This year’s advanced acting students recently performed Born Guilty. Based on Peter Sichrovsky’s electrifying 1988 book of interviews with children of Nazi and SS officials, Ari Roth’s adaptation charts the impact of these interviews on Sichrovsky’s personal life. Sichrovsky’s obsessive quest leads to entanglements—some humorous, some horrifying, all of them resonant—as he explores how the various generations of Germans contend with the poisonous legacy of their recent history. Along the way he uncovers layers of the guilt that he himself carries as the child of Holocaust survivors.
We were extremely fortunate to have the playwright, Ari Roth, visit Marin Academy to work directly with the students in the play, hold a lunchtime discussion for the MA community, and to appear with our students for a “talk back” following the Friday night performance. Ari was featured this month in American Theater Magazine for his courageous and provocative work as Artistic Director of Theater J in Washington, DC.
1. You took Peter Sichrovsky’s interviews and made them into a play that included Peter as a character. What is the relationship between his work and your work?
I was charged with the job of adapting and animating the book—bringing it to dramatic life. The chapters were fascinating: individual monologues of people recounting the drama of growing up surrounded by the silence of their parents and really not knowing enough about what their parents experienced during WWII. The original director—Zelda Fichandler—brought me in to the project realizing that the chapters weren’t enough to be put on stage. Something needed to happen to them. The question was, what? What was the adapter’s charge in bringing life to solitary explorations of growing up with a phantom past? Phantom parents? Unknown figures in touch with toxic history?
What became clear to me was the relationship between interrogator and subject. That’s only implied in the original book. You’re aware of interviews boiled down to a single person talking. You know the interviewer is there but you don’t have the full-blown relationship or overarching story (except for a prologue and afterward). I sensed there was a journey to be had of a man going through Germany and Austria asking, “What did your father do in the war?” and hearing people struggling to answer, deflecting, reflecting. I sensed a story of how the interviewer evolved—why he needed to ask, and when he knew he could stop.
2. Is that the role of the phone conversations with Greta [Herbert in the original play]?
Peter is the protagonist in this version of Born Guilty. Greta/Herbert is one character who appears throughout—Peter calls her four times. In Sichrovsky’s book there is just one phone conversation. I chopped it up and distributed it to show Peter making his own mistakes, losing subjects, scaring the subject away. Peter coming to a kind of emotional apex where finally something is really exposed/shared by Greta/Herbert, and that character winds up changing as a result. It was one of those places in the play where there was a need to have some structural signposts. Peter becomes an enlightening agent: Greta/Herbert is finally able to get away from a person—her father—to whom she’s felt duty-bound.
3. How much of the play is Sichrovsky’s story and how much is it yours?
We have the book, so it is distinguishable to anyone who is keeping score—I stopped keeping score after a while. I spoke to students about intuiting motivation for Peter and figuring out what makes him tick. Why is he drawn to all of these women? What is he going for? I intuited a need for him to come to some kind of reconciliation—to bridge the gulf. I thought I saw that in the text, but that was, in fact, my own empathic identification as a reader and then as a writer adapting the material. That may or may not have been in Peter’s actual thinking or what he was attempting to achieve himself.
Each adapter brings his own adaptation of character; a meaning to the journey. That insight is the most interwoven piece. There are certain elements of my own biography and my parents’ history in Germany. There are details from my own travels while doing research to feel like I had walked in Peter’s shoes. I did some of the same interviews. Some of those details are written in the script. Others were psychologically embedded into assumptions.
4. Some say that as writers we write the same story over and over again. For you, how is this part of your story?
It’s true, especially as I’ve become more and more active as a producer of new plays and on related subject matter. It’s my fifteenth year as an artistic director. I have produced more than one hundred productions of other people’s plays and more than a half dozen of my own. In producing my own work, there is a limit to the amount of autobiographical history that is allotted to me. I do revisit subject matter, not slavishly or in every single play, but I think it’s a very accurate observation with this play.
Born Guilty is part of a trilogy; The Born Guilty cycle. This play is in middle—there is a prequel, which is about children of Holocaust refugees (essentially my family’s story); then Born Guilty, which was performed at Marin Academy; and then a sequel, which is about the adapter of Born Guilty who gets mixed up in the real life of Peter Sichrovsky after Peter gets involved in right wing Austrian politics. Peter becomes a shadow of himself—from righteous journalist to anti-foreigner, conservative politician mixed up with scoundrels. I follow the thread of my own relationship with Peter and Peter’s evolution, and that becomes another part of the journey. The prequel will receive its world premiere in Washington next year and a reading in New York next month.
It’s fascinating how some of the personal family touch-points appear in each play. I’m going to Berlin in April—my mother’s birthplace. As my parents get older, there is less of an opportunity to remember and pass stories along. In Germany they have Stolpersteine—little cobblestone-sized “stumbling blocks” to commemorate victims of the Holocaust. My grandfather was sent to Sachsenhausen and there will be one set for him. We will go to the Berlin Jewish cemetery and place a new gravestone for him. I could be sick of this history, but I continue to go back to it and learn more and more. Time is running out for us to add to our memory bank.
5. What is the universality of this story at this moment in history?
As a country we in the U.S. have fought one of the longest wars in our history, yet very few of us had family members who fought and served. We have a responsibility to know what was perpetrated in our name; all that blood and treasure spilled and wasted. There will be children of that war—orphans of service men and women and others, in the US and in Baghdad—who will meet each other one day at universities. “My father fought in that war.” “My mother was injured in that war.” They will be dancing. And the music will stop and it will be the same dramatic moment as in the play; a character will say, “Amazing, isn’t it? Here we are dancing! And to think, 20 years ago, our father’s might’ve been actually trying to kill each other!”