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April 17, 2013

Holocaust Denial Takes Center Stage: Talking with Playwright Joshua H. Cohen

Playwright Joshua H. Cohen is tackling a provocative subject in his new play: Holocaust denial in a high school classroom. The emerging Libra Theater Company presents The Thirteenth Commandment April 18-May 5 at The Bridge Theatre at Shetler Studios. Cohen, also a musical theater writer, won the Jonathan Larsen Grant Award for his musical Tamar and the River with composer Marisa Michelson in 2011. Culturadar blogger Shoshana Greenberg talks to Cohen about Holocaust education, writing a controversial play, and the differences between writing plays and musicals.
What was your Holocaust education growing up and how present was it in your consciousness?
I attended a conservative synagogue in Rhode Island and I remember talk about the Holocaust beginning very early, as early as 10 or 11. The old joke is that every Jewish holiday can be reduced to “They tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat,” so that sense of the history of Jewish persecution was prevalent throughout my entire Jewish education, sometimes to the point of fetishization. But the Holocaust was always very different—it was darker, less mythologized, and more recent—so it was always very present in my consciousness.
Today, as the last generation of survivors starts to pass away from natural causes, people who might not have talked about it much before are starting to talk about it. I used to have this neighbor who had been in the camps and he would speak about it with very little prompting. It really affected me—the need that he had to talk about it to someone who was a relative stranger.
Did this play grow out of that background or did it evolve in another way?
The play actually grew more out of my political rage and frustration rather than directly out of that background. It actually began from climate change denial and the movement to teach creationism in schools. Being a playwright, when there’s something I feel strongly about the first thing I do is write a play about it. That’s how I approach the world. I’d been thinking about how to dramatize this idea of people clinging to factually insupportable ideas and presenting [these ideas] as reasonable. Holocaust denial seemed a likely candidate. I have no doubt it was informed by my education as a kid, but it was more of a way to explore an idea in a way that would have dramatic and emotional resonance.
How did you get involved with this theater company?
I knew Nick Luckenbaugh from when he was working at Roundabout Theatre Company, which is where I currently work. When he and his compatriots started Libra Theater Company, they wanted to concentrate at least somewhat on new work. Because of our relationship through our day jobs, Nick brought me into that. Libra featured my songs in a cabaret and did a production of my song cycle The Entropy Songs. When Nick approached me about doing a production of The Thirteenth Commandment, I was very excited to work with them. They are a talented and organized group of young people.
Was there a development process for this production or is this the first time you will see/hear it performed?
The play had two readings previously. In both cases there were audience discussions after, which included a good bit of shouting. I did major rewrites. It’s a very morally complex play, and I tried to refine what I was trying to say with the story and make that clear to the audience. At Libra we did a table workshop for a long weekend, and started rehearsals for this production in March. We did a week of table work—really getting into characters and motivations and what exactly the story is. Then I had a week to rewrite based on that. One thing that my experience in musicals has taught me is to rewrite up to the last minute.
How has the play changed in that process?
The ending has changed several times. The play has had four substantially different endings over the course of its gestation. The one that I have now I think is the best. At least, it had better be.
How did you get started writing plays—did it happen concurrently with writing musicals?
I’ve wanted to write both plays and musicals for as long as I can remember. I wrote both plays and musicals through high school. For a while, I was concentrating on musical writing, and I put playwriting aside. When I went to the Graduate Musical Theatre Writing Program at NYU, among the classes that I took was playwriting, where we were given various scene writing assignments. Generating new ideas has always been my slowest point of development in any process. I’m not one of those people who is constantly scribbling down ideas and choosing which to explore next. When I get an idea I’m excited about, it’s for me to savor and explore because they don’t come that often. So in playwriting class I wrote all my scenes for the same set of characters. By the end of the year, I had a rough outline for a play. I fleshed it out and developed and actually wrote my first full-length straight play since college. It reminded me of how much I enjoyed writing plays.
What do you find fulfilling about playwriting as opposed to musical writing?
The thing about The Thirteenth Commandment in particular is that it takes place in real time. The action actually comprises 90 minutes all on one set. It’s strictly realistic. The claustrophobia of being in one time in one place—that kind of strict realism you just can’t do in musicals. In a world where characters sing, you are in a certain sense a step removed from reality. I love doing that but I’m also attracted to the other side as well—the theatrical realism that you can get from straight theater. Both types of stories excite me.

Shoshana Greenberg writes musicals, plays, and prose. Her musicals include Lightning Man (Ars Nova ANT Fest), Sophia Venetia Voyager, and Soon Never, and her work has been featured in concerts at Lincoln Center, The York Theatre Company, the Duplex Cabaret Theater, the TriArts Sharon Playhouse, the Goodspeed Opera House, and The Laurie Beechman Theatre. She earned her MFA from NYU’s Graduate Musical Theater Writing Program after graduating from Barnard College. She also blogs about theater for The Huffington Post.

Posted at 11:11 PM

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