Caro Meets Dance & Physical Interview Theatre Interview

Stav Meishar: The Escape Act – A Holocaust Memoir

By | Published on Friday 13 September 2019

When I heard about ‘The Escape Act’, a show that stops at Jackson’s Lane this week as part of a UK tour, I was immediately intrigued.

It tackles an interesting element of the history of the Holocaust – the story of Jewish circus performers – in a show that incorporates a number of different performance styles.

To find out more about it all I spoke to the talent behind the show, multi-skilled creative Stav Meishar.

CM: Can we start by talking about what to expect from this performance in terms of its style and genre? It sounds like there are lots of different elements.
SM: This is a theatre show, first and foremost, with elements of circus and puppetry. I’d also like to think of it as a sort of historical research as well as performance, since it’s based on years of carefully uncovering and collecting information about the true histories of Jewish circus artists in Nazi-occupied Europe. There are quite a few puppets in the show, 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 traumatic events can have on following generations.

CM: Next, can you tell us a bit about the narrative of the piece? What’s the story you’re telling?
SM: The show is based on true events in the life of Irene Danner-Storm, a young Jewish acrobat in Nazi Germany. It goes back and forth between past and present, between character and performer, and combines the historical events of Irene’s life with the performer’s experiences as a grandchild of Holocaust survivors.

Irene, a descendent of the legendary Lorch circus family, survived the Holocaust hiding and working at 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, the performer, travel through Irene’s story, it triggers my own memories of family history, of past traumas and struggles.

CM: What wider themes do you explore?
SM: This show comes to educate, document and commemorate the lives of Jewish circus artists during WWII, and to present a slice of Holocaust history. But it goes deeper than this.

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 relevance 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.

CM: How did you go about putting the show together? How did your creative process work? Who else was involved in creating the show with you?
SM: The first draft of the show, back in 2013, was an ensemble play. It made sense to write a show about a circus using a large cast: I envisioned each actor would bring different circus skills to the table and we could make this a contemporary circus-theatre show about a traditional circus.

But then as I was looking into financing the show I had to face some harsh realities about arts funding and my own limitations as a completely green producer. Thus I re-worked the play as a one-woman show, re-imagining all the other characters as puppets; it was a purely practical decision at first, acknowledging that touring a smaller show would be more cost efficient.

But soon this decision became less about practicality and more about concept as I realised that there is more to it, if I were to look at the WHY: Why am I telling this story? Why now? It was then that I weaved myself as a sort of character in the show, mixing Irene’s experiences with my own memories growing up a grandchild of Holocaust survivors. The show now has moments where Irene’s stories triggers my memories and I break the fourth wall, addressing the audience directly and sharing my own family’s stories.

So it’s been a strange and twisty writing process, but I’m quite pleased by where it led to!
I owe a lot, of course, to my incredible team of creatives: my director Shoshana Bass, who is a phenomenal puppeteer and theatre artist in her own right; our puppet designer Valerie Meiss, who did an incredible job designing the puppets to actually look like the real people they’re based on; our costume designer Rada Manussen who researched 1940s circus outfits to make this show historically accurate; our producers Joe Brown and Nicola Murphy who helped me navigate unfamiliar territories and bring this show to life; and many others. It truly takes a village!

CM: Can we talk a bit about you, now? Can you tell us about your creative background? Did you always want to perform? How did your performing career begin, and how has it progressed?
SM: I started performing professionally when I was eleven, in a show based on ‘Oliver Twist’, and I haven’t really left the stage since! Most of my work has been in theatre and musical theatre, interpreting the work of others – as all actors do.

I worked with the National Yiddish Theatre in NYC, performed at the Edinburgh Fringe, did trapeze and silks acts in various venues. It took me over a decade to realise that, while I enjoy bringing other people’s vision to life, I am a highly opinionated person and I won’t rest until I write and create my own work about the things that interest and matter to me.

CM: Where do you see yourself headed in the future?
SM: This is only the second play I’ve ever written, and the first one that has autobiographical elements. Researching Irene’s story and bringing it to the stage gave me the courage to face my own family’s dark past and made me realise that this is the kind of art I want to make: raw, vulnerable, truthful and challenging.

Art is meant to be the mirror held up to the face of society, I have no interest in making art that is comfortable. One can make performances that are both entertaining and thought provoking, both deeply emotional yet hopeful. Irene’s story is like that, as is this show. It feels like she helped me find my voice, and I hope to create similar work in the future.

CM: What’s coming up next for you after this?
SM: We are touring the UK this autumn with dates in Bristol, Birmingham and Greater Manchester. After this tour I’m heading to Germany, where I will have the incredible – and slightly nerve-wracking – honour of performing this show in the very town Irene is from, at the synagogue her grandfather used to frequent. They invited my show to commemorate the anniversary of Kristallnacht. I can only assume that Irene’s children, whom I interviewed as part of my research and still live in the house that belonged to their family for generations, will be present in the audience.

‘The Escape Act – A Holocaust Memoir’ is on at Jackson’s Lane from 23-24 Sep. See the venue website here for more info and to book.

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Photo: Asaf Sagi