Background and Artistic Statement
by Ellen Gordon Reeves and Bennett Singer (Producers/Playwrights)
After a fortuitous meeting in 2004 with Gerda Weissmann Klein, the subject of the Oscar- and Emmy-winning documentary One Survivor Remembers, we were inspired to read everything created by this remarkable writer and witness to history. One of her books particularly captured our imagination: The Hours After: Letters of Love and Longing in War’s Aftermath, a spellbinding collection of letters between Gerda and Kurt Klein, the American soldier who liberated her following six years in Nazi captivity—and who, in an extraordinary twist of fate, later became her husband. Forced to separate weeks after liberation, Gerda and Kurt began a correspondence that lasted over a year. These letters chronicle not only their passionate love affair but also the Kafkaesque bureaucracy that confronted them and other survivors of the war. Publishers Weekly described The Hours After as “haunting and engrossing”; Steven Spielberg characterized the correspondence as “a valuable instrument for spreading the message of peace and tolerance to future generations.” Tovah Feldshuh notes that every night before she played Golda Meir in Golda’s Balcony on Broadway, she re-read Gerda’s words for inspiration, while the actress Debra Messing (as part of an InStyle cover story) described Gerda as her heroine after hearing her speak in high school.
Given our backgrounds in social-issue documentary filmmaking, education, and public-interest publishing, we were struck by the dramatic love story that unfolds within these letters, along with their ability to illuminate universal themes of love, loss, and memory and to humanize the plight of survivors of any tragedy—from the ravages of Hurricane Katrina to the present-day genocide occurring in Darfur. Although the Kleins have refused virtually all optioning inquiries since the 1950s (with the notable exception of the HBO documentary), we have secured the rights to The Hours After and have embarked on the process of creating a work in the tradition of plays inspired by social issues and produced with a moral lens, such as The Laramie Project, A Raisin in the Sun, and Angels in America.
While at 21 Gerda survived the loss of her parents, her brother, and her own freedom, Kurt’s death in 2002 has posed the greatest challenge she has ever faced. This is our starting point, as we meet Gerda searching, grieving, and contemplating the rest of her life. How does a survivor rebuild and make sense of her experiences? How do we cope with unspeakable loss and pain? How far can love and its memory go in bringing meaning to existence?
Our script relies primarily on the Kleins’ words to tell their story. Gerda’s Lieutenant is thus a hybrid theatrical genre, drawing on precedents of epistolary plays in the tradition of 84 Charing Cross Road, Vita & Virginia, and Love Letters while using a narrator in the tradition of Our Town and more recently Frost/Nixon to contextualize and reflect on the action. Throughout the play, the actors read from and write letters, act out scenes, and speak directly to the audience.
Production Plans and Development History
On October 22, 2007, we had our first reading of the draft script of Gerda’s Lieutenant at The Producers Club in Manhattan, sponsored by Emerging Artists Theatre. After the reading, we began a series of intensive revision exercises and discussions with dramaturg/writer/director Leigh Fondakowski, who served as head writer and director of numerous productions of The Laramie Project and is an expert on how to create theater from historical documents, eyewitness accounts, and primary-source material. Fondakowski encouraged us to move beyond a simple adaptation of the letters, to add moments from Gerda’s life past and present, and to create an ensemble piece.
In April 2008, Fondakowski directed an intensive and collaborative development session in New York City, sponsored by Emerging Artists Theatre, that used Moment Work—the highly evolved process she has created through her work with Tectonic Theater Project—to re-examine the overall narrative, structure, and theatrical event of our piece. For two weeks, an ensemble of six actors and Sarah Lambert, a set designer who is also a dramaturg, brought scenes from the script to life and created a number of new scenes from the primary-source materials we shared with them. The result was a stunning foray into three-dimensional theatrical space, as the story began to unfold dramatically, complete with props and sets, before our eyes. This winter we are undertaking further script revision with Fondakowski and Lambert and continue to work with and interview Gerda and her family.
Gerda’s Lieutenant has attracted the attention of theater professionals in the U.S. and abroad. The Roundabout Theater Company in Manhattan has asked to see our script when it is complete, as has Patrick Herold, head of the Theater Department at International Creative Management in New York. An early version of the script was a semifinalist for the PlayLabs Festival, sponsored by the Playwrights’ Center in Minneapolis. Phoenix sponsors will be offered first investment rights in a commercial production.
