From Austria to Australia, new Australian play BRIGHT WORLD is a rich cross-cultural adventure where Jewish and Indigenous Australian worlds collide.
1938. Europe burns. Young Jewish lovers Hans and Alice Herskovics narrowly escape from Nazi-occupied Vienna.
Across the world, Australian Indigenous activist William Cooper leads protesters to the front door of Melbourne’s German Consulate to protest against Germany’s Nazi government. In an admirable act of cross-cultural solidarity with other victims of persecution, Cooper has one message—the repression of the Jewish people must end.
Almost eight decades later, two female playwrights—one the granddaughter of the Herskovics and the other a descendent of Cooper—come together to explore their diverse, yet strangely intertwined cultural heritages.
We caught up with co-writers Elise Hearst, a St Kilda local, and Andrea James, a Sydney-based playwright.
What is the Background to the play & William Cooper’s historic protest following Kristallnacht?
EH: The jumping off point for the project and play is where our worlds collide was the protest made by William Cooper at the German Consulate on behalf of the Jewish people following reports of Kristallnacht.
AJ: William Cooper was a Yorta Yorta man who grew up on Yorta Yorta country and he was schooled at the Maloga and Cummeragunja missions. He was educated by a very interesting man who was my great-great grandfather, Thomas Shadrach James, who came to the mission and taught a lot of the young men there English and politics and gave them a world view so there are many very important people that come from Cummeragunja and William Cooper is one of those and he helped found the Aborigines’ Advancement League and they commissioned a petition to the King and there was a lot of very political activity that sprung from Cummeragunja mission particularly after the walk off. Everybody walked off. Things became quite political. A very interesting and well-regarded man, and one of many we should say who went on to be politically active in Australia.
EH: I guess the march to the embassy was just one of many acts that he made, but it was of great significance to the Jewish community.
AJ: What we’re doing is, we’re trying to explore why would this group of people want to do this protest when things were so difficult for them? In their own country they had no rights, they couldn’t vote. What was it that enabled them to have this compassion for something half a world away? And I think that’s what really struck us, having personal experience with those two oppressed people but we think wider Australia and the world needs to know about this compassionate and moving act that has had such a resonance and I think interestingly a resonance many, many years after the event. It took a while for it to become known.
EH: It stands out because it was the only protest made at that time. In 1938 no-one else seemed to be protesting and these people who had suffered so much in their own land found it in themselves to speak up on behalf of another people when everyone else was silent.
What’s the genre of the play?
EH: In terms of genre the play has a bit of everything. Magic realism, comedy, tragedy, and absurdism.
AJ: There are three worlds that collide – the personal, the historical and political. Some of the worlds that come together seem quite unlikely and unusual, so it becomes an exciting mash-up.
EH: We’re telling the story of William Cooper and the background to his activism and the lead up to the protest at the German Consulate in Melbourne. We’re also looking at my grandparent’s flight from persecution in Austria and their coming to Australia. Then we’ve got Andrea and I who are actually in the play as ourselves – nutting it out and trying to figure out how to even write this play. So it’s kind of delving into the past, into the present and looking to the future.
Did you run into trouble around ideas of creative licence, historic responsibility & the politics of telling family stories?
EH: In terms of mixing fact and fiction and the politics of telling family stories, I had the easier gig with my grandparents and took a lot of poetic licence. I based it on an interview my grandfather gave to my father before he died, recounting his childhood and his journey to Melbourne. But as I didn’t know him (he died just after my birth and my grandmother died many years before) – I was able to expand on his stories and create scenes from them. I think Andrea had the more challenging role of writing this historical figure who is of great importance to many people.
AJ: That’s right, he’s very well regarded figure in the community and there are a lot of descendants – so it wasn’t just my own family story even though my great-great grandfather married his sister – it’s a broader macro-story within the aboriginal community so I think there is a lot of expectation that the story is told well and told correctly. But I guess that being said, it’s not a documentary and anything we do on stage is kind of hyper-real anyway and Elise and I are drawn towards drawing out the drama in the scenes and in the life of these people as well. It’s all based on true life experience but even the way we hear of these stories – the oral stories that get passed down – you know there is a degree of creative licence around what we do, what we do to make it happen on stage and bring it to life. What I’ve really enjoyed as a descendent has been to put myself in my ancestor’s shoes and ask, well what were the conversations they would have been having, what would they have been thinking? To put myself in those shoes has been a beautiful, heart-warming experience.
Actor vs Playwright, Playwright vs Playwright, what was it like taking on two roles in the play?
EH: Neither of us act very much and are both performing in the play. The most challenging part about it is that as a writer in a rehearsal room you are usually able to sit back, analyse and access your work as the actors play it out for you. It’s a very different experience to actually being in it. Having to feel your way through it. It’s good fun, if not terrifying and exhausting.
AJ: It’s that process in the rehearsal room as you go along of breaking away from your responsibilities as a writer. Ironically for me, I think the scenes that we have written about ourselves are less true to life than the ones that have come from our families. I think both of us have enjoyed exaggerating.
EH: We’re both caricatures of ourselves. I think the audience will enjoy that.
Can you explain what is meant by the ‘Bright World’ of the title?
EH: Bright World of the title refers to hope. It has been interesting discovering the parallels between our stories, and finding the points at which the stories overlap. It reveals a great humanity – these people who are just like us.
Why should people come see your play and what does it tell us about our history?
AJ: People should come to see this play because it is a very important part of Australia’s history. It says something about who we are and what we are. I think people from different communities and different backgrounds will probably get something different from the experience of the play as well.
EH: It’s so interesting because of the reality of Australia is that we are a mix of Aboriginal people and people who have settled here. This play examines that tension through the relationship that is developed between Andrea and I. We’re able to grapple with that. And I think there aren’t that many opportunities in theatre, or in life, where you can do that. It’s a very honest, open show which does talk about race and racism in a very open way – warts and all. And I think that’s good for people to see and experience.
AJ: And I think people will question their own assumptions and their own backgrounds and opinions they have about others who aren’t in their community. And I think that is what the Bright World of the play is you know. That idea that it is about understanding each other.
Don’t miss this must-see performance exploring the darkest and brightest aspects of human struggle and triumph.
Playing 13 – 30 April, Theatre Works, St Kilda
Written by Andrea James and Elise Hearst
Presented by Theatre Works and Arthur
Featured on VCE Drama Unit 3
From the creators of Cut Snake (Winner Best Drama Production 2013)
With performances by Guy Simon and Shari Sebbens (The Sapphires)