Interview With… Stav Meishar

The writer and performer chatted to Emma Clarendon about bringing the true story of a Jewish acrobat who hid in a German circus during World War II to avoid being sent to a concentration camp to the stage.

(c)Gaia Putrino.

 Hi Stav, thanks so much for talking to me. Could you give us a bit of an insight into what The Escape Act is about?  The Escape Act – A Holocaust Memoir is a touring one-woman theatre show, combining elements of circus and puppetry. It is based on true events in the life of Irene Danner-Storm, a young Jewish acrobat in Nazi Germany. The show goes back and forth between past and present, between character and performer, and combines the historical events of Irene’s life with my experiences as a grandchild of Holocaust survivors. ​Irene, a descendent of the legendary Lorch circus family, survived the Holocaust hiding and workingat the German Althoff Circus. She and her family were embraced by the circus owner Adolf Althoff and his wife Maria and passed the years of World War II performing on its stage. Whenever the Nazis would come to the circus for inspections Irene and her family would run to hide, aided by their Muslim Moroccan acrobat friend Mohamed. The puppets are the other characters inhabiting Irene’s world as told through her eyes. She juggles, clowns, flies on the trapeze, and brings her experiences and the people who shared them to life. ​As I travel through Irene’s story, it triggers my own
memories of family history, of past traumas and struggles, and as the past grows closer I am forced to invite it in.

How did you come across Irene Danner-Storm’s story? It was completely random. I started my Jewish education company,  Dreamcoat Experience , and our niche, so to speak, was teaching progressive Jewish education using performing arts: drama, music,puppets, thing like that, and I started weaving circus methods into our curriculum. I was curious if
anyone had done that before and I went to Google and I typed in ‘Circus Jews’ and one of the first things to come up was the New York Times  obituary for Adolf Althoff , the German circus owner who
saved this Jewish family. I just remember reading it and my jaw dropping to the floor going, ‘How is there not a movie about this?’. It was incredible. I just started going into this Alice in
Wonderland rabbit hole from which I never emerged.

What was it that made you want to bring this particular story to the stage? Have you ever heard of Anne Frank? Oscar Schindler? Have their stories stuck with you? That’s where true resonance lies, in individual stories. One of the most powerful experiences that I had growing up, and that I saw as a Jewish educator in America, is when schools would bring survivors to tell their stories first-hand. This has always been for me and for my students the most powerful experience, more than watching movies, more than seeing pictures of naked skinny bodies. Just having a person there telling you this is what happened, this is what they did to me, to my sister, to my parents, it’s different. And it’s a resource that’s not
going to be available forever. Survivors are dying out and the thought that led me in this work is, ‘OK, what experience can I create that would get as close to a first-hand telling as possible?’. Irene’s story, and that of her saviours Adolf and Maria Althoff, is an incredible example of courage,
compassion and loyalty; a real triumph of the human spirit. With everything that’s happening in the world today, these are the stories we need to hear and learn from.

What can audiences expect from the production? I think our first review described it pretty well: “The Escape Act – A Holocaust Memoir offered a
rollercoaster of emotions where the audience felt everything from joy to wonder, worry and sorrow.” It is not an easy show to watch, and definitely not what one usually expects of a circus show. I’d like to think it is both painful and beautiful, both sad and uplifting. There are quite a few puppets in it, as well as some trapeze and juggling, but it is mostly text-driven.
Audiences can expect to learn about some incredible circus history, as well as ponder the effects such traumas can have on following generations.

Given the show is based on a true story, how difficult was it to ensure that the story being brought to the stage was as true to life as possible? It’s always difficult adapting true stories into artistic work, even when it’s a documentary; you have to cherry pick events, discard others, sometimes take artistic liberties to make it work dramatically. It’s even more delicate when that story is of such harrowing, soul-crushing experiences. It was a
difficult process, both practically and emotionally, and I still have that tiny voice in the back of my head that worries I may have messed it up. The main lesson my dramaturg tried to teach me as I was writing and re-writing the play was that truth doesn’t always lie in making every moment 100%
historically accurate. Truth is more about the feelings and ideas behind these events. The responsibility we each share for our fellow men – that’s the truth of this show, as embodied by Adolf and Maria Althoff’s actions. Not every single event has to be accurately staged for the soul of this
story to come through.

What would like for audiences to take away from the show? While the show deals mostly with events that happened decades ago, I think it is more relevant now than ever – in England and worldwide. With refugees knocking on our doors, with right-wing parties on the rise and a lot of fear mongering for all that is “different”, I’d like audiences to reflect on the
relevancy of this story today. Bringing my own history to the show in front of new audiences every night is utterly terrifying and leaves me emotionally drained; but I do it because I want audiences to
wrestle with the ripple effects that fascist and racist actions have, to weigh the social and political aftermath of what we’re doing.

By Emma Clarendon

The Escape Act – A Holocaust Memoir will tour the UK from the 23rd September.

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