5 Questions I’ve Never Been Asked: Shirley Lauro

James Badge Dale, Tamara Tunie in Robert Schenkkan's Building the Wall. Photo: Carol Rosegg.

Shirley LauroThe increasingly popular genre of documentary theater might have been the route for playwright Shirley Lauro to go as she began to interview German gentile women for what became her decidedly non-documentary play, All Through the Night, which the Red Fern Theatre Company is presenting at the Marjorie S. Deane Little Theater (5 W. 64th St., at Central Park West) through Oct. 25. Instead, and by setting her play both during and following the Third Reich, Lauro’s dramaturgy examines four women through the sweep of a life, from their teen years to their young adult years to the aftermath of the Second World War.

But the mission of Red Fern, which was founded by Emilie E. Miller and Melanie Moyer Williams in March 2006, goes beyond the mere presenting of a work. Their group, according to the company’s website, “strives to provoke social awareness and change through theatrical productions and outreach,” and pairs each play “with a philanthropy whose work relates to the social themes of the play” and donates a portion of the proceeds from each production to that philanthropy. So in the case of All Through the Night, which is receiving its New York premiere and is directed by Williams, the philanthropy is the Simon Weisenthal Center, the international Jewish human rights organization.

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With luck, All Through the Night should have an impact on New York theater audiences: The 2006 production in Chicago received a Jeff Award nomination. Lauro, the author of many plays, including Open Admissions, which played on Broadway, also co-edited with Alexis Greene the anthology Front Lines: Political Plays by American Women. She has had some 1,000 productions of her plays around the world.

For tickets to All Through the Night, call 212-352-3101 or visit www.theatermania.com.

And now, 5 questions Shirley Lauro has never been asked:

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Hana Kalinski and Lesley McBurney

Hana Kalinski and Lesley McBurney

1) What’s the most perceptive question anyone has ever asked you?

Whether or not I write autobiographically. Complicated question for me to answer. When asked, often leads me to hope and believe questioner knows all about me, has read my work — and is interested in my career. A fan! So, optimist that I am, I usually jump right in: “In everything I write — a part of me is there. I do draw from my own experience on way or the other in all my work!” But my answer rarely satisfies: “This is some kind of diary of yours and should have been done as a memoir then, shouldn’t it?” Or: “You must be joking? What do you know about black kids in Harlem like in that Open Admissions of yours? Or the nurses that went to Vietnam in that A Piece of My Heart of yours? You live in Harlem? You been to Vietnam? These are phony experiences and you say a part of you was there?”

When I started writing as an undergrad in college, I answered these questions — while writing a fictional story based on my family — saying, “Autobiography has nothing to do with my work! It springs from ideas that just come into my head when I sit down to write. And when my muse is with me!” Now I try to avoid answering that question altogether.

Hard to explain that some part of me is in every character I create or I couldn’t create them. Or that the characters are so available to me emotionally, I instinctively know enough about them to give them life. In All Through the Night I feel a part of me is in each of the four German gentile girls coming of age during Hitler’s reign. And I feel close enough to the Nazi women in the play to grasp them emotionally and to grasp instinctively why they became who they became. I was able to create all of them as dramatic characters. These characters and this play touches on one of my themes: writing about little people thrown into overwhelming circumstances with which they must struggle. Certainly the experience every creative writer finds himself/herself in!

2) What’s the most idiotic question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
“Have you ever written anything standing up at a drafting board like Hemingway did?”

3) What’s the weirdest question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
From a stranger at a Q&A session after a performance of one of my plays: “Your main character is named Beverly. Did you name her after me?”

Nazi Image4a) All Through the Night was inspired by interviews with German gentile women of the Third Reich. How much research did you do to write the play?
I researched the play for close to two years. I traveled to Germany, to Ravensbruck Concentration Camp, where one of the scenes is set, and toured the camp and went to lectures there. I visited the Holocaust Museum in Berlin and with children and grandchildren of people who’d been in World War II. I visited the Holocaust Museum in New York as well as the one in D.C. I interviewed two gentile survivors then living in the States. I read many, many books written by German gentiles who went through the war, and read interviews with German gentiles who’d survived it. I read about Germany during and after war, and the life of Hitler before he became the Fuhrer. I read psychoanalytical books on sadism, group persuasion and brainwashing, serial killers, and scapegoating. I read about Gypsies in Germany before and during the war, and about Jehovah’s Witnesses. I read about the treatment of the handicapped and mentally ill German citizens during the same time period. I used the Internet and came up with more interviews, more firsthand diaries and accounts. Under Google images, I found astounding pictures of those years — ordinary citizens and Nazis, bombed cities and camps, etc. Plus videos of Germans who’d gone through the war.

