While Alberta has slowly become more multicultural, with the increasing oil boom bringing in people from all over the world to partake in the profits from the black gold being dredged from the earth, there was a time when it was viewed as a redneck hellhole. When a Holocaust denier like James Keegstra could be voted mayor of his town and then put in place as the head of the Social Credit Party of Alberta, needless to say, the national media was less than pleased.
The Keegstra Affair is well known as a moment in Albertan history when all Albertans were painted with a broad stroke by the national media. People were shocked that there could be not only such a willful display of ignorance within Alberta, but also a subsequent reward of a position in political office. Ilsa, Queen of the Nazi Love Camp, written in 1986 and performed in 1987, was an attempt to explore the idea of what would happen if Nazis came looking for a very special Holocaust denier.
"We just came up with what is a little musical satire about a little misguided person," says Blake Brooker, co-creative director of One Yellow Rabbit and writer/director of Ilsa. "Here's this guy, in the virtual centre of Alberta, who had done all these things with the rest of the national media looking down on Alberta. We responded in kind with a theatrical response. It's a response to the pigeonholing of all Albertans as rednecks. While it's natural that it should derive from Alberta, it still pissed us off. This was our theatrical response to this living situation--the situation of a high school teacher taught that the Holocaust didn't exist to his student for many years before he was discovered."
As this is the 25th anniversary for local drama company One Yellow Rabbit, they decided to mark the occasion with Ilsa, one of their most recognized plays and which helped thrust them into the international community. Performed in far-ranging places like Edinburgh and Perth, it was originally produced all those years ago in 1987. With the changes that Alberta has experienced over the past 20 years, there's still a lot to enjoy in the play.
"We keep it as a period piece set in 1987," explains Brooker. "You can watch it on a number of levels: as an extended Saturday Night Live type of satire or as a musical with the tropes and memes associated with the genre. People can listen to the beautiful music composed by David Rymer, who also plays with an exquisite violinist named Karl Roth. Musicals are about their music because the information of a play isn't just conveyed by the text of the script, but by the living, breathing nature and sensibilities of its music."
For such a little play it has had some big issues while being produced. Throughout the process of the various remountings in 1990, 1993 and 1995, there have been investigations and haunting by some of the more unsavoury figures in the Albertan cultural scene.
"Of course events happened after [the productions]," explains Brooker. "We got investigated by the RCMP, for whatever reason I've never understood, probably to muzzle us at the time. There's nothing like an investigation by the RCMP over months to shut you up. It's a pretty naked, vulnerable sensation."
What's more, the Holocaust deniers--the ones that have so infected online culture with their viewpoints--were still kicking around in the 1980s. Instead of YouTube and other websites, they used pamphlets and talk radio to get their viewpoint across. The truly insidious aspect is, they attempted to infiltrate One Yellow Rabbit the last time they performed Ilsa.
"They exist everywhere," says Brooker. "There's a network throughout Canada and they all know each other. We were infiltrated by them the last time we performed. There was this organization called the Calgary Regional Arts Association in the past. These people infiltrated the assocation to get to us."
There's a reason why: one of the easiest ways to show the absurdities of a viewpoint is through fiction. Even though it may be a simple musical satire, there's a message that shows what happens when someone so out of touch with reality is confronted with the prospect of the atrocities he so viciously denies.
"As a dramatist, I thought it'd be interesting if [Keegstra] was confronted with a couple of people who participated in the Holocaust and what would happen if they met," explains Brooker. "It's one of those regular kind of 'what if?' scenarios. The Holocaust deniers have their perspective, but they also have an agenda. The play, to me, is really about the appropriateness of being a teacher and teaching the material to unformed minds. The tragedy is that he should have been stopped early. There is a cautionary note that derives from it: that parents should know what is being taught in their schools."
The core message of Ilsa, Queen of the Nazi Love Camp is there are people out there who have a certain kind of idea, but are so viciously willing to attempt and express that idea in any given situation.
"In the end, Ilsa is a comedy that's about a deadly-serious topic: prejudice and denial of reality," adds Brooker. "To deny reality, it has a great impact. This is a cautionary tale for everyone to think once, twice, maybe even three times before you expound about anything unless you really know what happened."
Ilsa, Queen of the Nazi Love Camp premieres in the Big Secret Theatre Fri., Mar. 28 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets at Ticketmaster.