What could be more American than summer camp? It has fresh air, sailing, cookouts – and, in Bess Wohl’s new game, swastikas.
“Camp Siegfried” is based on a camp in reality on Long Island in the 1930s that indoctrinated young German-Americans into Nazi ideology. The play opens Friday at London’s Old Vic Theater, the venue’s first full-length show for audiences since the coronavirus pandemic began.
Images from the era show brown shirts wearing teens parading with Nazi flags, 100 miles east of Manhattan. Like many Americans, Wohl was unaware of that piece of hidden history — until she found herself pandemically stranded in a rental home on Long Island, close to the camp site.
“It was the pandemic I was at home and I was just really obsessed with having been to this camp 10 minutes away from where we lived,” said the New York-born author, whose plays include “Small Mouth Sounds” – put in a quiet retreat – and the divorce comedy “Grand Horizons,” which had a Broadway run just before the virus struck.
“I started driving around the streets, which of course looked like the banal suburbs of Long Island. But I had found out once called Hitler Street and Goebbels Street and all these things that just sounded incomprehensible to me.”
Camp Siegfried was one of several sponsored by the German-American Bund, which aimed to sow Nazi ideology on American soil. The area later became a quiet neighborhood with bungalows along streets named after leaders of the Third Reich. The names are long gone, but rules requiring properties to be sold to people of German descent continued into the 21st century.
Wohl’s research inspired her drama about two campers — a 16-year-old girl and a 17-year-old boy — whose budding relationship collides with the insidious ideology of Nazism.
“I was interested in the way that the moment 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 knowing it,” Wohl said. to the Associated Press.
Wohl began writing the play during the U.S. election campaign in 2020, and although it never mentions modern politics or Donald Trump, she notes that the dangers the play explores are “not as far away as we might think.”
Director Katy Rudd said the way extreme ideas take root and grow is an all-too-relevant problem in our “increasingly polarized” world in the 21st century.
“We live in a different kind of echo chambers today — they are online,” said Rudd, who heads actors Patsy Ferran and Luke Thallon in the two-handed retailer, which runs through Oct. 30. “Misinformation gives oxygen to the far right. Groups and conspiracy theories can flash around the world in minutes. You don’t have to go to camp anymore to understand that.”
For the writer, cast and cast, the subject of the play is no less fantastic than the performance at all. The London theaters were closed in March 2020 and will only reopen now at full capacity following the repeal of the rules on social distancing in England in July.
The pandemic has been devastating to Britain’s theater community, with thousands of artists and technicians thrown out of work or into jobs as supermarket suppliers – a new boom industry. Many stage companies have been given an economic lifeline by the government, but they are still facing uncertainty and fears of COVID-19 may rise again in the winter.
Over the past year, Rudd has been working on Old Vic’s In Camera series with live-streamed plays, played to viewers around the world, a little positive from the pandemic. It even managed to stage a play – “Lust”, part of a series about the seven deadly sins that were performed in storefronts in Miami and New York during the summer.
For cast and crew, that means being back in a theater and in front of an audience mask-wearing, virus alertness and frequent COVID-19 tests. They say it’s worth it.
“I’m pretty emotional about it all,” said Thallon, whose credits include Tom Stoppard’s “Leopoldstadt” in the West End and “Present Latter” at Old Vic.
“I have not worked like that in close proximity with another actor – where we can play and challenge and have fun and surprise each other freely – since March 2020,” he said. “I do not know how I would have fared if you had told me it would be a year and a half, because that’s all I want to do. I just want to do acting. And I can not imagine a world where it will be even harder to make them than it is at the moment. ”
Ferran, whose performance in Tennessee Williams’ “Summer and Smoke” won a Best Actress Olivier Award in 2019, said she felt the same mix of excitement and fear for her industry.
“It’s going to be hard work,” she said. “But there is a lot of struggle to continue.”