Fort Worth — “One thing I admire about Amphibian is that their plays are the ones you talk about on the car ride home [in Texas] or the subway ride home in New York. You don’t leave them behind at the theater.” So says Illana Stein, director and (with actor Sean Hudock and playwright Deborah Yarchun) one of the three co-creators of Hans & Sophie, having its world premiere at Amphibian Stage, running Feb. 7 through March 1.
New York-based actress Rebekah Brockman joins Hudock in the two-person cast. Both have earned fine reviews for off-Broadway appearances, Hudock for Vilna and Brockman for a Pearl Theatre revival of A Taste of Honey.
Hans and Sophie Scholl’s student-based White Rose resistance group (Hans founded it, and Sophie was a core member) existed for less than a year in Hitler’s Germany. For writing and distributing leaflets that protested the war and condemned Nazi atrocities, the two Scholls were tried for treason and executed by beheading on the same day, Feb. 22, 1943. Hans was 24, his sister 21.
Nearly 76 years later, they are not forgotten. Memorials to the Scholls are found all over Germany, especially at the university in Munich they attended (click here to see a short video taken by TJ editor Mark Lowry on his Munich visit in July 2019). An asteroid is named for the White Rose. In Austin, a White Rose Society distributes 10,000 roses each April to mark those killed in one day at Auschwitz.
Operas, movies, and books have told the story as well. Stein says the three collaborators “wrote early on” for permission to adapt material from At the Heart of the White Rose, a collection of letters between Hans and Sophie (and other family members) that made Hudock think of making a play. Here’s a link to the book.
Stein has worked with Amphibian several times over the past seasons. It’s become an “artistic home” for her, she tells TheaterJones, and says Amphibian supported the trio of creators all along the way, from showing interest in the concept in the first place, to offering them time (and actors!) to work on the script, hold staged readings, and get feedback from the audiences. Stein is excited and proud to talk about the finished product.
“It’s so important to us that the play be immersive, and we’ve worked hard on that, even while you’re walking into the space,” Stein says. “We have an amazing projection designer, Driscoll Otto [who has worked for the Santa Fe Opera, the Dallas Theater Center, the Met, the New York Musical Theatre Festival and others]. There’s no intermission, no way out — the story should feel it’s being told around you. There’s nothing presentational about the play; it isn’t a museum piece. We want to you to feel you are in it, and deal with the issues as they come up for these people, like the moment when Sophie finds out Hans has been doing this without her and decides to join him. Their story could have gone in so many different ways at several points. So the more the audience feels complicit, feels part of the storytelling, the more those moments are going to land.”
Everything the White Rose did was dangerous, and Hans and Sophie knew it. Hans was more involved in writing the six leaflets they found ways to distribute (first in Munich, then in cities across Germany), but for Sophie and others, even buying supplies (ink, paper, stamps) was a risk. In the end, one impulsive move, tossing their last few leaflets out into the atrium of the university, got them arrested.
As happens at Amphibian, the company will use every bit of space to let Hans & Sophie’s audiences learn more. Longtime patrons often come early just to read or interact with the lobby displays.
“There’s an exhibit about the White Rose movement touring now, but it’s in high demand,” says Stein.
“We’re speaking with the German consulate about trying to bring that here, or to get permission to print from it. In our 85-minute play there isn’t time to touch on all the events and people of the White Rose, and we want to make space for people to take in that information.”
Looking at pictures of Hans and Sophie as teens and young adults, it’s hard not to shiver. To have that kind of moral and physical courage, that fierce determination to fight the power…it’s hard to imagine.
“You are going to fall in love with these characters,” says Stein. “And ultimately, we also know that we’re dealing with a story that is a tragedy.”
TheaterJones spoke with Stein over a cup of coffee late in January, just days away from opening night.
TheaterJones: You’ve a history with Amphibian.
Illana Stein: This is my fifth time with the company. I first heard about Amphibian when I was still in college; my parents came to see a show and I had a conversation with Kathleen [Culebro, artistic director]. It was the week after I moved to New York, and she asked me to direct a reading. So they flew me back for that, and then there was the reading of Daedalus [by David Davalos], which became A Lost Leonardo [produced at Amphibian, with Stein directing, in 2017]. Then came the reading of Hans and Sophie, and now the play.
