The Woman is Present: Women’s Stories of WWII performed by Smashing Times at Jean Monnet House, Paris, France

Smashing Times continue to experience great success with the unique play The Woman is Present: Women’s Stories of WWII by Mary Moynihan, Fiona Thompson, Paul Kennedy and new writer Féilim James with an exciting performance in Paris, France, of an extract from the play. The extract is titled At Summer’s End, written by Féilim James, performed by Carla Ryan and directed by Dr Eric Weitz. Below is an account of the day and how live performance can impact powerfully on an audience in relation to historical remembrance.

On Thursday, 24 October, 2019, Smashing Times producer Freda Manweiler and actor Carla Ryan attended and participated in the conference ‘Taking stock of European Memory Policies in 2019’ in Paris. The event was organised and hosted by Jean Monnet House (European Parliament), in cooperation with the European Observatory on Memories, and the European Commission. In attendance were groups such as the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, the Holocaust Education Trust, the heads of various prominent organisations, and established researchers such as Markus J Prutsch and Sarah Gensburger.

As the conference came to a close, producer Freda Manweiler from Smashing Times gave a presentation outlining how the multi-story play The Woman is Present: Women’s Stories from WWII was developed as part of a European-wide project Women War and Peace supported by Europe for Citizens. The play is a creative reimagining of moments from the lives of women from Ireland, Spain, Germany and Poland during WWII recalling stories of bravery, sacrifice and love amidst the horror of war, as women stood up against Fascism and totalitarianism and refused to accept oppression. Freda’s presentation was then followed by one of the pieces from the play, At Summer’s End by Féilim James, performed by Carla Ryan and based on the life story of Irish woman Ettie Steinberg.

Following a day of talks, discussions, and workshops, it’s reasonable to say that by the time Carla got up to perform At Summer’s End from The Woman is Present: Women’s Stories of WWII, the audience was already well-inspired and getting ready to wind down – such was the outstanding scale and quality of the conference, offering up engaging event after event.

However, as artist Carla Ryan began, animating Féilim James’ script with a characteristic attention to detail, her performance, under the inventive direction of Dr Eric Weitz, breathed new life into the room.

Heads raised; people crept forward on their seats. Energy levels increased as the stakes grew higher and higher in the story of Ettie Steinberg, one of few Jewish-Irish citizens known to have been murdered in the Holocaust. Here were gathered some of Europe’s foremost historians and EU representatives, who dedicate their lives to remembrance, to telling the stories of those who came before us. And here, suddenly, in front of the EU flag, under the cold light, was the real thing, those stories brought to life. Here was the essence of all they, the audiences, were struggling to recover – the lived experience of Europe, presented through the medium of the artist. The audience were totally captivated.

At a particular moment in the performance, the audience gave an audible ‘gasp’ as the image of how people were herded onto the trains and packed together was created by the actor and brought to life on stage. ‘Paris then, again, briefly, then the train,’ uttered Carla, before stumbling, evoking in one swift gesture the treacherous journey millions were forced to take on their way to the notorious Nazi death camps during WWII. The audience gasped, at one with the actor’s – and Ettie’s – state of despair and uncertainty. As though in response to this, Carla’s breathing grew sharp and irregular, as she relayed the two-day train journey to Auschwitz, ‘as endless as two eternities’. Encapsulated in these few seconds was the perfect symbiosis of actor and audience, the passing of emotional energy from storyteller to listener, and back.

Storytelling, as in this instance, holds the power to cut to the core of an issue. Phones were held up to record the performance, yet soon dropped down as that instinct to watch and listen with one’s own senses took hold. The room was filled with a story, a story of a human life, of love and loss, a story of how, without unity, compassion, and respect for the other, that human life was destroyed by pernicious forces. A story reminding them why the European Union is needed, why remembrance is essential. Still, Ettie says at end of the performance, ‘we are here’, a visibly touching moment for all those in the room who work to ensure that this remains true.