In France, the actress Anouk Aimée has expressed her desire to portray Gerda in a French production of Gerda’s Lieutenant once we revise the existing script. Ms. Aimée, born Judith Françoise Sorya Dreyfus, found Gerda and Kurt’s story profoundly moving; she has a special interest in epistolary dramas, having starred for several years in a Paris production of Love Letters. Ms. Aimée, who works in tandem with the Théâtre de la Madeleine in Paris, has suggested the Théâtre de la Madeleine as a venue for Gerda’s Lieutenant.
Character List for Gerda’s Lieutenant
Gerda Weissmann Klein—Gerda is portrayed by two actresses: YOUNG GERDA is a young woman of 21 (her age in 1945); GERDA is a woman in her eighties, several years after Kurt, her husband of over fifty years, has died. (This actress also plays Gerda’s mother MAMA). When Kurt liberates Gerda at the end of the war in 1945, she weighs 68 pounds and has not had a bath in three years. Ten days after liberation, Kurt and Gerda begin the year-long correspondence that serves as the basis for the play.
Kurt Klein—KURT is portrayed by two actors: YOUNG KURT is a young man of 25 (his age in 1945); KURT is a man in his late seventies. (This actor also plays Gerda’s father PAPA.) We learn in the course of the play that though he wears the American uniform, KURT was born and raised in Germany—and that his parents, like Gerda’s, were killed by the Nazis.
Four ensemble cast members (young men and women in their 20s or 30s) portray characters including Gerda’s older brother ARTUR and cousin DAVID; the DOCTOR, the NURSE, GIRL 1 and GIRL 2 in the Volary field hospital; Gerda’s friends ILSE, LIESL, and SUSE; and GERDA’s children and grandchildren.
Playwright/Producer Bios and Collaboration History
Bennett Singer and Ellen Reeves are writing partners who have collaborated on numerous projects since 1986. For both of us, a major focus of our work has been using primary-source materials to enlighten general audiences and young people about social-justice issues through the telling of powerful but often overlooked stories from history.
Each of us has considerable experience finding, shaping, and telling stories in a variety of media. Bennett Singer has written, co-authored, and edited several books, including a novel published by Random House, and has directed, produced, and written numerous documentaries. He is currently producing a feature-length documentary on the evolution of voting in America. His most recent film, Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, was broadcast nationally on PBS, and went on to garner more than 25 awards and honors in the U.S. and abroad. Production of this project was supported by The National Endowment for the Humanities, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Arcus Foundation, Mertz Gilmore Foundation, and many other foundations and individual donors. The film was described as “a potent and persuasive piece of historical rediscovery” (Los Angeles Times), “complex and nuanced” (Chicago Reader), “packed with information that has not been widely circulated” (New York Times) and “marvelous” (Wall Street Journal). Brother Outsider was featured at the 2008 Out in Africa film festival, with screenings in Cape Town and Johannesburg; it has also been used as the centerpiece of corporate diversity events at companies including Bank of America, American Express, JPMorgan Chase, Citigroup, Time Inc., and New York Life. In New York City, more than 4,000 high school students have seen and discussed the film via screenings sponsored by Human Rights Watch.
Ellen Gordon Reeves, a writer, teacher, and editor, served for 15 years as Executive Editor/Education Editor at The New Press, a non-profit publisher in the public interest; she now serves on their Education Advisory Committee. Her projects include a companion volume to the BBC’s Nazis: A Warning from History; a teaching edition of Studs Terkel’s Working; and Teachers Have It Easy, an oral history by Dave Eggers et. al. on improving working conditions for educators. As a secondary school, college, and graduate-level teacher in both France and America, Reeves has taught a wide variety of dramatic literature, written and directed student productions, and studied improvisation and scene writing at Second City in Chicago. “Can I Wear My Nosering to the Interview?”, her book on job-hunting advice for young people, will appear in April 2009 (Workman Publishing), and Simplement Bistrot, a cookbook with Paris chef Yves Camdeborde appeared in 2008 (Michel Lafon). She serves as a consultant to a number of schools in France and America and teaches in the Columbia Publishing Course at the Columbia School of Journalism. She currently serves on the Board of Directors of the Harvard Alumni Association; on the Alumnae Outreach Committee of the Radcliffe Institute; the Board of the Lincoln School in Providence, Rhode Island (a Quaker school); the 826 Valencia film advisory board; and as Chair of the Community Service committee of the Harvard Club of New York.
