Thursday 3 March 2016

Eleanor's Story preview

In 1939, 9 year-old Eleanor Ramrath Garner and her German born parents decided to move back to Germany to escape the hardships of the Great Depression in America. On their way, war broke out and they found themselves unable to return to America. What followed Eleanor was 9 years of keeping hope, struggling for stability and facing hunger and death on a regular basis.

60 years later, Eleanor published her memoirs of this experience entitled Eleanor's Story. Skip ahead 14 years and her grand-daughter, Ingrid Garner, has adapted her story for the stage and returns to Australia for a Melbourne season at Chapel off Chapel. "I am so excited to be back, I love Australia, it’s my favourite place to visit," she says. "I get to see the friends I haven’t seen in a year, and it’s like no time has passed. The audiences I’ve had here are incredibly receptive to the play and make me feel appreciated."

"While stories of World War 2 - both fact and fiction - continue to be told (and rightfully so), Garner's production of Eleanor's Story has struck a chord with audiences and critics alike for its recount of what civilians in Germany experienced. "World War II is one of the most talked about events in human history, particularly because of the unfathomable cruelty that came with the industrialization of death during the holocaust, and the struggles that soldiers faced in battle," she explains. "Some may feel that we have heard all the history there is to hear from World War 2, but the truth is we rarely hear about how the civilians suffered. That is what my grandmother’s story is about, citizens in wartime, and I feel the value in telling it is its universality. The experiences she had are shared by anyone from a war-torn country, which is why, unfortunately, this story continues to be relevant, 70 years later.”

I was a little unsure how Garner could successfully manage to fit in 7 years of her grandmother's life into the 60 minute show while staying true to the memoirs, and as it turns out, I wasn't the only one. "My grandmother was sceptical about it too, so she proposed that perhaps I just do a few vignettes from the book," Garner tells me. "But my director, Craig Tyrl, and I were determined that the show start and end the same way the book does, and I feel we succeeded in that. It took quite a bit of cutting and a little rearranging, but my grandmother was certainly impressed with the outcome."

"My grandmother 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," Garner says. "I think she was impressed and perhaps a bit surprised by the production. After all, 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 honoured by the show and is elated by its international success."

Garner spent much of her final year as a Theatre Arts Major conceptualising the play and how she would tell the story. During this process, she realised she needed input from a director and came across Tyrl, who was completing his Master of Fine Arts Degree. "When I was looking for a director, it was important to me to find someone who could be fairly delicate with the sensitive nature of the material and its performer. It’s a personal story in that it’s my family story, but it’s also a very intimate look at a vulnerable young girl’s coming of age. Craig was incredible to collaborate with. Even when I was being stubborn about keeping a certain story in, he would always try to make it work and put it on its feet, even if it would probably end up getting cut. I’m still blown away by what we were able to accomplish in the busiest three months of our lives.”

Garner hopes Eleanor's Story continues to tour the world and share her grandmother's life with audiences. This also includes a children's show called The Great Steed of Bells for those too young for Eleanor’s Story. "Eleanor’s Story will be touring the California coast soon, Canada in July, and Edinburgh in August. I hope my audiences feel inspired to inquire with their own parents and grandparents about their experience of war. Many people fall silent after a war, it’s completely understandable. It took my grandmother 60 years to share her story, but when she did, it healed her, and it was a great boon to her readership and the rest of us. Each memory a survivor shares puts a human face on the horrors of war and allows us to see that these were people, not numbers."

Venue: Chapel Off Chapel, 12 Little Chapel St, Prahran

Season: 15 - 20 March | Tue- Sat 7.30pm, Fri-Sun 3pm

Tickets: $28 Full | $23 Conc

Bookings: Chapel Off Chapel

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