To learn more about the creation of this new, devised play addressing anti-semitism in 2018, Picture This Post interviewed Yizkor director and deviser, Joey Lubelfeld.
Picture This Post: Where did inspiration for the piece come from?
When the Charlottesville riots happened last August, I realized that our country was starting to recognize the ever-present anti-semitism people wanted to believe had gone away. I wanted to take advantage of this new space for understanding, during a time when our social consciences are so on display. I’m an artist, and theatre is my medium, so the only way I knew how to respond to my sense of fear and uncertainty for the world was by making a play. Initially I had set out to produce Israel Horovitz’s Lebensraum, but the New York Times and Chicago Tribune published articles on the devastating and destructive abuses of power and position Horovitz wielded against female victims he had employed. With our current political climate and conversations here in Chicago, there was no choice but to separate ourselves from that piece and that playwright, since we didn’t want to be providing funds to someone using their art to harm, not heal.
I have experience and passion for devising, and along with my Associate Producer, Ben Kaye, we made the decision to shift gears and create a new, devised work based on similar themes of Lebensraum: the Holocaust, government-sanctioned genocide, family, immigration, and faith. I think it’s important for members of a community to tell their own stories, and as a Jewish theatre artist, I wanted to build something new to address the Jewish experience of the past with the Jewish experience of the present; I wanted to respond theatrically in real time as best I could.
What was preproduction like?
There was a lot that needed to happen on the front end of this project in order for us to be successful. Since I was essentially self-producing, I spent two or three months setting up a fundraising campaign, securing space for rehearsals and performances, and setting up auditions — typical theatre administration work. Once we shifted to a devised practice, my preproduction process changed a great deal. Where I typically will read the piece a number of times, collaborate with a dramaturg on research as well as conduct my own research, and work with designers to build the look of the space, I focused more on casting an ensemble of individuals with their own voices and backgrounds. This is something which I would do regardless, but really needed to hone in on performers who were also writers and movers and incredibly bold in their work.
We also collaborated with our playwright, Chris Vanderark on our ideas for the piece and the work we had created during the callback process, and did some general research. I did not want to pigeon-hole any of us into conversations based on my research as opposed to crafting the story from our collective devising practice.
What was the rehearsal process like?
Truthfully this process was very much organized chaos. We actually didn’t have our full cast until the middle of our first week. We spent about a week just on writing exercises, character-building exercises, improvisations, and having open-ended discussions about the themes of the piece. Once we had our first draft of the play, we began to look at the structure and all of the pieces of the puzzle. What did we like? What was missing? What no longer made sense? The next week was a lot of us taking the draft and molding it to fit the story we all saw in our heads — which was actually a pretty collective vision we all landed on. And the casting worked beautifully. Each performer really connected to the roles we cast them in and it allowed for some of them to continue building the characters from week one. In week two we began to stage the piece. A lot changed from day to day, week to week, and I was really happy with how well everyone was able to adapt. Once we got into our final week before tech, I wanted to make sure we were able to freeze the script so we had something consistent to work on, and so the actors could memorize their lines with enough time to feel comfortable on stage. We were able to do more movement exercises and built the movement sequences peppered throughout the piece. We found music, we changed music, we got rid of music, we brought some of it back; at the end of the day I wanted to make sure that we were all working towards the same goal and the same story.
Why is this a story you're passionate about sharing right now?
I learned far too much about the Holocaust in this process. Things I think I should have already known. A whole world of history was opened up in front of my eyes as we built this piece and I think it is so crucial that we tell these stories. I am watching history repeat itself and seeing lots of people ask themselves what they would have done in the 1930’s and 40’s. Some say that now is the opportunity for them to find out; I say that now is the time for us to put an end to the oppression before we find ourselves finding out what we would have done. And, for the representation of fully-fleshed out and developed Jewish characters who are struggling and surviving in a universal manner. It’s important to tell our own stories. We are the best suited to ensure our culture lives on, if only through story.
How did this challenge you? How do you think it challenged those involved?
I know for certain that Chris enjoyed the challenge of having to write something in such a short period of time. And I can totally relate to that because we created and staged a play in just four weeks, which is an impressive feat. It could not have been accomplished without everybody taking the risks necessary for us to push our boundaries. The physical elements and movement pieces were challenging to create, but I learned a lot. For a long time now I have been interested in that type of work, so for me I am kind of diving into the deep end without floaties, but I think the performers really helped me to overcome that particular challenge.
What do you hope audiences take away from this piece?
I am well aware that we will not have audiences full of neo-Nazis. They will not reflect on their destructive actions and beliefs and we will not gather ‘round after a performance to hold hands and sing songs. But if we can show even just one or two audience members the possibility of the Holocaust repeating itself — which is of course one the most, if not the most, extreme possibility of history repeating itself for the Jewish community — then we’ve done our job. We have embedded a Jewish story into the culture of Chicago by performing it every night. Hopefully this leaves us with audience members so moved that they go out and spread positive energy into joining the resistance and tearing down the deep-seated bigotries, systems of oppression, and the belief that it falls on us to determine who lives and who dies. I have always said that theatre has the potential to change the world. We are but one part of the resistance.
Through February 25, 2018
Fridays at 8pm
Saturdays at 3pm and 8pm
Sundays at 8pm
Read more about him and other Picture this Post writers on the Picture this Post Masthead.
Click here to read more Picture this Post articles by Brent Ervin-Eickhoff