Space, Scale, Relationship: Writing for the Physical Theatre

by Joan Schirle

in Global Connections

Post image for Space, Scale, Relationship: Writing for the Physical Theatre

(Laura Muñoz, Ruxandra Cantir, and Joan Schirle in “Elisabeth’s Book”, Photo by Anthony Arnista)

(This post is part of the Global Connections grant program and blog salon.)

Without getting into trying to sort out the many definitions of physical theatre itself, let’s just say that what I’ve been working on for the past months is the writing of a play for the physical theatre, in this case a play with few words, centered around images, objects, and relationships, and developed collaboratively with the actors and the director/designer.

In the case of Elisabeth’s Book, the desire to reduce the amount of spoken word has more to do with the challenge of telling a huge story through means other than text and aiming towards international touring, rather than any general commitment to plays with few words. We’re working on a script that goes into full production later this summer.

I have written nearly two dozen plays, many of them collaboratively, many with lots of text, a few with little or no text, but always concerned with how humans encounter each other in space, how actors engage in the space of the stage with the audience and with each other. My writing for the physical theatre involves considering how space and time are moved as the characters occupy and move in space; sometimes this is the province of the director, but our director, Alain Schons, is part of the writing team. I invited Alain’s participation because we had been colleagues two decades ago and because he is both a director and designer used to working with physical theatre and object work, as well as having collaborated in the writing of several works of my company.

Because so much of our script is comprised of actions, with spoken text when necessary, our quartet of creators really had to be in the same space in order to write together. Schons lives in France, and our Global Connections grant was what allowed him to travel to the US to work with myself and the other two members of our writing/performing team, who are from Spain and Moldova. The overall project involves global connections to Canada, Hungary, Alsace, and Germany, at least.

The inspiration for this play concerns space, scale and relationship—of things to people, people to each other, the scale of time, distance and memory, even more so the ability of scale to reveal detail and give it importance. Four years ago, a TCG Fox Foundation grant allowed time for professional development, which included travel for voice study with master teachers. One of my trips was to the Banff Centre in Canada to work with teacher Richard Armstrong. A great thing about the Centre is the way in which artists from music, visual art, theatre, puppetry, film, etc. are in residence at the same time, with all of us sharing meals daily in the dining hall. One evening at dinner I met a Toronto visual artist, Thelma Rosner. On Open Studios Day, I wandered through the Visual Arts building to look at many artists’ work. Thelma was working on an exhibition of a series of large digital photographic prints, titled “Elisabeth’s Book.”

Photo by Carol Eckstein(Joan Schirle, Ruxandra Cantir, Laura Muñoz in “Elisabeth’s Book”, Photo by Carol Eckstein)

I’ve always been inspired by things that evidence the work of human hands. Her eight photographs were of flat metal objects, obviously made by hand, and with physical effort—there were visible marks of a file and some other sharp instrument that had scratched lines and even words in a couple of them. The scale of her images allowed me to see that the metal pieces were sewn to cloth, and in Thelma’s enlargements even the weave of the cloth was visible, the spatial engagement of thread in the simple warp/woof pattern that we all know as cloth.

I experienced a profound emotional shift when I saw these images of things crudely fashioned yet powerful, that seemed both banal and sacred at the same time. When I learned what the images were, I was further moved. Thelma had photographed a tiny cloth book, owned by a Hungarian relative, made as gift from one woman to another in a Nazi slave camp where they drilled grenades in a munitions factory.

In her enlargements I saw materials I associated with masculine energy—metal, tools, weapons—repurposed through the arts of sewing, weaving, embroidering, and the recycling of scrap from the grenade factory into symbols of domestic comforts — a cooking pot, a flower, a heart, a poem—symbols of life outside the camp. Later I came to see in these images, gestures of resistance, love, and means of survival, in the same way women recounted recipes in the camps, both as a way to forget their gnawing hunger and to remember life before the camps. I told Thelma I wanted to make a piece of theatre based on these images, though I had no idea what it would be, and she gave me her permission to use them.

