Eleanor’s Story at the Edmonton Fringe Festival

Eleanor’s Story: An American Girl in Hitler’s Germany by Ingrid Garner

King Edward School (8525 101 street) August 15 – 17, 19, 20, 22
More information: eleanorsstory.com

Ingrid Garner in Eleanor's Story. Photo credit Richard Maritzer

Ingrid Garner in Eleanor’s Story. Photo credit Richard Maritzer

Describe your show in five words. 

My Grandmother’s true survival story.

Okay, now that we’re intrigued… what’s the longer description?

I wrote and perform Eleanor’s Story: an adaptation of my grandmother’s award-winning memoir of her youth, growing up as an American caught in World War II Berlin. In 1939, when she is nine, Eleanor’s family moves from the U.S. to Germany, where a great job awaits her father in Berlin. But war breaks out as they cross the Atlantic, and return to America becomes impossible. Her family faces hunger, fascist oppression, carpet bombings, the Russian invasion and the terrors of Soviet occupancy.

You’ve performed Eleanor’s Story: An American Girl in Hitler’s Germany in different places across the globe – you mention Australia and Winnipeg – what have reactions to the show been and have they varied by location?

My Grandmother and I have regularly been surprised by the universal appeal this story holds to audiences world-wide. I believe this is a testament to the unimaginably unique tale of survival, but also the universality of its material. While my grandmother’s circumstances were entirely individual, an American child growing up in Nazi Berlin during WWII, the things she experienced are the unfortunate consequences of every war. This is a story about citizens in wartime, the victims we seem to hear the least from.

Everywhere I’ve performed this show, its attended by survivors of WWII, many of whom approach me afterwards in tears, identifying so much with magical young Eleanor and feeling like their own childhood selves have finally been acknowledged. Also, the children and grandchildren of these survivors often tell me how valuable it is to them to know what happened, experiences their relatives are too pained to share. Each memory a survivor shares puts a human face on the horrors of war and allows us to see that these are people, not numbers.

You adapted your grandmother’s biography into this story – how did you go about doing this? Has your grandmother been able to see the show? If so, what did she think using theatre to tell this story?

The idea to make “Eleanor’s Story” into a play was suggested to me by my Producer, Richard Maritzer, when I was running tech on his show at the Winnipeg Fringe in Canada. He pointed out that I had a pretty impressive connection to one of the most epic stories either of us had heard: Eleanor’s. Not only is the dramatic nature of the story well suited for theatrical interpretation, but it would be a spectacular novelty to have the actual granddaughter play her grandmother and relatives.

My Grandmother saw the play on its opening night and a few times since. She is a terrifically  artistic person herself, so was able to appreciate the theatricality and visual nature of the piece. She told me it was wonderful to see me play herself and her family, and emotional to see her childhood come to life in such a visceral way. I think she was impressed and perhaps a bit surprised by the production. Afterall, she had never seen me act in anything except my silent role as the original “Mistress of the Night”, Vampira, in a staged production of the “worst movie ever made”, Plan 9 From Outer Space. Above all, though, she says she feels well and truly honored by the show and is elated by it’s international success.

In writing Eleanor’s Story, I’m sure you know more than the average person about Nazi Germany and Soviet-occupied Germany. What are some of the things you learnt about this period in time that surprised you or you’d like the audience to know going tinto the show?

WWII was the most covered era of human history during my entire grade school and university education. Hitler’s bizarre and strategic rise to power, the insane Nazi doctrines, the fierce and brutal conditions for soldiers, and the unimaginable industrialization of death during the holocaust all fascinated and devastated me. I had never heard about life for German citizens under fascist dictatorship before my grandmother’s book was published in 1999, and growing up hearing what she had suffered through at my age made this history immediate and personal.

While I was feeling pressured to join Girl Scouts, she was feeling pressured to join Hitler Youth. When I was figuring out how tampons work, she was forced to use ripped up old towels, sanitary napkins hadn’t been available for years. My parents fought to find food I wouldn’t turn up my nose at, her parents had to admit there was no food when she begged for it. In high school, when I was struggling to express my identity and find my voice, she was an American alien in Berlin, struggling to be inconspicuous and knowing one wrong word could mean the death of her family. While I was finding excuses to stay up late, she was trying to find time to sleep in between 17 nighttime air-raid alarms in a row. When I was desperately looking for friends, she watched hers die in the street.

Anything else you want audiences to know about the show?

I would like to emphasize that while this show covers heavy material, an inescapable reality when talking about WWII, there are light moments. My grandmother was and is a charming little sprite who finds survives off the magic she finds in the world. Young Eleanor keeps the story bearable for the audience because she herself doesn’t fully understand the gravity of the situation. This is her coming of age story, with all the embarrassment and learning that comes with it, the backdrop just happens to be a world war.

Bonus question: Any names you want to drop who have been involved in your show (Edmonton arts people or otherwise)?

I would like to plug Richard Maritzer of Sound & Fury fame, who both produced “Eleanor’s Story” and did all the magnificent sound and video design, adding a necessary level of reality to the production. He is also participating as another Fringe artist in the show Trampoline, a charming, quirky love story.

The 34th Edmonton International Fringe Theatre Festival is August 13 – 23. Get your tickets at tickets.fringetheatre.ca.

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