At the Old Vic in London, the “Camp Siegfried” investigates the American Nazis

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By JILL LAWLESS

LONDON (AP) – What could be more American than a summer camp? There’s fresh air, sailing, barbecues and, in Bess Wohl’s new play, swastikas.

“Camp Siegfried” is based on an actual camp on Long Island in the 1930s that indoctrinated young German-Americans into Nazi ideology. The play has its opening night on Friday at the Old Vic Theater in London, the venue’s first performance to a full capacity audience since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.

Photos from the period show teenagers in brown shirts parading with Nazi flags, 100 kilometers east of Manhattan. Like many Americans, Wohl was unaware of this hidden piece of history – until she found herself stranded by a pandemic at a rental home on Long Island, near the camp site.

“It was the pandemic, I was at home and I became really obsessed with the fact that there had been this camp 10 minutes from where we were,” said the Newborn writer. York, whose plays include “Small Mouth Sounds” – set in a silent retreat – and the divorce comedy “Grand Horizons,” which took place on Broadway just before the virus hit.

“I started driving the streets which, of course, looked like those mundane suburban streets of Long Island. But that, I had found out, was once called Hitler Street and Goebbels Street and all those things that looked like to me. incomprehensible. “

The Siegfried Camp was one of many sponsored by the German-American Bund that aimed to sow Nazi ideology on American soil. The area later became a quiet area, with bungalows lining the streets named after the rulers of the Third Reich. The names are long gone, but the rules requiring properties to be sold to people of German descent persisted into the 21st century.

Wohl’s research inspired his drama about two campers – a 16-year-old girl and a 17-year-old boy – whose fledgling relationship clashes with the insidious ideology of Nazism.

“I was interested in how this moment when you form your identity and find out who you are is so fragile and how easily you can fall into something really dangerous and evil without even knowing it,” Wohl told the Associated Press.

Wohl began writing the play during the 2020 U.S. Election Campaign, and although she never mentions modern politics or Donald Trump, she notes that the dangers the play explores are “not as far out as one might think. to think “.

Director Katy Rudd has said that how extreme ideas take root and develop is far too relevant an issue in our “increasingly polarized” 21st century world.

“We live in a different kind of echo chambers today – they’re online,” said Rudd, who directs actors Patsy Ferran and Luke Thallon in the Two-Handed movie, which runs through October 30. . “Misinformation breathes life into the far right; conspiracy theories and groups can go around the world in minutes. You don’t have to go to camp to figure that out anymore.

For the screenwriter, cast and crew, the subject of the play is no less amazing than the fact that the performance takes place. London theaters were closed in March 2020 and are only now reopening at full capacity, following the lifting of social distancing rules in England in July.

The pandemic has been devastating for the UK’s theater community, with thousands of performers and technicians laid off, or in supermarket delivery driver jobs – a booming new industry. Many theater companies have received a financial lifeline from the government, but they still face uncertainty and fear that COVID-19 could rise again in the winter.

Rudd has been working for the past year on the Old Vic behind-the-scenes drama series, which aired live to viewers around the world, a small bright spot in the pandemic. Wohl even managed to stage a play – “Lust,” which is part of a series about the Seven Deadly Sins being staged in Miami and New York storefronts over the summer.

For the cast and crew, being back in a theater and in front of an audience means wearing a mask, viral vigilance, and frequent COVID-19 testing. They say it’s worth it.

“I’m pretty emotional about it,” said Thallon, whose credits include Tom Stoppard’s “Leopoldstadt” in the West End and “Present Laughter” at the Old Vic.

“I haven’t worked like this, in close proximity to another actor – where we can play and challenge each other and have fun and surprise each other freely – since March 2020,” he said. “I don’t know how I would have done it if you told me it would be a year and a half, because that’s all I want to do. I just want to do plays. And I can’t imagine a world where doing them is made even more difficult than it is now.

Ferran, whose performance in Tennessee Williams’ “Summer and Smoke” won the Olivier Award for Best Actress in 2019, said she felt the same mixture of excitement and dread for her industry.

“It will be hard work,” she said. “But there is a lot of fighting to keep this going.”


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