Both of us also have experience in shaping interviews and oral history testimony: Singer edited the companion volume to Michael Apted’s acclaimed documentary series 42 UP and, during the five years he worked at Blackside, Inc. in Boston, was an editor of Voices of Freedom: An Oral History of the Civil Rights Movement. Reeves has edited numerous collections of letters, including the correspondence of Nelson Algren and Simone de Beauvoir, A Transatlantic Love Affair, as well as Free At Last and Families and Freedom, two volumes of letters from the Civil War and Reconstruction period, with Ira Berlin, Barbara Fields, and Leslie Rowland. She is the author of a Bookwise teaching guide to Myron Levoy’s World War II young adult novel Alan and Naomi and editor of The New Press Education Reader: Leading Educators Speak Out (The New Press, 2006).
In addition to co-authoring Gerda’s Lieutenant, Reeves and Singer continue to collaborate on an array of books, as well as projects for the stage and screen. For several years, both of us worked as editors/writers for TIME Magazine’s education program, where we created award-winning teaching materials to accompany weekly issues of TIME and various HBO films (including Band of Brothers and The Laramie Project). We produced a guide on the history of the abolitionist movement for WGBH, the Boston Public Library, and the Museum of Afro-American History in Boston, and most recently created educational materials for WGBH and Pearson Learning.
Leigh Fondakowski, Director
Playwright/director Leigh Fondakowski served as Head Writer of The Laramie Project and has been a member of Tectonic Theater Project since 1995. She is an Emmy-nominated co-screenwriter for the adaptation of The Laramie Project for HBO. Her latest work, The People’s Temple, had a month-long run in September 2008 at American Theatre Company in Chicago; has been performed under her direction at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, Perseverance Theater, and The Guthrie Theater; and received the Glickman Award for “Best New Play” in 2005. Another original play, I Think I Like Girls, premiered at Encore Theater in San Francisco under her direction and was voted one of the top ten plays of 2002 by The Advocate. Additional directing credits include 3 Seconds in the Key by Deb Margolin (San Francisco Playhouse), The Laramie Project (Berkeley Repertory Theatre, La Jolla Playhouse, Perseverance Theatre), La Voix Humaine by Jean Cocteau (Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh), Agatha by Marguerite Duras (French Alliance, New York), Gwen John adapted from the novel by Jane Warrick (HERE, New York), and readings and workshops of new plays by Jeff Baron, Stephen Belber, Colman Domingo, and Lisa Ramirez. Leigh is currently developing a play about 19th-century actress Charlotte Cushman with Tectonic Theater Project and About Face Theatre. She is an associate professor at Naropa University.
Sarah Lambert, Dramaturg and Set Designer is based in New York. Her previous collaborations with Leigh Fondakowski and/or Tectonic Theater project include set design/dramaturgy for The People’s Temple (Guthrie, BRT, Perseverance and American Theatre Company), dramaturgy for The Laramie Project, set design for Gross Indecency (New York City, London, Toronto, Los Angeles and San Francisco) and dramaturgy/design for current workshop-in-progress Casa Cushman. Other design credits include Spectators at an Event (Susan Marshall & Co, BAM Next Wave), Fly, (LCI) and more than 150 shows in New York City and regionally. She is an artistic associate with the Theater of Necessity (Playing Alexina, Mephisto, and Stunt Man) and resident set designer for the National Asian-American Theater Company. Lambert has taught design at Hunter and Queens College (CUNY), been a visiting artist at Naropa University, and is currently teaching design at Cornell. She holds a BA from Cornell and an MFA from Yale.
Kelli Simpkins (Ensemble)
Recent theater credits include Celebrity Row at American Theatre Company (directed by David Cromer); Fair Use at Steppenwolf’s First Look Festival (directed by Meredith McDonough), Good Boys and True at Steppenwolf (directed by Pam McKinnon), Execution of Justice with About Face Theatre (directed by Gary Griffin), The People’s Temple at Berkeley Rep, Perseverance, The Guthrie (directed by Leigh Fondakowski) and One Arm at Steppenwolf (directed by Moisés Kaufman). Kelli is a member of Tectonic Theater Project and is one of the original creator/performers of The Laramie Project (Off-Broadway, Denver Center, Berkeley Rep, LaJolla Playhouse). Upcoming projects: Casa Cushman (dramaturg/actor), a play about Victorian actress Charlotte Cushman, in development with Tectonic/About Face (directed by Leigh Fondakowski). FILM/TV: A League of Their Own, Chasing Amy, Law & Order: C.I., and HBO’s The Laramie Project (Emmy nomination for Ensemble Writing). She is a certified teacher in Tectonic’s “Moment Work” technique.