.

‘Tom’s a great, large-hearted spirit. He willingly rode the roller-coaster that is live theatre!’

+++++++++++++++++++++++

Thomas Keneally and Ari Roth in conversation with Mark Baker (Program in Holocaust and Genocide Studies, at the Australian Centre for Jewish Civilisation).

Village Roadshow Theatrette
Tonight, 6.45 for 7pm start
Non-members $25; VWC members $18; Some free tix for SLV staff still available (contact Suzie Gasper on X 7520)

This event generously supported by Tashmadada, the State Library of Victoria, the National Trust Victoria, the Jewish Holocaust Centre and the Victorian Writers Centre.

And now…

the originally submitted piece to the Australian Jewish News

from the wonderful writer (and medical doctor) Leah Kaminsky

EITHER OR

Tashmadada brings Thomas Keneally and Ari Roth to Melbourne. Acclaimed Australian author Thomas Keneally and American playwright Ari Roth, the artistic director of Washington’s Theatre J will be coming to Melbourne to discuss Keneally’s new play Either Or.

Thomas Keneally has written a Holocaust play with no Jews in it. It is their very absence that gives the play its strength. Jews are there in the silence, in the shadows, as voices, as symbols. It is the unseen presence of their ghosts, eerily reflected through the eyes of an SS officer, which makes this play all the more haunting. “Horror seeps into its cells but does not flood them,” says Keneally.

Either Or, which had its world premiere at Washington’s Theatre J recently, is uniquely provocative. Keneally, author of the famous Schindler’s Ark, has used Kurt Gerstein, an SS officer, as the central character in his latest work, which is set in World War II. The play refuses to demonise its characters. On the contrary, it is the exploration of the idea that ordinary people can be pushed to perform evil deeds, which makes the play’s message all the more horrifying and relevant today. How can a man hold on to his humanity and morality in the face of such deep ethical and psychological conflict? This issue was dealt with poignantly in Robert Lifton’s seminal work The Nazi Doctors in 1986.

Gerstein worked as a sanitation expert, using the chemical Zyklon B in the fumigation of barracks. Himself a devout Christian, he faced a huge moral dilemma when his own mentally ill sister-in-law became a victim of gassing – part of the Third Reich’s euthanasia programme. Gerstein believed that the deaths in asylums were the summit of the Reich’s evil. However, soon after, he became aware that chemicals like carbon monoxide, and later on Zyklon B, were also being used to gas countless Jews in death camps across Europe. He had become a central cog in the wheel of a regime gone terribly wrong. He desperately tried to alert people in the West about what was happening, approaching Swedish diplomats and even the Papal Nuncio on several occasions. His pleas fell on deaf ears. He surrendered at the end of the war, and was found hanged in his prison cell in Paris. The circumstances of his death are to this day unclear. Gerstein was posthumously declared a ‘Righteous Gentile’ by Yad Vashem in the 1960s.

Gerstein’s story has been told before. Rolf Hochhuth’s 1963 play The Deputy, was a daring anti-church indictment of the Pope’s war-time silence. In 2002, the filmmaker Costa-Gavras in his docudrama, Amen, explored Gerstein’s repeated efforts to reach the Pope during the war. What is different about the play Either-Or, is that Keneally seems most interested in “exploring (Gerstein’s) torn fidelities to his family, his party, his country, his church, his God, and – when all those fail him – his soul.” He cleverly elicits empathy and identification with a man, who may be viewed as the protagonist, as well as the antagonist of the story.

“(He) tells of very human creatures, with complicated and compromised moralities,”says Ari Roth, himself a playwright and the artistic director of Washington’s Theatre J. He worked closely with Keneally and director Daniel DeRaey to dive into “the belly of the beast of this material. The characters are caught up in conundrums that push them to the brink – and often sees them break through in jags of ethical outbursts,” says Roth. “The play is resonant, relevant and immediate to today. It follows the trajectory of Gerstein’s moral awakening, seeing it as a contemporary analogue to the many bureaucrats and technocrats in the Western world, including Australia.”

“People will hate Gerstein because he failed, but to my mind, he did the little bit that he could,” Roth emphasizes. “This is a cautionary tale for our times. Either-Or is a grey story – that of a man’s internal struggle in the face of a corrupt bureaucracy.”

“Gerstein believed he was on the side of right,” Keneally adds. He was living “inside of the Holocaust, not knowing what we know now. If the Holocaust had not occurred, things like the use of Zyklon B in the gassing of human beings would sound totally unbelievable – almost like a kind of science fiction story.”

“When Gerstein became an SS officer, he wished to work inside the apparatus, do good within it, and if necessary betray it. His whistle-blowing career was nothing less than tragic, and interestingly for me as a tribal Catholic, raises the spectre of Western or Vatican complicity again.”

“In the end, Gerstein was at best a preventer of evil,” says Keneally. “At worst, he was a bearer of witness. It is the universal story of a good man who believes in a corrupt system or government that he sees as perfectible. Within tyrannies there has always been a naïve tendency by well-meaning members of the party, to say of unsavoury policies: ‘We’ll sort this out.’”

“As it turns out, Kurt’s soul probably fails him as much as his God,” says Roth. “The challenging question before us all in this Jewish theatre is, can we care and do we care about a perpetrator with misgivings, who both abetted and obstructed the killing machine? (The play) questions the conscience of a good soldier charged with fighting a terrible war.”

Keneally himself points out: “The impulse to re-visit the subject of Gerstein revived as I saw many bureaucrats and technocrats in the Western world, including Australia and, obviously, the U.S., drawn into policy they privately dissented from, and then saw whistle-blowers disbelieved, discredited and destroyed.”

“What does this play offer for the record? I don’t believe that any tale more graphically depicts the crisis into which conventionally and genuinely decent people are thrown under tyrannies, than the story of Gerstein’s whistle-blowing career, which for me, was nothing less than tragic. Regimes of terror defeat and subvert goodness not only by evil,but by the very absurdity of the lengths they make their servants travel.”

Thomas Keneally and Ari Roth in conversation with Professor Mark Baker

Hosted by Tashmadada and the Victorian Writers’ Centre
Thursday July 5th, 7pm
The State Library of Victoria,
Village Roadshow Theatrette
Entry 3, La Trobe Street
$25/$18
Masterclass with Kenealy and Roth
For published writers and theatre practitioners/playwrights
Friday July 6th, 10am-1pm
$90/$80

Bookings / Tickets – Victorian Writers’ Centre Ph: (03) 9654 9068

BREAKOUT BOX

About Tashmadada

In 2006 performer and director Deborah Leiser-Moore founded Tashmadada, a Contemporary Performance Company committed to bringing together Jewish artists as well as providing a forum for discussion about the arts.

Leiser-Moore met Ari Roth in Vienna this year at the International Congress and Festival of Jewish Theatre, where she was invited to present her work at the Australian Embassy. He told her about ‘Either Or’, the play he was working on with Tom Keneally.

“I was immediately interested, both by the themes of the play as well as the nature of their collaboration. Because of the Australian connection through Keneally, I thought that if this level of artistic exchange was happening over there in Washington between an American and Australian, then the natural extension of this was that we should also have it here.”

“One of the aims of Tashmadada is to take up opportunities to create in Australia the international exchange and dialogue between artists that occurs regularly in Europe and the US. I feel that there is a strong hunger from Australian artists for this to occur,” says Leiser-Moore.

“So, in my passion for it to happen, I suggested to both Keneally and Roth that they come to Melbourne to talk about the play and their collaboration. They both agreed! I see this as Tashmadada’s first of an ongoing international exchange.”