Actors in costume during intermission at Meet the Hitlers.
On a cold spring evening in March a group of close friends, colleagues and family gathered in a little theater in the East Village, NYC to all Meet the Hitlers. Yeah, I know I said Meet the Hitlers. You all must be wondering what is going on in Lucid Communication’s mind. That is the most absurd title for a play in the history of absurd titles, but I assure you it fits this fabulously written satire by Jerry Kolber.
I have known Jerry almost as long as I have known my own brother. I first read a draft of this a few years ago, and it made me laugh till I cried. Forward to 2012, Jerry had a few read throughs of the play with the help of Josh Adler as director and he began to polish up the script. When I heard that they were going to do a public read through of the play I knew that I had to be there to document and to just Meet the Hitlers for myself.
This read through wasn’t your ordinary read through. In a typical read through the actors sit around a large table and read their parts aloud as the writer, producer, and director watch, and give the actors some feedback. It is a way for the producers to start to get a feel of how it is to hear the written words spoken out loud. This read through was more of a semi-staged production thanks to some staging by Josh Adler.
I watched and photographed a marathon rehearsal on the same day as the evening performance. Josh and Jerry were on hand and they went through the play step by step with all the actors. In fact, that rehearsal was one one of three that had been done before the curtain was raised.
I enjoyed watching the process of the play unfold before my eyes. Even though all the actors kept the script in hand, they took on the their roles and I could see them transform before my lens. Jerry has always showed me slices of New York culture that I never would have seen if it wasn’t for him. This was another experience to add to that list. Watching the inner working theater being on stage with the excitement.
At one point in the rehearsal Jerry pulled me aside and asked me to go over to the local synagogue to find a yarmulke for one of the characters. Now this was a Saturday afternoon in New York City, I thought out loud on the Sabbath. Who would be open? I wandered over to the East Village Jewish Community Center to find the doors locked. I Stop in over at Ricky’s on First Avenue seeing if I could find anything in their costume section. Finally I remembered that there is the weekend Flea Market on Avenue A. Rushed over had a look around, and talked to a lady asking if she had any yarmulkes. She actually said that she did, but she didn’t bring any of them today. A bit defeated, I headed back to the theater. Right next to the theater there was a children’s used clothing shop. I wandered in think might as well try. I found a great knit cap. I bought it and showed it to Jerry, and he thought it looked to Muslim, and not Jewish enough. Ah HA! Why don’t we just cut a bit off the bottom, and it was perfect! You have just got to love the theater. There is just something electric about doing everything live and on the go.
This play tackles all the big issues: race, sexuality, youth, getting old, revenge, destiny. The list goes on and on. I feel so fortunate to have witnessed this event with Jerry and a room full of friends. I think it would be best to let Jerry tell Lucid Communication about his work and himself as a creative individual.
I sat down with Jerry the other day to find out more about the play and what it means to him, and the audience. I want to thank him for taking the time out of his busy schedule to talk to Lucid Communication.
The technical side before the show.
Jerry please take a min introduce yourself to the Lucid Communication community.
Hello Lucid Communication. I’m Jerry Kolber, a New York City based playwright, television show creator and executive producer, and novelist. Basically I consider myself a storyteller whose job it is to make my audience feel like they are in confident hands. Jacob Schere is one of my oldest, best friends. We met as a result of fighting in a pre-school playground at Temple Beth Am in Miami in 1976; our parents were called in to discuss our bad behavior, and both they – and we – became best friends.
The setting for play all happens over the course of a one-night dinner party. Can please you tell us a little about each of the characters?
Meet the Hitlers is an ensemble piece where each character has a specific need that is met (or unmet) during the course of a dinner, and their needs are spoken (or unspoken) at some point in the play. I would say the characters represent the spectrum of my own needs and how vocal I am – or am not – about them; in another sense you could say they broadly represent, through character specificity, the spectrum of how people approach transitional moments in their lives.
Ben and Billy
Billy, the gay vegan punk futurist teenage grandson of Adolf Hitler, seems to telegraph a need for attention and to be a leader, but really he just wants to be loved for who he is. Ben, the Rabbi’s son from next door, seems like the sweet closeted “other side” of Billy in his khaki pants and good manners, but secretly he wants to change the world – a desire he got from his repressed mother Sheila, who has turned to new age philosophy and self-empowerment seminars as a potential escape hatch from her stilted marriage to Rabbi Weinberg.
