Wrestling with the Holocaust: Anne Gottlieb opens up to The Beacon

It took five years, several trips to Amsterdam and the Westerbork Transit Camp and the collaboration of acclaimed playwright Kirk Lynn and Obie Award-winning director Katie Pearl, for Anne Gottlieb to feel her play on Holocaust victim and writer, Etty Hillesum, was ready to be seen by the world.

iThe Wrestling Patient/i had its world premiere on March 27 at the Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts.

Presented by SpeakEasy Stage Company, Boston Playwrights’ Theatre and Forty Magnolias Productions, it will run until April 11.

In fall 2008, it was selected as a finalist in the Outstanding New American Play competition held by Arena Stage and sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts New Play Development Program.

iThe Beacon/i had a phone interview with Anne Gottlieb who is playing the character of Etty Hillesum in iThe Wrestling Patient/i and has spent five years of her life researching, writing and traveling to Westerbork Transit Camp and Auschwitz to create this play.

bBerkeley Beacon:/b How did you come to discover Etty Hillesum?

bAnne Gottlieb:/b A friend of mine had given me her diary and letters at a time when I really needed something like that. I read her diaries and it helped me figure out a lot about myself.

bBB:/b How did the project come together?

bAG:/b I started looking for the people who would be the right collaborators on this project with me because I am primarily an actor. I wanted someone who could work with my ideas. I found Kirk [Lynn] who helped with the script and he brought in our amazing director, Katie Pearl.

bBB:/b How do you feel presenting this play about Etty Hillesum?

bAG:/b I feel so honored to be, in some ways, bringing [to the stage] what I believe is the beauty in not only her writing, but also her process of writing. She had so many emotions: angry, torn, she had her own demons. I feel so honored to bring that to the stage in a script that I helped create. This is such beautiful material on the human condition and I believe so many people walk around conflicted. We have to wrestle with our issues, just as she did.

bBB:/b Is the play based solely on Etty’s diaries and letters?

bAG:/b We took some creative license. She lived with a separate family, not with her family, but I felt her family had a lot to do with her problems. We captured the spirit and there are only so many people you can put on a stage. We tried to make choices on what we felt stayed true to her story.

bBB:/b Was there any point that you felt you wanted to give up on this project?

bAG:/b I definitely had moments where I felt nothing was going to come from this and we’re never going to get the script we want. It’s extremely scary sometimes wondering how this will turn out. It’s definitely the hardest thing I’ve ever done professionally-ever.

bBB:/b Do you relate to Etty personally?

bAG:/b I think she’s really honest about her ego [and] insecurities. She’s honest about her sexuality and her confusion. She’s a journal writer-I relate to her as someone who wants to sort of journal as a way to understand herself.

bBB:/b Was the experience of traveling to Amsterdam to see the Westerbork Transit Camp and then Auschwitz painful?

bAG:/b Going to Westerbork was oddly more touching than painful-it touched me very deeply. Auschwitz was a different story for me. I had heard that people have very cathartic moments there and I thought I’m just going to go. But there was a point at which it became too much for me. I think it’s a very important thing for people to do, to go to Auschwitz. I wouldn’t say painful, I would say deeply, deeply, deeply sad, and I feel a lot of love.