An interview with Bess Wohl

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Bess Wohl offers an insight into Camp Siegfried and what drew her to playwriting

Why did you want to become a playwright? 

I originally trained as an actor, but while I was in drama school I became interested in writing little plays for my actor classmates to perform. It was really through writing for my friends and watching them perform my words that I realised I might want to write plays. I enjoyed the experience of being able to shine a light on someone who might not otherwise be seen in quite that way. That desire to shine a light has now extended to subjects and ideas that I want to investigate and explore in my work. I actually started working in theatre as a followspot (handheld spotlight) operator during summers in college, and I suppose I’m still pointing the light at things now, just in a different way.  

What is the first play or piece of theatre you ever saw? 

The first play I remember seeing was Peter Pan starring Sandy Duncan. I must have been only about three years old, but when she flew out over the audience, it was pure magic. That’s the moment that hooked me, and I’ve been searching for that magic ever since.  

What is your favourite play that you have written? 

I really don’t have a favourite. I’ve learned something from each play that I’ve written. I think of plays as experiences that happen in time – and each one represents a period in my life when I was thinking about or grappling with a particular question. In a way, my plays are like my diary, but in code. 

What approach do you take when writing a new play? 

For me, the writing process is one of asking a question, and the making of the play becomes a way of starting to excavate what the answer might be. In this play, I was interested in trying to understand how people become indoctrinated into hateful ideologies, and what about our human nature – our need for love, belonging, passion, fire – makes us susceptible. 

What inspired you to write Camp Siegfried?

The play was written during the summer of 2020, when the pandemic was raging and Donald Trump’s re-election campaign was in full swing. My family and I were staying in a rental house in the town of Bellport on Long Island. I started researching the area and discovered that we were only about ten minutes from a town called Yaphank, where Camp Siegfried had operated. I had never heard of Camp Siegfried and was stunned and appalled to see that Nazis had operated so overtly just nearby, to the point that there was literally a street called ‘Hitler Street’ in New York State. Also shocking to me was the fact that as recently as 2015, only people of German extraction were allowed to purchase property in the area. At a time when America was mired in a climate of hate, division and fear – when our own democracy seemed to hang in the balance – looking at this dark chapter in our country, and how it continues to resonate today, felt essential to me. 

What do you hope audiences will take away from this production?  

I hope this play serves as a reminder that hate and anti-Semitism can hide in plain sight, even in the most seemingly idyllic of places, and that we must continue to examine ourselves and our own history in order to stay vigilant and work towards a more just, equitable and humane world.  

Camp Siegfried plays from 07 Sep–30 Oct.

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