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TRCH Classic Thriller Season

Zoo Indigo Are Taking Us To No Woman's Land

1 March 18 interview: Hazel Ward

Far from the generals and politicians who instigate conflict, the ordinary people who suffer in wars are often forgotten. In their production No Woman’s Land, local theatre duo Zoo Indigo – made up of Rosie Garton and Ildikó Rippel shine a spotlight on the extraordinary women who struggled under threat of violence and rape to find a safer place for their families after the end of the Second World War. We caught up with Ildiko to find out more...

What’s No Woman’s Land about?
It’s based on a journey that Rosie and I undertook in 2015, when we retraced my grandmother’s walk from Poland to Germany after she was expelled following the Second World War. She walked 220 miles over three months with her two young children. We did that same journey over three weeks, walking about twenty miles a day, carrying flatpack versions of our own kids; life-size cardboard cutouts strapped to our backpacks.

In the performance, we’re dealing with historical events as well as the experience of my grandmother, and also our personal experiences of the walk. There’ll be song, gallows humour and some tap dancing because that’s relevant to the time period, but also to tell a very harrowing story using very dark humour. During the production, somebody’s always walking on a treadmill to represent the endurance experience of the project. Audience members are encouraged to participate too.

What were your experiences of the walk, physically and emotionally?
I lost all my toenails. I had so many blisters it was horrendous. They all had names like Bob or Brian so I thought of myself as “Ildikó and the Blisters” like some sort of crazy eighties band. Every day there were points where you thought you just couldn’t do it anymore but because I was so motivated to to do the project, we continued.

We talked a lot about my grandmother and had some voice recordings that my aunt did, who was on the walk herself as a child. We listened to those occasionally when we came to particular points where she had a memory. Those moments were quite emotional; we felt particularly connected to the past at the end, when we arrived in the small village where my grandmother ended up. At that time, millions of people were looking for new homes, so they walked from village to village until they eventually found somewhere. Finally arriving at that very small village in the former east of Germany felt really humbling.

Did the legacy of the war affect your family when you were growing up?
My grandmother is from a very small place in Selesia, which became Poland after the Potsdam Agreement that decided that Germany should lose some land. My grandmother didn’t know where her husband was as he fought in the war – he wasn’t a Nazi but they were all pulled in to fight – and he went missing for eight years.

She ended up in Saxony with her two children and, assuming he had died, fell in love with a younger guy who is actually my father’s real father. The Red Cross eventually brought people back together and after eight years, her husband found her and they emigrated to the south, to Bavaria. My father tried to find his biological father, but back when it was East and West Germany, it was impossible to find people. There have been three generations over seventy years, but the events of the war still affect the lives of people today.

Doing the walk meant revisiting those connections and memories, and the fact that the family was pulled apart. Everybody living in Germany is haunted by this past, this guilt of the holocaust, with so many people affected and so many families being torn apart. With the flatpack children on our backs, people were noticing that we weren’t just hiking.

Whenever we told the story they were saying, “Yes my grandfather too, my grandmother too,” because so many people had to leave their homes at the time. For me, my grandmother became the main protagonist because she was a woman and she had that sense of agency to keep walking, to survive and protect her children.

What was your family's reaction to the project?
There was a lot of admiration for the the concept and also for reliving my grandmother’s story. They all participated in interviews and voice recordings, and helped me find photographs of which there weren’t many at the time. My parents walked for a day with us, too.

How are you going to translate all the media and your experiences to the stage?
We’re using the Weimar cabaret style of twenties Berlin with gallows humour to tell the story. There’s a mixture of archival footage from ‘45 that we found, together with footage that we took on the walk. We’re also using projection mapping on the floor. We filmed all the different textures of the walk, so if you’re one of the audience members walking on the treadmill, it feels like you’re walking on that surface. It’s in the style of autobiographical performance, but it’s not following a chronological storyline.

There’s a lot of humorous stuff, like the song about having had no training for the walk and about our blisters and toenails ripping off. This is then juxtaposed with other songs about trying to avoid rape, because the women had lots of different mechanisms. Some women lived as men for years by cutting off all their hair and wearing suits in order not to be raped. There’s a lot of positive stuff about the different means of surviving those situations, with much more hard-hitting footage of interviews of other people whose families have had similar experiences.     

What do you hope audiences will get from No Woman’s Land?
We want the audience to relate it to the refugee crisis today. There are some visual references to current events, but most people who have seen the show say it doesn’t need to be spelled out. Even though my grandmother finished her journey, there’s still this endless cycle of migrations.

We always see the male war hero, with women’s stories not often told. It was important to tell of the kind of migration that happened after the Second World War, but we also want people to laugh and be moved. When you laugh at something and then it’s turned on its head, you realise how harrowing and hard-hitting it actually is.

No Woman’s Land shows at Nottingham Lakeside Arts’ Djanogly Theatre on Friday 2 March at 7.30pm. Tickets are £11/£13/£15.

Zoo Indigo website