The little book itself is a Holocaust ‘artifact’. It was made by two Hungarian prisoners for their friend Elisabeth, in a camp at Lippstadt in 1944. She survived and now lives in Toronto, where she has kept the book for 70 years. On the metal bit filed into a heart shape was scratched the name of the child taken from her in Auschwitz where she also lost the rest of her family. In 1996 she published a memoir recounting not only the months spent in the camp, but also three harrowing years spent as a DP, a ‘displaced person’, without papers, passport, money, or protectors.

As I pondered what kind of play this could be I wondered how to give voice to something so small in scale yet part of something as massive in scale as the Holocaust. I pondered if another Holocaust play could say anything that hadn’t already been said in films and plays about heroes, great artists, writers and scientists, etc. as opposed to a story about ordinary women caught up in events they didn’t predict or understand. I pondered what the survivor’s relationship was to this little book that she had kept safe through so many years of wandering, her relationship to the women who made it for her, what kind of space it occupied in her own memories that left her unable to even write down her story until the mid-90’s.

I thought for awhile that perhaps my own family history might have a role—my paternal grandmother was from Alsace. In 1944 130,000 Alsatians were conscripted by Hitler’s army and sent to the Eastern Front where 40,000 of them died. When we first started collaborating on the project in 2012, Alain and I made a trip to Alsace with his wife, Gail. He is from the Moselle Valley of Luxembourg, at one time just across the border from Alsace and occupied by the Germans in 1940. We pondered the fluidity of borders, of small countries caught between major powers.

As we finally began work on the script in 2013, it became clear that the story of displacement had to be a major theme (it’s sometimes called ‘the forgotten Holocaust’). Today, 70 years after the anniversary of D-Day, we call DP’s ‘refugees’. A global problem of epic scale, there are millions of them in countries around the world—refugees from wars of aggression, civil war, tribal war, religious war, wars over resources, borders and territories, deportees, political refugees, and those ‘resettled’ within their own countries. My feelings of helplessness in the face of their turmoil seem like something experienced by many of us who live in relative freedom.

I pondered what the relationship of the play is to an audience, given the awfulness of a story for which there is no good ending, only accommodation. I pondered how we would take the small scale object that inspired my writing and give it theatrical size and weight. We started by creating a scene in which 3 women spend an afternoon reading poetry, loving books, dancing among books, foreshadowing the need for books even in the direst of conditions. We didn’t want to sentimentalize the events of 1944 and we didn’t want to minimize the cruelty and deprivation experienced by the three women. As we wrestled on with how to make this play, we kept coming back to the little book and to the way the women coped with the awfulness of their situation. I think that ultimately, Elisabeth’s Book exists to remind us that creative acts help us to survive and that our best hope of surviving the worst of times is through friendship.

JS head Petrolia Joan Schirle is Founding Artistic Director of Dell’Arte International (DAI), the ensemble known for collaborative creation and global touring since 1977. An actor, playwright, director, deviser, and teacher, her acting work was recognized with a 2006 Fox Foundation/TCG Resident Actor Fellowship. In 2004 she was honored at the 16th Cairo International Experimental Theatre Festival as a leader in the field of experimental theatre. She has directed productions at San Diego Rep, the Alley, Bloomsburg Ensemble, A Traveling Jewish Theatre, Touchstone Ensemble, Colorado University, and DAI. She has performed with DAI, Yale Rep, the California Shakespeare Festival, and San Diego Rep. Her solo mask show, Second Skin, has been seen in many US and international cities. She has authored/co-authored two dozen plays, including Elisabeth’s Book, which will premiere at Dell’Arte’s 2014 Mad River Festival.


The Global Connections program was designed by TCG and is funded by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Learn more here.

  • Joan Schirle

    Since I wrote this blog post, Elisabeth Raab died in Toronto in Dec. 2015. In August, 2016 a memorial was held for her in the Hungarian village of Szemere, where she grew up. Her son David, who had come to see our production in Blue Lake, invited me to attend the memorial. Both director Alain Schons, his wife Gail, and myself were able to be present for the day-long memorial. Also in attendance were 15 members of Raab’s family from Toronto and another dozen Hungarian members of the family. We traveled an hour by bus from Budapest to the events in the rural town, walking then from Christian church to WW2 memorial to Holocaust memorial to Jewish cemetery to a banquet hosted by the former mayor of Szemere. It was an incredibly moving day of memory and atonement.