Michael Slate Interview

The Red Dress: Standing Against Nazism

November 20, 2017 | Revolution Newspaper | revcom.us


The Michael Slate Show airs every week at 10 am Pacific Time on KPFK 90.7 FM in Los Angeles, a Pacifica Network station. The show can also be streamed live here and people can listen to or download archived shows here.

Revolution/revcom.us features interviews from The Michael Slate Show to acquaint our readers with the views of significant figures in art, theater, music and literature, science, sports, and politics. The views expressed by those interviewed are, of course, their own; and they are not responsible for the views published elsewhere by Revolution/revcom.us.

The following are excerpts from a November 17, 2017 Michael Slate interview with playwright Tania Wisbar and actor Laura Liguori.

Michael Slate: I recently saw a play that I’ve been thinking about and talking about ever since, one of the most powerful plays I’ve seen so far this year. It was about something that I think everybody should be thinking about. The play itself is called The Red Dress and it’s really an incredibly important play so today I’m very pleased to be talking with playwright Tania Wisbar and actor Laura Liguori. I’m going to jump right into this because there is so much to talk about. Maybe what we’ll do is we’ll start with you, Tania. Describe the play.

Tania Wisbar: The Red Dress is about, it actually started with a question which I had very, very young, because I grew up in Germany. I was born in Germany and because I didn’t know very much about my family because my mother, who was a single parent at that time, really never talked about the past, never talked about that she’d been married to a very prominent German film director, my father, Frank Wisbar. He had used her connections when she was in Germany, she grew up in a prominent German film family and through her, he became a very prominent and well-known German film director. Then the Nazis came to power and he made films for the Nazis and my mother was Jewish. She was followed by the Gestapo all the time, pressuring her to divorce him and to leave. She didn’t do that; actually she stood up and fought the Nazis through radio and her own public image, which was a pretty strong one.

The question that started the play was really how does a civilized country, small, incremental steps at a time, begin to accept the notion that other people are not equal, have no rights, and can ultimately be murdered, slaughtered by the millions? So that was the question. I began to look at the one period that people don’t really look at very seriously and it is the most serious part of that century, what set up World War 2 and the Holocaust and the Nazis? So the play is time-framed between 1924 (the end of WW 1) and as Hitler comes to power but the play stops in 1936 because I did not want this to be a Holocaust play, but I wanted it very much to focus on what causes the loss of democracy.

We’re watching that, I hate to say, in the United States, it’s now a question of step by step by step—are we losing our way altogether or can we redeem ourselves and our reverence for democratic principles where we are all equal?

Michael Slate: Now, one more question here because actually as I understand it, before you did this play, there was something that happened in relation to you discovering some material that your mother had written that actually sort of, turned on big lights in your head.

Tania Wisbar: Yes, it was an absolute shock because my sister and I, she’s two years older than I am, and we were pretty well grown up without much of a history, we didn’t know that our mother was Jewish, we didn’t have any religious background; we didn’t have any network that we belonged to. In 1999 I was living in Los Angeles and I got a Sunday morning call; it was a very heavy male German voice at the other end saying, “Are you Tania Wisbar?” and I said, “Yes”―not too happily because I have gotten some weird calls over the years. And he said, “I’m a German research professor and I’m now at Harvard University Library basement and I just found an 88-page manuscript your mother wrote in 1939.” This was in 1999, so it had been there 60 years and my mother had passed away by then and he said, “Would you like me to fly out and bring it to you?” I said yes; I wasn’t absolutely sure of what was next so he did come and he brought the manuscript. It answered every question I had ever had about my parents and the erosion of their marriage due to the Nazification of the German film industry, which my father for a while worked making films for the Nazis. That was just a huge blow.

Michael Slate: Yeah, I can imagine. Is that why it took you so long to decide to make the play? Because maybe people would bug you about it and you’d say, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, we’ll talk about it later,” and then 15 years later you make the film.

