MEGHAN BRODIE Assistant Professor of Theatre and faculty member in Women and Gender Studies
Program at the University of Southern Maine.
Meghan Brodie directed the world-premiere English production of Germaine Tillion’s In the Underworld for the University of Southern Maine (read our review, "The Gravity of Resistance," in this week's Phoenix). Megan Grumbling spoke with her about the experience.
How was In the Underworld chosen as USM’s spring production? What do you find most compelling about the script and its history?
Christine Holden, an Associate Professor Emerita of History and Ravensbrück scholar, introduced me to the script. I worked through the script in French and immediately knew this was something I wanted to direct and make accessible to English-language audiences. USM Theatre commissioned a translation from Annie and Karl Bortnick, with whom I have been collaborating for a year and half on this project.
Germaine Tillion wrote the operetta in secret in a tiny notebook she kept hidden. It is a searing critique of conditions in the Ravensbrück concentration camp, but it is also a story of hope and demonstrates how the women of Ravensbrück used humor as a tool for survival.... Tillion risked her life to make this piece of art (she could have been killed if the notebook had been discovered). On April 23, 1945, the camp released 7,000 prisoners. Among these prisoners was Tillion. She smuggled out a roll of film documenting experiments performed on women in the camp, and her friend smuggled out Tillion’s play. Only five days later, on the orders of the S.S., about 15,000 women were evacuated from the camp on a forced death march. It is a miracle that Tillion and her play survived.
Could you talk a bit about process of you and the students in undertaking material of such historical gravity?
The cast and I spent a lot of time on research. We had an especially long “table work” period during which our dramaturg, Kirk Boettcher, shared lots of historical background with the cast. We read together, watched a documentary on Ravensbrück, and shared facts and questions on our private group Facebook page. Each actor based her character on the life of a real woman in Ravensbrück or another camp. Their commitment to learning about the women and trying to bring as much authenticity to their portrayals of the women’s lives is amazing. The actors are experiencing the solidarity and love shared by the women of Ravensbrück —this is an incredible gift for all of us.
As a director, I wanted to honor the harshness inherent in Tillion’s script. I did not want to shy away from uncomfortable moments or dark humor. I wanted to be true to what I understood to be Tillion’s intentions. But I also wanted to be sure that this ensemble of actors could convey to audiences that the love and support the women in the camp offered each other transcended the realities of their everyday existence. I think they have accomplished that and I could not be more proud of their work.
How have the actions and conversation around faculty retrenchments at USM affected the work of you and your student theater artists?
The cast and production team of In the Underworld were devastated by the faculty retrenchments, which included me and our costume designer, Joan Mather. But I immediately let my cast and crew know that my work on this production was of paramount importance to me and I was dedicated to making this my best — even if my last — production at USM. It was a difficult time for all of us, but it never overshadowed our excitement about creating this piece of art together.