Last year you had a formal residency with Amphibian that let you develop the play?
Yes. Sean [Hudock] wasn’t able to be here; he was acting in an off-Broadway play at the time, a Holocaust play of all things, Vilna. Amphibian develops new works in what they call their Metamorphosis series; they gave us a 29-hour reading [process], and we had two fantastic actors to work with, Mitchell Stephens and Mikaela Krantz. We spent time workshopping, and then did two sold-out formal readings with audiences, who stayed for the talkbacks both times. That was a real test of the material, finding that audiences engaged so strongly with it. Some of the feedback from those conversations really influenced how we moved the script forward.
What was the original a-ha moment? Who started thinking of this story as a play?
Sean read the book At the Heart of the White Rose, a collection of letters back and forth between the siblings and other family members. That was several years ago, and he couldn’t get these people, these characters out of his mind. Sean and I met in theater and I’ve known him for 10 years. He approached me about it, said he’d like me to direct, and thought we should bring in a playwright.
So we brought on Deborah Yarchun, and decided all three of us would collaborate on it. I had just met Deborah when I directed a small piece at New York Madness. We weren’t together, but found we had a similar aesthetic and way of working. And I knew she had written some two-hander plays, and would know how to do this. We’re a trio. We read the book together, and some other source materials, then pulled out the parts of the story that resonated with us and made it our own.
I’ve been very lucky. I pitched this to Amphibian when there wasn’t a script for them to approve or anything. They took a chance on an idea. Then I got a week-long residency at the Drama League in New York, where it moved from a sketch to an actual draft, and we started working with actress Rebekah Brockman a year ago; that’s when it all started to transform and come together. Then we came for the residency here.
Amphibian stood by us, and they’ve taken a little bit of a risk taking on a political story like this right now. It’s not controversial, but there’s a lot to talk about—the theme of resistance itself, and so much more.
Almost to the day, we’re talking on the 75th anniversary of the ‘liberation’ of Auschwitz, though much too late, the Allies [represented by the Russian Army] coming in to find only a few survivors. Hans and Sophie spoke truth to the German people about many things, including the Nazi government’s brutal extermination of the Jews.
I had not heard of Hans and Sophie in school. You hear about the Holocaust, and a few mutterings about resistance. I wish I’d known many more stories like this, of people who resisted in Germany — especially students like Hans and Sophie, who didn’t have any reason to stick out their necks. For me it’s not just about them being martyrs, it’s that they had a strong religious upbringing and this went against their moral beliefs. They stood up against a fascist system, and ultimately lost their lives.
Theirs is such a terrific story, yet it feels like such a tiny spark in all that darkness and evil. But look at the impact they’ve had.
In Munich their deaths are commemorated every year. At Munich University there’s a plaque on the ground [that looks like] the leaflets Sophie dropped just before they were arrested [in the main hall of the university]. Hans and Sophie and the White Rose are so well known in Germany, but not so much here. Though that’s changing, as we’re looking for heroes and people to inspire us.
I’m fascinated also because I have cousins who went to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School [Florida site of the 2018 school shooting], and watching what high school students are having to deal with, and watching them speak out…there’s just something about kids having to grow up faster right now, the issues they’re dealing with. There’s an invincibility about them, they’re so brave and willing to take things on. Hans and Sophie had each other, and that’s I think why we want to tell their story, not so much the entire story of the White Rose—that’s being told by history — but about how this brother and sister were there for each other in the really dark moments.
Both Hans and Sophie belonged to Nazi youth groups before their views changed…a lot.
Yes, we wanted to know what turns someone from a Hitler Youth member to the other side. What was that moment in time for them? For a lot of the story before the White Rose we had to draw on little tidbits and hints here and there. We discovered a lot about the story by looking at Hans and Sophie’s parents, who were very liberal and didn’t want them to be part of the Hitler Youth. Their parents’ ideas [especially their father’s opposition to the war] stuck with them. So as they started to question things, Hans and Sophie had that moral compass to go by. And it was parents, I think, in the audience for the readings at Amphibian, who wanted to know what the Dad and Mom really believed, so we made them part of the story.