The audience greeted the conclusion of At Summer’s End with avid and rapturous applause, and Carla and Freda were swamped by enthusiastic audience members, some of them key players in European Union affairs. They stated their wish to see even more stories told, and to bring our existing theatre pieces on Marta Hillers, Mary Elmes, and others, to their respective countries. But perhaps the most moving tribute was from a member of the European Commission, Dalia Murauskaité. Dalia summed up the impact of the performance, and all of The Woman is Present: Women’s Stories of WWII, in four words, and a gesture which transcended all linguistic boundaries. Placing her hand on her heart, she simply said, ‘you get it here.’

‘ . . . analysing the feedback forms we have collected from participants and a number of them indicated your theatre performance as something they appreciated most during the event. I personally found it very powerful and touching and it wrapped up the activities of 1.5 days perfectly’.

Dalia Murauskaité, DG Migration and Home Affairs, European Commission

The above performance was presented as part of Taking Stock of European Memory Policies Conference 2019

23-24 October 2019 at Paris and Bazoches-Sur-Guyonne, France

23 October 2019 – Hotel Meliá La Défense, Paris

24 October 2019, Jean Monnet House, Bazoches-Sur-Guyonne

The Woman is Present: Women’s Stories of WWII

By acclaimed award-winning playwrights Mary Moynihan, Fiona Bawn Thompson, Paul Kennedy and Féilim James

Imagined recreation of moments from the lives of women in WWII

‘Brilliant, moving, eye opening journey into stories of women’s bravery tonight. Well done to all involved’, Sarah Glennane, audience Member

The Woman is Present: Women’s Stories of WWII is a creative reimagining of moments from the lives of women during WWII recalling stories of bravery, sacrifice and love amidst the horror of war, as women stood up against Fascism and totalitarianism and refused to accept oppression. The performance is followed by a post-show discussion with the artists and invited guest speakers to explore powerful women’s stories in history and themes of gender equality and peace.

Women’s stories that have inspired the performance include Mary Elmes (1908-2002), a Cork woman who was the first Irish person honoured as ‘Righteous Among Nations’ for her work saving Jewish children from the Nazi gas chambers during World War II; Ettie Steinberg (1914-42) the only female Jewish Irish citizen known to have been murdered in Auschwitz; Marta Hillers (1911-2001) from Germany who wrote her autobiography Eine Frau in Berlin (A Woman in Berlin) under the name ‘Anonyma’ (Anonymous), detailing her experiences of the last days of WWII as she and over one million other women were raped and abused by Allied soldiers of the Red Army; Neus Català Pallejà (b.1915) from Spain, a member of the United Socialist Party of Catalonia during the Spanish Civil War, an active collaborator with the French Resistance during WWII and the only living Spanish survivor of Ravensbrück concentration camp for women; Maria Eugenia Jasińska (1906-43) from Łódź in Poland who worked for the resistance and gave up her own life rather than ‘name names’; and Dolores Ibárruri, or La Pasionaria (1895-1989), from Spain, a revolutionary leader, political activist, communist and crusader against Fascism during the Spanish Civil War who created the famous cry ‘They Shall Not Pass’.

Audience Feedback

‘It was just brilliant! The two actors were phenomenal. Well done to everyone involved!’ – Niamh Clowry, audience member, Ireland

‘Such a moving piece of theatre. The performances were excellent.’ – Sabina Coyne Higgins

‘Brilliant, moving, eye opening journey into stories of women’s bravery tonight. Well done to all involved’, Sarah Glennane, audience member, Ireland

‘The piece of theatre was so moving I cried. What wonderful stories and very important.’ – Raphaela Kula, audience member, Germany

‘The emotive performances pulled me in immediately to each story. Thank you.’ – Nicole Nagel, audience member, Germany

‘Beautiful performances from the actors, I loved it.’ – Zee Upitis, Audience Member, Germany

‘I think the work Smashing Times are doing is brilliant. Important issues being addressed while maintaining a level of artistic excellence is great.’ – John Paul McGrogarty, audience member and director, Leith Theatre, Scotland

‘Thank you to Smashing Times for wonderful performances and presentations. It has been a pleasure to have you at the festival.’ – Ralph Wurfel, audience member and festival coordinator, Theaterlabor, Germany

‘I’m amazed I never heard those stories before. It was so interesting, thank you for a wonderful performance’ – Elaine Cronin, audience member, Ireland

Watch this space for news on upcoming performances of The Woman is Present: Women’s Stories of WWII in 2020

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