[Tania Wisbar laughs]

Tania Wisbar: Actually the only person who ever bugged me was Jonathan Sanger because he was my partner on Birthday Present 2050, which is a cheerless, dystopian play. Instead, The Red Dress, which is a romantic story set against the rise of a tyranny. But I did read it finally, the manuscript, and it was fortunately in German, which I don’t read that well, so it was a little bit of a buffer. I couldn’t read it all, so I didn’t have to take it all in; I could hide a little bit from what it was revealing. And I knew I would have to write about it at some point so I did think about it, but I didn’t have to think about it for 15 years. Then I realized I really had to write it so I had to get ready psychologically and the odd thing is that it did such emotional damage even though I thought I’d thought about it enough, but I hadn’t. There’s no way to write about so tragic a period in history and your own family. You think you know your family? Well if you write about them or start to you will find out you don’t know your family at all. It’s just a shock. So instead of trying to adapt my parents, Eva Wisbar and Frank Wisbar, I used them to derive the characters of Alexandra Schiele and Franz Weitrek. I was very lucky in the casting of Laura as Alexandra because I think she’s just wonderful.

Michael Slate: And now we’ll go over to Laura because I have to agree, I was just mesmerized by your performance in the play. I thought it was really remarkable. And it’s a hard one because when you go into the play and you’re thinking OK, now I’m watching this play about this Nazi that gets married to this woman but you’re sort of like, where do I go with this? I thought you brought home something that was really important; you brought home a lot of the humanity in the play, which was, from the very moment that you stepped onto the stage and the interaction you have with the various people at that point, and then all the way through I thought you brought a lot of really necessary humanity into it.

Laura Liguori: It helps that my character is based on Tania’s mother, so it’s a real person. I derive a lot of my choices from the strength that I can feel from her mother, what she had to actually go through and up against and fight for. People who are strong like that tend to have huge hearts and strength really comes from love. There is an aspect of my character that is incredibly loving and wants to have a family despite all of this around her, wants to create life even though things are falling apart.

Michael Slate: Yeah, it’s important. But there’s also something here that really got me. There is something there that thematically was very important: the times seems so normal. We have the advantage of being out of that history, way back from it, we can look back. But even doing that you’re sitting there and you’re going I know the Nazis, I know what they meant in the world, they did all this other stuff but when you present it the way it’s presented, it’s actually so normal. Like your character is very normal in the relationship with the man and in her life and her career and everything else. It’s really normal and yet what you’ve done, setting it the way you’ve done it, is everybody knows that the background is the Nazis are gearing up to do terrible things in the world. I thought that was really important the way that you played that—it was very, very sort of systematically normal.

Tania Wisbar: I think it was absolutely a challenge for me as the playwright, to make it all look normal because if you weren’t the target of hatred, for you, you could still live a perfectly normal life. Of course the German people did continue to live a normal life until, in my mother’s manuscript there’s a wonderful line; she said, “They build a fence through which no Jew could get at the end but it turned out they were all imprisoned inside their own fence.” Because all the passports were taken away from military age boys and men. When Hitler first came to power he had a Hitler Youth Movement, we all know that, and the German boys were allowed to go to Switzerland and to Austria and all that. But as the Nazis totally controlled what happened to the children, they were no longer allowed out except in uniform. So normalcy does not belong in any country where war is being created or hatred is given room to grow. And we’re watching that here and I think we are all quite terrified though we’re still going around normally and going to shop, right? We’re driving our cars or complaining about the traffic in Los Angeles but it doesn’t mean that we are safe. We’re just not safe.

Michael Slate: Yeah, that’s a very important point. I was thinking about that very deeply after seeing the play and then reading some stuff around it, too. One thing I’d ask you, Laura, there’s a point in the play where you’re confronting your husband and it’s clear that there’s been this crackdown, it’s sort of the way that fascism develops, they do something hard then they back up a little bit and let people get used to it; then they do something hard again. Something had just happened, and the two of you were in a room and there’s a point where he’s telling you that you have to wear this dress, you have to do this, you have to do that, he makes a comment about some other grouping of people that was clearly Nazi rhetoric, and you had this look on your face and I don’t know whether it was written this way or you just did it this way because it was brilliant. You had this look that was like you stopped and it was just sort of this quizzical but also very horrified look on your face because it seemed like there was a realization that your husband was going in a really wrong direction.

Laura Liguori: Well, there are many moments that I feel that that actually happen in the play, and it happens more and more each performance, I notice that this underlying current is there sooner and sooner each performance for me because I guess I’m just picking up on little things that even the actor, J. B. Waterman, is doing that makes me very uncomfortable, the character uncomfortable on stage. In one specific part when he asks me to help him with his tie and in the mirror reflection I see that his bow tie has the swastikas on it and that’s just horrible. My character fell in love with a man that she believed was her soulmate and she watches him basically sell out his own core beliefs so that he can make films. So yeah, it’s devastating, that part.