But really, Sheila needs a fresh perspective, a geographical and point-of-view refresh, which is provided by Carol, the black daughter-in-law of Adolph whose creative freedom Sheila admires and wants to emulate. Carol wants to return to her studies of African history – and is also trapped in a respectful, but passionless marriage – and in the immediate sense wants to solve the mystery of why Adolph won’t die; her husband Robert seems like a headstrong authority figure, but all he really wants is for the tyranny of Adolph to end – but has no sense of who he is beyond that “want”, so he perpetually plays out the same pattern of want/don’t want to avoid the abyss of egoless identity.
Adolph himself is a gothic figure of darkness and mirth, feeding and growing off hate, withering under the presence of love, essentially an emotional thermometer.
Sheila the Rabbi’s wife and Carol
What was your inspiration behind the need to write the play, Meet the Hitlers?
I believe the world can be divided perfectly into three kinds of people. Those who believe (as a result of naiveté or denial) that everything is just fine. Those who believe (as a result of direct experience, or early exposure) that the world is filled with evil just about to erupt. And those – a smaller handful – who see 19-degrees behind the stage curtain to what is really happening, a much more gray and less black-and-white version of reality – those are generally called artists, or visionaries, and it is their responsibility to help the other two groups of people communicate with each other and avoid killing each other. I’m in that group, and take my responsibility as a translator seriously.
Meet the Hitlers specifically was inspired by my own direct experience of visiting Holocaust death camps, and realizing how much more complicated the moral and logistical situation was than the neat version we were taught in school. It’s both incredibly easy – and incredibly hard – for a Holocaust to happen. When I read an article in the New York Times a few years ago about the only living relatives of Adolph Hitler – the sons of his Irish nephew – living in Long Island, the play popped fully formed into my mind as a hilarious venue in which to explore racism, religious tolerance, apathy, futurism, hypocrisy, and the ever-present specter of Adolph.
Who did you model the characters come from?
All the characters are some version of myself, with other specific models. Sheila is a very exaggerated and lovable version of my mother, while Billy is modeled on a kid I went to high school in Israel with – who was very much Billy to my khaki-Ben-ish self. Anyone who knows me knows that Ben couldn’t possibly be the high school version of me. cough-cough.
Robert, Carol, Ben and Billy
How do you envision the staging of Meet the Hitlers?
It will be staged in a dark, scary, over-the-top version of a German beer hall- one that just might have been an officers club for the Nazis.
What did you learn from the read through of the play?
I learned that most of what I write is even funnier to an audience than I hoped, and that as expected a small chunk of the audience found the play repulsive and insane (I actually got hate mail from friends of mine after, a first); a bigger section found it thought-provoking and kept talking about it for days after; and most everyone found it entertaining. I also learned that one section of the play in particular that deals extensively with the N-word went over much better than I feared it might. I was actually biting my nails when that part started.
Josh Adler directs the actors during rehearsal
At one point in the play Billy says he wants to run of to Germany and “make art and start an intentional community” Ben replies, “I don’t even know what that is”, and Billy says “Neither does anyone else! But let’s go do it, together.” I loved this moment in the play. As a young Jerry did you want to run off and create a commune in Germany? If so, why?
I had no interest in running off to start a commune in Germany in my mis-spent youth, but I did want to start some sort of art colony and still do. In a sense, Jacob, you and I are already in that colony together – how many projects and ideas and how much support have we exchanged over the years in person and online, and ultimately what is an art community but a group of artists who support each other in whatever way they can. I did take 20 theater friends to Prague in 1992 to spend a summer making art there, and it was as exciting, inspiring, and difficult as I could imagine. Would I say no to another summer with a bunch of 20-something creative people, making theater, drinking beer, and coming up with plans to change the world (which disappeared when my backpack was stolen) – no, I would not say no. Please address proposals and invitations to me at Jerry’s Twitter Feed.
Ben reading the script while Josh Adler Directs
How do you describe your self as a creative person?
