“hOMAge” is a journey through the letters of a WWII refugee who refuses to let the inherited trauma of the past define her future

Original poster designed by Melody Often, 2014

“hOMAge” shows us the way theater and movement can breathe new life into stories of the past. The work employs physical theater to explore the letters and poetry of the director’s grandmother, Hella Kurth (“Oma” in German), a WWII refugee, cancer survivor and yogini. Devised by The Clearing Collaborative Ensemble and directed by Natanya Ruth Silverman, it is part narrative, part movement piece.

Silverman was inspired to create “hOMAge” as a way of sharing the words and wisdom of her grandmother with others, words that have helped guide her own path in life. She had a group of letters from her grandmother spanning a fifty year period, and the correspondences covered everything from how to live a fulfilling life to ruminations on the way life shifts and changes. Silverman said that after the strong reactions the letters elicited when she shared them with friends, bringing some to tears, she knew she wanted to find a way to share the words with a larger audience. Thus with ‘hOMAge” we get to temporarily look at the world through Kurth’s eyes and let her words touch us.

Hella Kurth (photo from truthruth8.wix.com/the-clearing)

The piece is devised by the all-female Clearing Collaborative Ensemble of choreographers, musicians, and actors who create the physical and emotional world of the story. Silverman says that she always knew she wanted this to be a show with a lot of strong women because the letters are very much about womanhood. The story is a narrative about the women in her grandmother’s lineage and a meditation on the “female artist voice that wants to be expressed but has been stifled over generations.” The show zooms out to see how certain mindsets carry across generations, looking at Silverman’s great-grandmother who was discouraged from being a singer, and how Kurth stifled her own creative impulse to focus on raising a family. With “hOMAge,” Silverman breaks the cycle of three generations of women who felt they had to silence and repress their artistic sides, literalizing this idea in the show with the “woman in paper,” who is the one who finds Kurth’s letters and though initially overwhelmed, reaches an epiphany about how everything before her became “stopped up.” This woman realizes the importance of expression through creation, finally able to turn over a new leaf after honoring and understanding the past.

Silverman started acting at a young age in a professional children’s theater company and knew right away it was where she was at home. This exposed her early on to all elements of theater creation and the process that goes into a show. She minored in theater in college but since she didn’t see theater as a way to make a living, she started working as a teacher. She directed plays at her school and got a grant to bring back its theater curriculum, pulling her back into the theater world. She is drawn to physical theater and devised work and since 2008 she has focused on this less-traditional style that works to “express the cumulative consciousness of all the collaborators.” Her desire to keep learning about movement theater led her to train in mask-making, mime, character development and collaborative theater with Dell ‘Arte International in Northern California, The Grotowski Institut in Brezinska, Poland and Ecole Internationale de Theatre Jacques Lecoq in Paris. She is currently studying physical dance theater in India to continue developing a unique approach for devising work. She is constantly seeking to learn new things and gather tools to incorporate into her creation and rehearsal process.

The 2014 cast rehearsing “hOMAge” (photo from truthruth8.wix.com/the-clearing)

“hOMAge” is a devised theater work, which Silverman describes as something that has a concept, theme, or text as its foundation. This is a radical approach that trusts the impulses of the body to guide the creation process. The actors explore how their bodies can be used to tell the story and brainstorm personal stories, poems and songs that relate to core themes of the text. For “hOMAge” Silverman says the actors pulled out lines from Kurth’s letters that meant something to them and would improvise scenes or physical images to evoke the text. She would then film these images and the group would discuss what did and didn’t work to determine the strongest elements that would permanently remain in the show, adding to the layers of dialogue and movement. The process is in many ways just as important as the final product and Silverman says it fosters a collaborative environment that incorporates the actors into the story and encourages a personal connection. Silverman has been working on making more shows like this because she is drawn to this cathartic process. The strong emotion that spurs each of her pieces creates something both poignant and authentic.

Silverman and the original cast of hOMAge from 2014 (photo from truthruth8.wix.com/the-clearing)

The ensemble will be dressed in all white to unify them as well as to turn their bodies into projection screens for stop animation images and even old family photos from her grandmother’s journal. The show will also use paper and pieces of cardboard but there’s no fixed set–the actors themselves will create the space. This approach pushes the actors be be creative in how they bring this world to life for audiences, constantly testing the boundaries of communication and how we can tell a story using physical movements. Yoga plays an important role in guiding these physical movements and Silverman says this stems from the fact that Kurth practiced yoga for over 50 years and it greatly influenced her life philosophy. Silverman knew in making this piece that she wanted to become yoga certified (she did this is 2013 in Thailand) and incorporate it into the show. At the beginning of every rehearsal she uses yoga and meditation to help center the group and give them calm and focus, and yoga’s conventions also guide the way the ensemble moves and understands their own physicality.

In “hOMAge” the actors are on stage the entire time and during a particular scene some might be speaking, others creating the set, others the soundscape. This unconventional approach leads to every step and gesture being “precise and timed because everyone is holding the space for each other and creating every moment.” Music plays an important role in the work with some of the actors singing, something Silverman has never incorporated into “hOMAge.” The music is largely the result of vocal sound effects with only small hand instruments used and every actor plays a role in bringing this music to life. She says that three of the women in the ensemble serve as the band for the show and have written songs using her grandmother’s words. Silverman gave some of the cast members lines or words from the letters to serve as a springboard for their experimentation and creation of these songs. Many of the songs elicit Kurth’s world and Germany of the 1940s. Music will also be playing as the audience walks in to the theater, as if they are walking into an ongoing story. Silverman breaks the fourth wall by letting the audience get a look behind the scenes before the show starts to deformalize the theater process and incorporate each of us into the process of bringing the piece to life.

Cast from the 2014 version of “hOMAge” (photo from truthruth8.wix.com/the-clearing)

“hOMAge” has been continually developing over the years and there have been various renditions of it, each enabling Silverman to find new “beautiful nuggets” in the letters and think of fresh ways to bring them to the performance realm. Silverman says there is always room to explore new elements of the story and excavate them in greater depth. She describes the show as “ever-evolving” and she knows that the way for it to live and grow is through the creativity, energy and voices of others. She says it is exciting and rewarding to watch the piece transform and take on new life through this process, saying, “this is the work that I’m meant to be doing. I love everything about it.” What makes “hOMAge” so powerful is that it shows us the way art fosters community and interconnectedness, tying together people from vastly different worlds and unifying their stories. Silverman hopes that sharing her grandmother’s words will touch people and empower women to continue to break the cycle by contributing their talents and voices.

Director Natanya Ruth Silverman

By Maia Sacca-Schaeffer

Theater for the New City’s 2015 Dream Up Festival will present the work September 17 to 20 at Producers’ Club Theaters, 358 West 44th Street.

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