Both parents survived the war, and some of the siblings?
The dad was arrested because his secretary overheard him calling Hitler a “scourge to mankind” — and after Hans and Sophie were executed the whole family was detained. The parents lost three children; younger son Werner [serving as a medic], was killed late in the war. [A note: their sister Elisabeth, younger than Hans and older than Sophie, will mark her 100th birthday on Feb. 27, 2020. A few years after the war, she married Sophie’s wartime soldier boyfriend, Fritz Hartnagel. They had four sons and were married for 55 years, until his death.]
I knew some of this story, but what I missed until now was that Hans and several others who joined the White Rose group weren’t ‘just’ college kids. They had been in military service, mostly as medical students who temporarily served as front-line medics. [Collectively, they came back having seen and heard a lot about brutal mass shootings, the extermination camps for Jews, and how badly the war was going for Germany.]
They did see a lot, and this is me interpreting, but as Hans was running the White Rose with his group, he was taken back to the Eastern Front, to the fighting, again. We have these letter sections that directly draw from the book we’re adapting, and we see how their psyches, their moods change as they write about the war. Finally, they’re telling each other we have to do more, we have to get [the country] out of this. And Hans coming home changed by it, perhaps with PTSD. Sophie was sent to a factory to work when the men went off to war. And Hans and the others got leave at specific times to return to the university, the medical school, to study.
Their letters back and forth were so revealing. They were reading Nietzsche and Goethe and Rilke, and all the interesting banned authors of the time. We hear them questioning the world and their own beliefs…I think it came from both the reading and their parents, and meant they couldn’t make things add up to them, what was happening in the world.
And they drew a Munich college professor into the circle, too?
That isn’t part of our story because we chose to focus on the students, but yes, the group [briefly overlapped] with a professor known to give coded lectures [full of hidden political and social messages, dangerously anti-Nazi, for those who knew the code]. Hans and he had different ideas about the White Rose leaflets, though, and they quickly fought and parted ways. But the professor was arrested and killed too.
Centering the play on these activist students is a way to connect it to right now as well?
Over time, these stories spoke to me, not just of German hope and resistance, but about how brave these students were — and they started to feel so relevant, like a metaphor for our world. I feel that every day we get closer and closer to “Are you a Hans and Sophie, and what are you going to do?”
Sadly, I think the story is very relevant, and the play draws power from that. I think of my cousins and their friends and what they did, and Greta Thunberg and climate control, and all the young voices who are actually becoming the young voices of many different causes. If Hans and Sophie had lived, they would have been that sort of people. But they made some careless, reckless decisions in the end that cost them their lives.
If Sophie hadn’t thrown those leaflets in such a public place….
Yes, but they were being watched. It was a matter of months. If Hans hadn’t painted the slogans and the crossed-out swastikas….The movement was growing, it was in a lot of cities in Germany.
And that was dangerous, the more they got out there, the more people they had to trust.
They very carefully picked up people here and there, beyond their circle of friends. There was even a theater director in another city who had a meeting planned with Hans for the day after they he and Sophie were arrested—and Hans didn’t show up. The movement was really picking up speed.
You grew up in Fort Worth, but live and work in New York City. You’re the definition of Amphibian’s mission to keep one foot in Texas and the other in NYC. [Though I’ve never been sure which place was land, and which water, to continue the “amphibian” theme.] Is there anything different about making theater in one place or the other?
I think what’s great about being here is that I have both a home town and an artistic home at Amphibian. So when I get here with some artists I get to show them my city, how I grew up, and that goes into the process too. It’s not just about the play, it’s about the whole experience of being here, for all of us. And of course this play will resonate in New York, but it will be interesting to see how audiences here respond.
I talked with one of our designers, who said it’s the high school students who need most to see this play. Because there are lots of them out there who have different political beliefs than their parents, and they need to know it’s okay to go against views that are different from what you believe.
And this play isn’t just about history — it’s about what you can do now, as one kid, one student, one adult, in your own world.
Like Hans and Sophie, starting a movement in a basement. If they can do that, what can we do, and what should we be doing?