4b) Didn’t you then notice any impulse to make the play more documentary theater than fictional drama?
I had no impulse whatsoever to make All Through the Night a documentary theater piece. Farthest thought from my mind. I’m a creative writer. The interviews I had access to about German Gentile women during those years were fragmented in terms of what they talked about — but they came together for me as collective, communal experiences all the women went through: school, marriage, children, careers, the impact of war on their personal lives, their relationship to the Nazi Party and their feelings about it. Taken together, these provided a sort of framework for me. I also was quite interested in exploring the psyches as well as the outward lives of the women of that time in Germany, of which very little is known. I learned a great deal. Most importantly, the play has my angle of vision: this is an antiwar play for now, not a documentary film on the Third Reich! It’s extremely relevant to our world today. Additionally, All Through the Night is a style piece, written from a 21st century point of view, looking back with hindsight.

5) Why are the plays about the Third Reich — not just focusing on Jews, of course, but on all those entangled in that era — still compelling to us today, what with so many plays and films dealing with the same topic? Was the play easy to write? Were you conscious of not wanting to revisit dramatic territory others have mined before you?
World War II was the central event of the 20th century. It involved the world. It was cataclysmic in myriad ways. I feel there was a very long period after the war actually ended when people were in trauma — shock — horror — unable and unwilling to look at what had just occurred to all of Europe, almost to America, and to look at the depth of the devastation one man and one country was able to inflict on civilization in 12 short years! Why? How? When? Where? We couldn’t really answer those questions at first since everyone in the world was touched in some very deep way, and changed forever. It’s hard to look at that when it’s just happened, let alone write about it with any clarity. They say good creative writing happens with the acute vision time gives us. I think this is true of World War II. Writers and filmmakers have attempted for decades now to penetrate what went on. And as time passes, I think more and more exploration will be taken on — and with clearer artistic vision and understanding. Only very recently have the Germans begun to explore what happened, and as they explore, I’ve found it is with remarkable insights and perceptions.

Bonus question:

6a) As co-editor, with Alexis Greene, of Front Lines: Political Plays by American Women, can you define what constitutes contemporary political theater in America?
I think in any age and in any country, political theater is theater whose authors’ visions are concerned with issues deeply affecting many people (sometimes nationally, sometimes internationally) at their very core. The concern with these issues is coupled with a tremendous need to resolve them pragmatically. Political theater here, now, I feel, concerns equality among our men, our women and our minority groups in areas ranging from education and war to our legal system, our prisons, jobs and gender to the issue of power in America in political spheres, financial spheres, and the general treatment of our citizens.

6b) What can women contribute to American political theater than men cannot?
In my introduction to Front Lines, I state:

Justice is a woman. The Greeks called her Goddess Themis, the Romans, Goddess Justitia. Both civilizations sculpted statues of her, sitting or standing in glowing gowns, carrying sword in one hand to kill the unjust, scale in the other to measure equality, and sometimes a book of law to help determine guidelines for fairness. Often the statues were blindfolded, signaling all would be treated evenhandedly. Through the ages in a myriad of cultures, this embodiment of the iconic symbol of fairness and equality has survived nearly intact. And clear eyed or blindfolded; sitting or standing; scales, sword or book in hand – justice is a woman.

Georgia O’Keefe once said: “Something remains unexplored about women that only a woman can explain.” I believe that “something” concerns justice. I feel that in almost all of the political plays I know by women, the struggle for justice for their characters provides the focal point of the play. I think male writers are concerned with seeking justice too, but I think it may well be the Greeks and Romans had the right idea, together with its implications — that central for women playwrights when they turn to issue-oriented subject matter is the search for justice.

6c) Do audiences sense differences between political plays by women and men?
I think you’d have to ask the audiences that go to see those plays.

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