Lights, Action, Camera
by Sheila Eldred
German language students explore age-old questions of coexistence on stage
When first-year student Iman Hassan initially read the script of Nathan der Weise, the 1779 play by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, the character she was to play was incomprehensible.
Indeed, Daja, a Christian governess, is one of the least tolerant characters in the play. "At the beginning when I read my character's script, I had no idea what she was thinking," Hassan says. "It's so poetic, you have to take it apart to be able to portray that."
When Professor Rick McCormick signed on to direct his third German play, he settled on Lessing's classic for its message of tolerance among Christians, Jews, and Muslims. "It's as relevant now as ever, if not more so," he says.
And when the class performed the play last April at the St. Paul Student Center Theater, the audience of high school students, alumni, family, and friends found the acting impressive and enjoyed the surprisingly modern, happy ending.
Perhaps even more impressed than the audience were the nine student actors themselves. A German play has been performed about every two years since the 1940s. McCormick first acted in it in 1989 and first directed it in 1999. Each time, the students "get an experience collaborating in a creative process," he says. "This is a play with a small cast, so it's a very intensely personal experience. And it's a tremendous bonding experience, a way of learning something in much more depth."
The students agree.
"It's just kind of nerdy and cool," says Jessica Mann, a senior German, global studies, and journalism major who played Nathan's daughter, Recha, in the play. "When I was deciding if I should register for this class, I thought, 'Where else am I ever going to get another chance to do theater and have it be in German?' "
German 4040 was also a perfect fit for Andrew Steevens, an aerospace engineering major who performed in his second German play; he grew hair and a beard to play the part of Nathan. Like his classmates, Steevens was drawn to the play because of its poetic language and its message.
"My character is the voice of Lessing's philosophy," Steevens says. "It's intriguing to portray a character who's so much like Lessing. The moral is tolerance. In my monologues, I talk about how no religion is any different from or better or truer than any other.
"The play ends up saying that religion is based on history, and history is only believed through faith--and it only makes sense to accept the faith of those who have loved us. It's only to be expected."
Mann notes that Nathan der Weise was the first play performed in post-Holocaust Germany, significant because of its message of religious tolerance.
The language is "somewhat archaic," McCormick says, so it takes some digging and studying to find that message. Eric Baker, assistant professor and an 18th-century specialist, was tapped to be co-director because of his depth of knowledge of the play.
After a semester of study, the students came to a deep understanding of the work. "We had the whole semester to study the language of the play and pull the meaning apart," Hassan says. The repetition improved not only the students' understanding of this particular play, says Mann, but also their German skills in general.
"You can tell when someone is giving a speech and doesn't know what's being said," McCormick says. "There's also a lot of work on pronunciation, getting the emphasis on the right part of a sentence or a word." Indeed, in one of the final rehearsals, McCormick helped the students fine-tune their speech: emphasis on the first syllable, he corrects. Maybe a bit louder. More impatiently.
The class also got lessons in every aspect of theater. Students registered for one to three credits, depending on how involved they planned to be. Most had already studied German extensively; interestingly, four of the nine actors have majors outside the College of Liberal Arts. Besides Steevens in aerospace engineering, Mike Weitekamp studies marketing, Ted Griggs double majors in biology and physiology, and Jason Houle is a chemistry major. "One of the stand-outs for me was the diversity of majors, all with exceptional German skills," says McCormick.
Weitekamp, who played the Christian patriarch of Jerusalem and constructed elements of the sets, says he'd always wanted to know everyone in a class. With nine students and two directors--and no professional crew--he finally got that opportunity. "We did our own costumes, we did the design, the set, the publicity," Weitekamp says.
"There's no technical director, no other labor besides the nine students and two professors," McCormick says. "It's very daunting to pull it all together."
The first step was to edit the script into a manageable length. Memorizing lines proved to be a challenging task with an unfinished script and long speeches in antiquated German.
During a final rehearsal, minute prop details were discussed: would a rice bag or a pillowcase look more authentic as a sack?
The play is set in the Middle East during the Crusades, and the performance featured costumes (many created by Hassan and her mother) that suggested the Middle Ages. Special effects included contemporary images of fires in Iraq and images of burning Jewish homes and synagogues destroyed by Nazi-led mobs during Kristallnacht in November 1938.
"It's nerve-wracking," McCormick says, reflecting on the effort that goes into putting on the performance, "but then you see it coming together with the costumes and the lighting. It's gratifying to see an artwork that is dependent on so many people's contributions come to completion."
And ultimately, Hassan, who is Muslim, even became forgiving of her character's flaws.
"It's interesting, as a Muslim, to play an intolerant Christian," she says. "In the end, her identity has become very close to me; it's amazing to know one character so well. The whole experience has brought up so many things I didn't know I was capable of."
Missed Nathan the Wise in April? Find clips from the show at www.youtube.com/umncla.