“I’m trying to find everyone. Everyone of my generation.”
“We are all screaming across time . . . we feel comfortable here.”
Summary: In 1936, Dr. Max Cohnreich escapes Berlin, Germany, and arrives in NYC, settling there with his immediate family. In 1939, he writes about his experiences in a diary.
In 2013, his great-granddaughter, Andrea Stolowitz, finds the diary at the archives of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. In 2015, she travels to Berlin to find clues about the life he describes and the people she never knew. The parallel lives of the characters create a narrative about the search for home and family, which operates at the border of reality and memory, and the intersection of national history and private lives.
Andrea Stolowitz, a Jewish-American playwright and professor at several U.S. colleges and universities, nurtures her playwriting students by creating an annual New Works Festival. She recently won a fellowship from the DAAD, the German Academic Exchange Service, to spend a year in Germany to research her family’s past, trying to find as many documents as possible about her ancestors. Stolowitz’s play, Schlüterstraße 27, chronicles her often Kafkaesque search, until, like Pirandello, she finds dozens of family members in search of an author. Returning home to the U.S., she knows who that author is.
Daniel Brunet, translator of 19 German plays since 2003, is serving as the American producing artistic director of the English Theatre in Berlin [ETB] at the International Performing Arts Center [IPAC]. He also worked for the German Theater Abroad from 2005 to 2008—a transatlantic theater company based in New York and Berlin. Brunet flew out to Philadelphia a few days ago to direct a staged reading of Stolowitz’s latest play.
PlayPenn and the National Museum of American Jewish History: Both organizations are sponsoring the event, which features David Ingram and Leah Walton, with Caroline C. Packard, organizational change and conflict response specialist and mediator, as the associate producer.
The reading takes place at the National Museum of American Jewish History – 101 South Independence Mall East, in Philadelphia, PA, on Monday, May 16th at 7 PM. To register for your free tickets, click here. Running time is 1 hour, 50 minutes, including a ten minute intermission.
Henrik: What was the driving force behind your year-long odyssey—“reading the diary [of your great grandfather] obsessively”—researching your family’s roots in Berlin?
Andrea: The initial driving force was to be able to spend the year with my family, funded, in Berlin working on a new play. As I thought over play ideas for various funding opportunities, the idea of using the diary somehow popped into my head.
What support did you receive from the DAAD and the English Theatre in Berlin?
I was a 2014-15 playwright-in-residence at English Theatre Berlin [as a result of] a faculty research grant, which funded my Berlin expenses. During this time, I developed the play with Daniel Brunet. We had a public reading in May of 2015.
You wrote, “I don’t want to be the one to know”—an ominous statement, given your discoveries about family secrets. What did you discover?
I found that many of my Berlin first cousins thrice removed perished in the Shoah [Holocaust]. I found that some whom I had not known about lived and emigrated. I learned that I had cousins alive today whom I could contact.
You met a wide-range of people in Berlin on your search.
The Berliner archivists were extremely helpful. Everyone aided me in my search. I felt incredibly grateful to the archivists, historians, and German friends and acquaintances who took time to help me with translations, document hunts, and copying and scanning.
What were the highlights of your time in Berlin?
Seeing much amazing and interesting German and international theater in Berlin, creating a close collaborating relationship with Daniel Brunet, spending time with my family and my German-born husband’s family in Berlin.
Your play reveals a great deal of brutally honest information about “Andrea,” one of the two main characters, for example, “I’m worried about my job and my agent, who also represents Mamet.” How much of your creative docudrama is fact and fiction?
It is all true—expect for the parts which are not. I call it a speculative memoir.
Schlüterstraße 27 shares a wide range of family secrets that “Mom” tries to prevent, in addition to corporeal and psychological problems that could be seen as an outcome of the terrible stress of escaping Nazi Germany. What was your family’s response to the openness of your creative docudrama?
My family has been very supportive. They are excited that I have used the diary to create a new piece of art work.
Your play, dealing with the plight of Jewish people, also connects compensation for Holocaust victims with other groups that have suffered terribly, for example, “I wonder what would happen in the US if we paid restitution. Native Americans? Slavery? Japanese-Americans? Cold hard cash.”
I just think that the Germans had a remarkable process, not dissimilar to the truth and reconciliation process in South Africa and the Gauck Commission in East Germany, which shed light into the darkest corners of history. Putting a price tag on compensation forces one to acknowledge a historical wrong. We in the US seldom do that. As Americans, we have much to acknowledge in our own history.
How tempting was it to get swept away by the flood of information, rather than shaping the material?
It is very difficult, which is exactly why the opportunities that PlayPenn provides (and New Harmony, where I will be next month) are so valuable. First drafts are messy. Workshops, actors, dramaturgs, and directors help make order out of this chaos.
You used a collage style in Schlüterstraße 27, featuring different people who represent a “fluidity of identity,” switching not only back and forth between characters, but even within characters. You integrated sound and video, but little scenery. Tell us more about this non-linear approach.
I just knew I did not want a traditional one-person approach or a naturalist retelling. This style creates a fast paced rhythm that broke with the traditions of naturalism.
Some parts of your play, most likely, will lead to important discussions about theater. “Some days I just can’t stomach being excited about [teaching] the American Theater. It feels somehow dishonest to encourage anyone to go into this line of work. I often believe it’s some kind of pyramid scheme into which I’m obliged to recruit people, otherwise the whole system will break apart. Kind of like the one that brought down Albania.” Tell us more about your willingness as a playwright to take risks.
I don’t know if it is a risk. It is just the truth. I say what I mean, I mean what I say, and let’s all tell the truth and break up with the misinformation about our history, our lives, and the American theater.
What response did the first reading of your play receive in Berlin?
The audience was incredibly excited and the play was well received.
What are your plans for Schlüterstraße 27 in both Germany and the U.S.?
In 2016, Daniel Brunet, the producing artistic director, will produce the world premiere in Berlin at ETB/IPAC [which was named as one of the six most popular theaters in Berlin]. In the US, it will be developed at PlayPenn [“Everything you always wanted to know about PlayPenn, but were afraid to ask”], the New Harmony Project, and in my home town, Portland, Oregon.
What did you learn about yourself as a playwright and as a Mensch?
I learned that the hardest projects are the most worthwhile and that I do have the grit and determination to do this playwriting job, despite the hardships of the American theater. For me the play is about how family and its connections are our sustaining force. It is about how I go and find mine.
You summarized your play with this thought-provoking quote, “My family is alive? First the story was no one died in the Holocaust. Then I found the ones who died. Now I’m finding the ones who lived. [. . .] I feel like I should tell someone. My Mom. David. Claire.” And then you ask: “Does anyone care?”
Well, I really feel this way as a third generation Holocaust survivor. The legacies of the past, the ghosts of the past, still haunt me. Maybe this is what being “third generation” means. We see the ghosts and we want to set them free.