At London's Old Vic, 'Camp Siegfried' probes American Nazis

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Actors Patsy Ferran, right and Luke Thallon, stars of the play Camp Siegfried, pose for a photographer in front of the Old Vic theatre in London, Friday, Sept. 10, 2021. London's Old Vic Theatre is reopening at full capacity for the first time since the pandemic began. The show is Camp Siegfried, American writer Bess Wohl's play about a summer camp for Nazis on New York's Long Island. It's based on a real-life camp in the 1930s that indoctrinated young German-Americans into the ideas of the Third Reich, and depicts two teenagers whose burgeoning relationship collides with the insidious ideology of Nazism. (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)

LONDON – What could be more American than summer camp? It has fresh air, sailing, cookouts — and, in Bess Wohl’s new play, swastikas.

“Camp Siegfried” is based on a real-life camp on Long Island in the 1930s that indoctrinated young German-Americans into Nazi ideology. The play has its opening night Friday at London’s Old Vic Theatre, the venue’s first show to full-capacity audiences since the coronavirus pandemic began.

Photos from the era show brown shirt-wearing teenagers parading with Nazi flags, 60 miles (100 kilometers) east of Manhattan. Like many Americans, Wohl was unaware of that piece of hidden history — until she found herself pandemic-stranded in a rental house on Long Island, close to the site of the camp.

“It was the pandemic, I was home and I just got really obsessed with the fact that there had been this camp 10 minutes away from where we were staying," said the New York-born writer, whose plays include “Small Mouth Sounds” — set in a silent retreat — and the divorce comedy “Grand Horizons,” which had a Broadway run just before the virus struck.

"I started driving around the streets, which, of course, looked like these banal Long Island suburban streets. But that, I had found out, were once named Hitler Street and Goebbels Street and all of these things that just sounded incomprehensible to me.”

Camp Siegfried was one of several sponsored by the German-American Bund that aimed to seed Nazi ideology on American soil. The area later became a quiet neighborhood, with bungalows lining streets named for leaders of the Third Reich. The names are long gone, but rules requiring properties to be sold to people of German descent persisted into the 21st century.

Wohl’s research inspired her drama about two campers — a 16-year-old girl and a 17-year-old boy — whose burgeoning relationship collides with the insidious ideology of Nazism.

“I was interested in the way that that moment when you’re forming your identity and figuring out who you are is so fragile and how easily you can fall into something really dangerous and evil without even knowing it,” Wohl told the Associated Press.

Wohl began writing the play during the 2020 U.S. election campaign, and while it never mentions modern politics or Donald Trump, she notes that the dangers the play explores are “not as far away as we might think.”

Director Katy Rudd said the way extreme ideas take root and grow is a an all-too-relevant issue in our “increasingly polarized” 21st-century world.

“We live in a different kind of echo chambers today — they’re online,” said Rudd, who directs actors Patsy Ferran and Luke Thallon in the two-hander, which runs until Oct. 30. “Misinformation gives oxygen to far-right groups and conspiracy theories can flash around the world in minutes. You don’t have to go to camp anymore to understand that.”

For writer, cast and crew, the play’s subject is no less amazing than the fact it the performance is happening at all. London theaters were shuttered in March 2020 and are only now reopening at full capacity, following the lifting of social distancing rules in England in July.

The pandemic has been devastating for the U.K.’s theater community, with thousands of artists and technicians thrown out of work, or into jobs as supermarket delivery drivers — a new boom industry. Many stage companies have been given a financial lifeline by the government, but they still face uncertainty and the fear COVID-19 may surge again in the winter.

Rudd has worked over the past year on the Old Vic’s In Camera series of livestreamed plays, played to viewers around the world, one small positive from the pandemic. Wohl even managed to get a play staged — “Lust,” part of a series on the Seven Deadly Sins performed in Miami and New York shopfronts over the summer.

For cast and crew, being back in a theater and in front of an audience means mask-wearing, virus vigilance and frequent COVID-19 tests. They say it’s worth it.

“I’m quite emotional about it all,” said Thallon, whose credits include Tom Stoppard’s “Leopoldstadt” in the West End and “Present Laughter” at the Old Vic.

“I have not worked like that, in close proximity with another actor — where we can play and challenge and have fun and surprise each other freely — since March 2020,” he said. “I don’t know how I would have coped if you’d told me that it would be a year and a half, because this is all I want to do. I just want to do plays. And I can’t imagine a world where doing them is made even more harder than it currently is.”

Ferran, whose performance in Tennessee Williams’ “Summer and Smoke” won a best-actress Olivier Award in 2019, said she felt the same mix of excitement and apprehension for her industry.

“It’s going to be hard work,” she said. “But there’s a lot of fight to keep it going.”