Sunday, April 11, 2010

Todd Ristau Talks About the Importance of His Hitler Play

Todd Ristau as Adolph Hitler in his 'Under the Banner of a Shadow.'^

Todd Ristau’s “Under the Banner of a Shadow” is scheduled to run April 27-May 2 at Studio Roanoke and this may well be one of the more important theatrical events of the season in Roanoke.

This is Ristau’s original one-man play that he has written, directed (with help from Clinton Johnston) and stars in. It deals with the last days in the life of Adolph Hitler, during which he dictates his political testament. It is a moving look inside the 20th Century’s most demented—and some would argue most interesting—mind. This is a risky work, one that could easily attract criticism. But that’s the kind of theater Ristau and the boys and girls at Studio Roanoke are giving us these days.

Tickets are $15 and $12 and you can make reservations at 540-343-3054.

Following is an interview with Todd as he prepares for this challenging role:

What's the genesis of “Under the Banner of a Shadow”?

The play was first written in the lead up to the first Gulf war, when pro war politicians were making comparisons to Saddam Hussein to Adolf Hitler and the invasion of Kuwait to that of Poland. Yes, Hussein admired Hitler, used many of the same totalitarian models in his regime and he was hunkered down in a bunker vowing to fight to the last Iraqi child ... but I wasn't sure that all of the comparisons were taking the full weight of historical understanding into consideration.

At around the same time, some
older people might remember, Giraldo Rivera had his nose broken on his TV show by skinheads who started throwing chairs around after he challenged them on their contention that the Holocaust never happened, and if it did, it was engineered by Himmler in secrecy and Hitler knew nothing about it.

I was in the Iowa Playwrights Workshop at the time, and taking a docudrama class from Lavonne Mueller. She was strongly encouraging us to consider the one person play, and though I was already working on a play about the Donner Party as a leftist exploration of Manifest Destiny, I wrote a few exploratory monologues from Hitler's point of view for the class and thought it might make an interesting one man show.

[Todd began to develop the theme for a class and found an actor to work with.] Jim Thorn and I developed the piece in rehearsal. I would write a bunch of material based on Hitler's own words ... and rewrote as we rehearsed. ...

The first production we had minimal props and costume material ... but it was very successful. We got an invitation to take the play to the 1991 Edinburgh Festival and toured the show to raise money for the trip. Whenever we performed we did a lengthy talk back afterward and the play became a useful way to open a discussion on how little we know about Hitler.

Why now? Does this piece have any meaning beyond the historical and the obvious?

It is the 65th anniversary of the end of World War II this month and we will be performing the play on the same date as Hitler's suicide ... Exploring Hitler's final hours is important way to understand the decisions and consequences which led to that point, and the horror and bloodshed that preceded it so that nothing like that can ever happen again.

Both our current president and our past president were compared to Hitler in very public ways and the comparisons aren't treated as hyperbole, so I think it is important to give people an opportunity to really reflect in a very pointed whether those comparisons are valid. I would like people to see the show and then reflect on those comparisons and see if it doesn't change their positions. ...

If nothing else, the play lays bare the horrific power of propaganda to encourage human beings to be inhuman in their actions. Roanoke, unfortunately, as we are all too aware, is the home of a modern Nazi apologist and as a community I think we have to take some responsibility for that fact being possible. So, I think the play's selection is timely, topical, and intensely relevant.

Do you consider this play controversial? If so, why?

I think people know that everything we do at Studio Roanoke is controversial because the kind of plays are unique in their content and in our selection we are actively trying to promote an active conversation about what makes good theatre, what questions are worth asking, and what answers we can all find together.

It is not a feel-good musical. It deals with very difficult subject matter. It has a strange kind of construction in that we're watching Hitler have these fever dream flashbacks and having some arguments with significant people in his life--Eva Braun, Ernst Rhoem, Geli Rauble, his father, Rommel, his roommate when he was struggling to become an artist in Vienna.

It is uncomfortable to be forced to recognize that Hitler was human, and even more so that some of his rhetoric is familiar if you listen to radio talk shows ... but, we are making a real effort with this show to get out the word in advance what the play is and what it is trying to do and what it is not.

It is a dramatic examination of a part of history that still impacts us today, is still part of our political language, and we are trying to get people thinking about and questioning how we avoid becoming anything like Nazi Germany.

What it is not, is comic, disrespectful. or in any way an attempt to eulogize or excuse the most hated man in history. The most frequent comment we got when we first did the show was, "I didn't know he said that." Even a cursory reading of Hitler's speeches and writings leave little doubt that though he didn't want a paper trail, he was actively involved in a strategy of terror and an underlying commitment to genocide and eugenics.

You know, and we can't look at Hitler and the Nazis as though it was in isolation. The eugenics laws were first established here in the US, and just up the road in Staunton, the head of Western State Hospital was quoted in the Richmond paper when asked about the need for the Virginia Sterilization Act in 1932, replied that "The Germans are beating us at our own game."

In America, we just don't spend a lot of time looking backward ... or take the time to understand how we got to where we are or how that might affect where we're going.

In a theater dedicated to new plays, sometimes it is useful to do a play that forces us to do a little reflection on what is decades behind us. I'm nervous about doing the show, of course, and especially nervous about taking on the role of actor in the play. But an influential theater teacher at Iowa once told me that good theatre is always dangerous. And it is a time to be courageous in what we do and what we talk about.

Wherever you are on the political spectrum, we all agree that things are changing, and it would be better to talk about it than continue polarizing and stoking the anger with fear of that change. I hope people will also be courageous and come see the show. We're looking forward to people seeing Studio Roanoke as a place where important conversations happen.


  1. I won't miss this. Thanks for the post, Dan.

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