Tania Wisbar: Writing the play, particularly the character of her husband, Franz, that was such a challenge because I really patterned it after my father and he did make films before the Nazis in Germany, during the Nazis, and then after he had made it to the United States, not as a refugee as we came, my mother and sister and I, we were refugees; he wasn’t. He just came. Then it turned out the U.S. Senate wanted to hear his opinion about glider, starting a glider program for the United States Air Force. But when I first wrote him, he was so horrible, I realized nobody in the audience would sit still for that, so I had to really work to find him redemption, and I do but then I was no longer using him as my role model, either. That is really what allowed the play to finally get finished. If I hadn’t had his real history as a glider pilot in the German First World War, I couldn’t have found any way to end that play so I was very grateful.

Michael Slate: That period... because that period between those early years of the ’30s and the late years of the ’30s was a period, as we were saying, all this stuff is going on but all the people were saying stuff like, “Well my neighbor’s gone, I guess they moved.” Or I’ve read books more recently about how neighbors being driven out and being put on buses and trains and the people would go and loot the apartments, the empty apartments. There was that normalcy that actually really comes through the entire relationship until you make that snap look like—what? What the hell are you talking about? Which I think is really important, the way it’s carried out because you’ve got the audience right there and everybody’s starting to question but then bam, and it doesn’t come until you get that look that sort of says, okay now some stuff is going to start going.

There’s a moment where an ideological question is posed and I thought it was so great and we won’t say what is done, but it involves a very dramatic move by you, Laura, that ideologically really sets things very, very importantly for people. It’s the moment when you actually, basically decide to lay bare what’s there. It was sort of too much, you know? You could have written a character as one that would say yeah, OK, I will just try to get by, I’ll try to sneak by, I’ll try to get myself and get the kids out of the country and do all this other stuff, but there had to be this moment where in the face of terrible inhumanity that one person had to stand up and do one thing.

Laura Liguori: I think that it’s really important that people use their voice and I have always wondered, ever since I was a little girl, I have been really affected by the Holocaust. I wondered how, how does this happen? How does it get to a point where you are killing children? You’re murdering children; you’re asking them to sing as you take them into a gas chamber. How does this even occur? And a few years ago I worked for a not-so-nice woman and I witnessed something happen, an individual, an elderly woman crashed into her wall in Bel Air and I watched my employer and other wealthy neighbors around looking at the crack, the hairline crack on the wall, talking about whose property it was on and insurance things, as this poor woman died. It was then that I realized this is how it happens, the first thing is when you literally just worry about your own self, how everything just affects you, to the point where its all about money and greed and selfishness and your world is about protecting your little bubble. Meanwhile, like, the human beings around you that are suffering, you care not because its not you. And that’s the beginning of how I think it happens.

Tania Wisbar: Well, that’s the whole point really of placing this play exactly between the end of one war and as another one is being planned, so people can keep asking the question “What is this slow slide?” And it’s not abrupt, it is very slow, it’s giving up one right for everybody else at a time. So that’s exactly, I mean, that’s why it stayed, I didn’t let the play go into the Holocaust because we know that story; we’ve seen that story. We think we understand it but frankly we’ll never understand it. There is evil that you can’t understand. Certainly the children, and I grew up with those images and that is probably why it was school for developmentally disabled children and why this play was so important, ultimately.

Michael Slate: Definitely, and that gets the last question I was going to ask you so we’ve already spoken to it, but it is exactly that point. There’s a point where you’re confronted with this horror and you do have to do something, you do have to say or do something. You remind people, there was something I read that you wrote, you remind people that it doesn’t happen in a day, it happens over a period of time and a certain, an advancing willingness of people to turn their face away, and to believe that it’s not really happening and not even care that it’s happening and that’s the big thing because, why I really liked you having it in that time period... everyone knows historically what happened. But what if, the person who―your character, Laura—what if the person that you had written, Tania, imagine if that person... if there had been millions of those people doing what that person did then things would have been different. And we’re confronted with something very, very similar to this today.

Laura Liguori: Yes

Michael Slate: It’s frightening and concerning and we really got to do something about it.

Tania Wisbar: And it’s what we do that remains the question. What do we do?

Michael Slate: Exactly, exactly.



Volunteers Needed... for revcom.us and Revolution

Send us your comments.

If you like this article, subscribe, donate to and sustain Revolution newspaper.