I am constantly growing more confident in my writing, my producing, and my creative leadership by example; while at the same time constantly berating myself for not creating enough. It’s a vicious cycle of “I love you know matter what” vs. “You can do better than this and I’m only saying this because I love you”. Basically, my internalized creative persona is a tiny (well, tinier) version of my Jewish mother.. Hi Mom! But truly, my mother was and is an inspiring creative person who encouraged my sister and I, as well as many young people in the school where she taught, to pursue our own pathways. She has a great deal of clarity and is very vocal about injustice, both qualities I admire and emulate and that others frequently find annoying in me.
Sheila and Billy
What visual artists inspire you?
Jacob, your work always inspires me, not only because you are so prolific and generous in the sharing of your work, but also because over the years you’ve developed an ability to capture a story in a frame. I always imagine you like a photography superhero, towering over everyone else in random Japanese neighborhoods, flicking your wrists and capturing these intensely personal narrative images. Your work taken as a whole has a quality of memory, like we are floating along in the conscious/subconscious of your experience as an outsider in Tokyo, seeing what you see with the meaning you ascribe to your vision also imprinted in the photos, but with enough space that we can either have the same “Outsider in Tokyo” experience as you – or bring our own myth and meaning to the image.
My father (Cliff Kolber Photography) inspires me because he embraced photography late in life, as a way of engaging others in his activism around the protection of the Everglades. He’s an environmentalist who uses his beautiful photographs of the outdoors and his essays to inspire others to care as much about the planet as he taught my sister and I to. Come to think of it, it was your dad Uncle Les who gave me that copy of Monkey Wrench Gang, that actually changed the way I thought about activism – and has a hand in the inspiration for the character of Billy in Meet the Hitlers! Never underestimate the power of giving a kid a book. Printed words are powerful.
I’m also into ancient Tibetan mandalas right now and have been incorporating them into my meditations and spiritual practice.
How has working in television helped you as a creative individual?
Television has taught me three things:
1. You have 30 seconds to get your audience invested in the character. Just like real life. If you don’t hook them then, you never will. Give them a reason to love or hate the character – no slow burn, no blah characters – nobody paid good time (or money) to watch you take your time or hang out with people they could have hung out with anywhere.
2. Don’t be precious. If it’s not working, throw it out. There’s 50 good ideas behind 100 bad ones, and the faster you can toss out stuff that isn’t working the faster you can get to what is working. You’re not getting paid to pontificate. And if you’re an artist who says, “I’m not worried about getting paid”, what that actually means is that you don’t care if you have an audience (or, you have a trust fund). That said, when an idea resonates with you, own it and be confident in your instincts.
3. Tell a good story. Characters FIRST – story second. No one cares about a good story that happened to a boring guy. But a great character can take a nothing story and make it special. No matter how good your characters are, something has to happen to them. There’s a pattern to good story: A character you love or hate wants something; some obstacle prevents them from getting that thing they want; they overcome or fail to overcome the obstacle; the world is different as a result of their journey. Blake Snyder’s book “Save the Cat” is the only book you ever need to read about storytelling.
If you could change the way television is made what would you be able to create?
I would create even more programs that are both entertaining but also make the viewer go “huh, I never thought of it that way”. And a lot more boundary -pushing scripted work.
What projects do you currently have in development?
I’m Executive Producing a new series for National Geographic that delves into extreme manifestations of certain kinds of psychology. I’ve also got a very new twist on a game show in the works, as well as a few other very exciting series projects for big channels that technically I cannot discuss just yet.
Rabbi Weinberg and wife Sheila
Where on the web can we find out more about you and your work?
The best thing is to like my Miami the Novel facebook fan page, and follow me on Twitter. My personal page is ww.JerryKolber.com which just redirects to Twitter for now. If you want to get up close and personal, friend me on Facebook and tell me “Jacob sent me”.
Thank you Jerry Kolber for taking the time to explore your creativity with Lucid Communication. I know I am looking forward to seeing Meet the Hitlers in full production in the near future. It is always a pleasure talking to you about creativity.
Live and in full costume, Rabbi Weinberg, Billy, Robert, Carol, Sheila, Ben, and Adolf
Actors in costume during intermission, Part I.
Actors in costume during intermission Part II.