Jewish Journal

Theater: A generation’s history, one life at time

by Laurel Ollstein

Posted on Apr. 3, 2008 at 6:00 pm

"Showing Our Age" is a play about stories, and the fact that everyone has one. It's a project that I started more than 10 years ago, though not specifically as an idea for a play. I was a participant in a community outreach program in which we interviewed senior citizens, used their remarkable life stories to write monologues and then performed them for the seniors and their families. The simplicity of just the details of a life -- without sets or costumes -- created some of the most powerful theater I had ever been involved with. And I have been involved in theater for a very long time, as an actress, writer, director and teacher. I wanted more! I wanted to take this idea and expand it.

That was when About Productions, a Los Angeles-based theater company I had worked with before, became involved. They supported the idea with grants, which created a project called STAGES. We interviewed seniors at the Culver City Senior center, Alice Manor in Watts, The Motion Picture Home, Angeles Plaza, Sunset Hall (the home for free-thinking elders) and Jewish Home for the Aging. We added music to the mix and expanded the idea of the stories into songs and short plays.

Everyone I have interviewed almost always starts off by saying, "Oh, my life wasn't that interesting." To all of them, and to you, I say: "Yes it is!" The details of our lives are our history, one person at a time, the kind of history I wish I had been taught in school -- I would have stayed awake more. Stories of love, adventure and survival -- or sometimes just the perfect recipe, or one moment in time that changes a life. It really does teach you more about a time and place -- not only to walk in someone else's shoes, but also to know where the blisters are.

As Jewish woman, I was interested in interviewing Jewish seniors. Both of my grandmothers have died, and I never really heard their stories. I didn't get the chance to ask for the details of their lives, and they didn't volunteer them. I think it's easier sometimes, on both sides, to interview someone you're not related to. There are questions I might not have been so comfortable asking my grandmothers -- and they may not have been so comfortable answering either. So talking to strangers with whom I share a heritage was fascinating to me on many fronts.

I spoke with two sisters who were taken out of their beds in Amsterdam and put in Auschwitz, where they were experimented on by Dr. Mengele. They also told me that the guards gave them yarn and knitting needles, so the sisters spent much of their two years in cell block 10 knitting scarves and hats for the soldiers in exchange for extra bread. They cried with me -- and even told a few bad jokes. After all, one of our best survival techniques as Jews has always been humor. I know it's in my blood.

I also talked with a woman who at 22 worked as a translator at the Nuremburg trials and met her future husband, a survivor, wandering around a burned-out shul in Nuremburg one night. She married him to get him out of there -- to give him life. She talked about having to get him teeth first, which was the hardest part. Not easy to find a dentist in Nuremburg after the war. I also talked with a Jewish woman who was born and raised in New York, much like one of my grandmothers. This woman wasn't too happy at having been moved to Los Angeles by her daughter. She worked at the breakfast bar at the senior center and spent our whole interview trying to sell me bagels.

I heard love stories, reckless youth tales, bad and good parenting tales, wishes and regrets. All of the stories filled me, and I couldn't escape from them. I knew I had to do even more with these stories, to bring them to a larger audience.

So for the next phase of this project, I wanted to write a bigger piece -- a play for public audiences. About Productions' artistic director Theresa Chavez said, "OK, let's do it!" and then gave me the space and funds and production support to find the story. Last year we started the process by having a two-week workshop of the piece.

I didn't want the play to be a bunch of disconnected monologues, so I invented a fictional father-daughter relationship -- a pair who had not been close -- and put them on stage together the day that the father has to be put in a home. This is a difficult situation, which many of my generation are finding themselves in. There is a lot of guilt and turmoil in the realization that you are the parent now and you have to make a decision for your own parent, and this is even more difficult when the relationship isn't close. Into this story I have brought four actors who play 20 different characters and stories from the more than 40 interviews with seniors. The stories inform and challenge the father and daughter into making a decision. Some of the moments are from a life played out in a scene form; some of the stories are sung and some are danced. There is wonderful original music written by Robert Anderson and Melody Butiu.

And that's where we are now -- "Showing Our Age" is a full-blown play with music, six actors, three musicians and a lot of great stories to tell.

Even though it's a tough subject, it's ultimately a story that celebrates a generation.

For more information on "Showing Our Age:"

April 9 -- April 27

$20 general, $15 students/seniors, $10 groups (6+)

Indoor Theater, John Anson Ford Amphitheater

2580 Cahuenga Blvd. East, Hollywood

Free parking and handicap accessible

Ticket info: Theater box office, (323) 461-3673



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