"Hearing stories about the wartime youth of my grandmother – a youth entirely different to my own – I felt compelled to record them while I was able. Conversations soon became interviews and one evening, polishing costume shoes in the bowels of a university theatre, I began writing scene one in my mind." – Nicola Germaine.
Nicola Germaine is a young emerging Melbourne playwright. Her first play, Of Words And War, is based on true events during WWII as recounted to her by her Grandmother (and Editorial Advisor), Elsa. The play focuses on four young German women who are serving their country on the field of an air force base. Germaine marks the telling of this tale as a kind of rite of passage as well as a labour of love. There is no judgment in her work, just a simple acknowledgement of all that transpired during a truly horrific time in world history.
" While the story is about German women during the war, I do not see it as a political play; it is simply a story about four people who struggle to be creative and courageous despite the work they do and the side they are on," says Germaine. "These girls grew up in the Bund Deutcher Mädel (BDM), a female division of Hitler youth, so while they were a product of the regime, they were not malevolent; they were eighteen years of age at the time and simply doing their best. I hope people see these characters first and foremost as young women, whose youth was ‘claimed’ for the service of country."
The play is now in rehearsal and being produced by A Highway One Theatre Company and Andrew Dodds and, it would seem, its potential was recognized by a discerning producer at some stage. However circumstances are not always so easy for emerging playwrights, as Germaine explains, "In a practical sense it can be difficult putting on your first play. Grant applications often require some sort of track record outside of training; being my first play, I didn’t have one and I’d been out of training too long to qualify for ArtStart. I took the script into to La Mama (twice) and wanted to submit it to Playwriting Australia’s Post Script program, but they had been inundated with scrips and the program put on hiatus. I resolved to put it on at a Fringe Festival some time, on a tiny budget that I’d saved myself, but then went overseas instead. I was shocked when, a year or so later, someone wanted to direct it at La Mama."
There is, of course, the initial problem of transferring thoughts and mind pictures onto paper – finding and creating that piece of cohesion that is going to make sense to others reading it, as well as finding that formula that successfully lifts the story into a play, as well as other practical issues that are often the bane (but necessary requirements) of the artistic mind. "For anyone trying to create or get a project off the ground the challenge is finding time for it, while still earning a wage," states Germaine. "I would write on weekends and sometimes my progress was infuriatingly slow – I’d find myself in the garden staring at things – but you simply keep going; I wanted it to have a life on stage!"
"The first few drafts of the play were far too wordy; I’d written a novella and while it told the story thoroughly, it took the very honest advice of a friend and colleague to point out that a lot of it wasn’t actually necessary, especially on stage. While stinging initially, that advice spurred me on to revise the structure completely and come up with a leaner version of events (while still maintaining the spirit of the story)."
Every playwright has to be inspired by something – has to see the world in a particular way so that the mundane becomes exciting and the exciting extraordinary. Some, like Germaine, admire values like honesty, integrity, courage and spirit as well as the individual's transformation when faced with adversity. Above all else though, playwrights are story tellers and Germaine is no different. "I love to tell a story, so am equally inspired by the humorous journey through simple everyday – often daggy or humble – situations; there is much beauty and warmth to be found and often just as much of a transformation or journey in such situations."
Germaine's play is partly a historical account and partly a memory play. It is the by-product of story telling, in fact, almost a testament to the importance of keeping stories alive. "I believe it is always important to tell our stories; history – both cultural and personal – is kept alive that way and a tale that celebrates the strength, humour and wisdom found in a challenging journey, is as relevant in 2012 as it was in 1944," explains Germaine.
Germaine's work explores a very dark time in modern history but through it all she manages to capture and express the human condition in its most hopeful and courageous state. Germaine's message is clear: "That integrity and spirit – not to mention humor and irreverence – prevails despite the strict regulations and secrecy governing the lives of these individuals. These young women develop the courage for the journey, simply by going through it; having to meet each situation as it comes with all that they are in that moment."
Of Words And War plays at La Mama from June 20 – July 1.