By Lowell Byers
Directed by Austin Pendleton
Produced by Nylon Fusion Theatre Company
Nomination: Noel Joseph Allain is nominated for Outstanding Actor in a Featured Role
About this Production
Luft Gangster tells the true story of a group of P.O.W.s in Germany’s Stalag Luft VI, a camp far north in the Reich’s territory used to detain British, Canadian, and American Air Force NCOs. Lowell Byers wrote the piece after interviews with his cousin Lou Fowler whom Byers portrayed with sensitivity, charm, and emotion.
Playwright Lowell Byers, Producer Ivette Dumeng and Actor Noel Joseph Allain talk about staging a true story of circumstances that tests a man's humanity.
What inspired you to write Luft Gangster?
Lowell: I have always been drawn to plays that are based on true stories. When I found out about my cousin's incredible POW story from my grandmother, I immediately knew I wanted to dramatize it in some fashion. I had written and performed a one-man show in college featuring family/war stories and discovered my interest in them. I also just find World War II such a fascinating war and I think it is very important to honor our WWII veterans since there are so few of them left.
For this particular story, my first instinct was to write a screenplay, but then I realized it might be better to see if I could develop that same story through a play. Having acted in numerous readings in NYC, I thought it would be a great way to hear whether or not this play was something I should pursue. After the great response from the first reading in June 2011, I went right back to work on the revisions.
What attracted you to this project?
Ivette: Lowell Byers' commitment to telling his cousin's story was inspiring. Austin Pendleton was on board from an early stage and, together with assistant director Montserrat Mendez, are a great team. The play, an honest and nuanced account of wartime survival, not the typical myth-making war story, fit our company's mission to produce works that explore and promote political, social and cultural awareness.
What was your favorite part of the production?
Lowell: My favorite part of the production was getting to work with the cast and crew - everything from Austin Pendleton's direction, to my talented and collaborative cast mates, to acting with my father, Ralph Byers. Performing with talented actors who can make your writing sing, is one hell of a gratifying experience. I also was so fortunate to have two enthusiastic leaders, spear-heading the operation in my assistant director/stage manager, Montserrat Mendez, and producer, Ivette Dumeng.
Ivette: Everyone involved in Luft Gangster believed in the project from the beginning. That's what made my experience as a producer so exciting. Lowell Byers, Austin Pendleton, and Montserrat Mendez drove the production, the actors committed emotionally and physically, and the crew and designers did an impressive job with the set, lighting and sound to recreate the experience of the camp. It was an ensemble production.
Noel: The extraordinary cast and Austin Pendleton.
What was the most challenging part of working on this production?
Ivette: The time constriction was challenging, with Lowell Byers, our playwright and lead, just having been accepted into the Old Globe, and our director, Austin Pendleton, performing in another play on top of his usual full schedule. We had a short time to bring Luft Gangster to the stage and just a brief window to present it. The team did an amazing job under pressure and working with them made the challenge worthwhile.
Noel: The responsibility of telling the story of these brilliant, courageous, loyal people. Trying to really get into their skin and bring that reality into the room. To make it palpable and genuine and immediate.
What is the most important or memorable thing you'll take away from working on this production?
Ivette: Luft Gangster took place in a P.O.W. camp. Our team created a very tight production in a small playing space. It made the actors really dig into the work- we felt the heat of their summer, the freeze of their winter, and the paranoia of prison life with them.
Lou Fowler actually celebrated a birthday during the run. Although Lou was too frail to travel to New York from his home in South Carolina to see a performance, the cast, dressed in their uniforms, sang happy birthday to him on video.
Noel: We rehearsed for one week. Everyone brought so much into the rehearsal room. It was an incredible experience to see it come together so fast. It is incredible just how quickly a talented group of people can make something meaningful in a short amount of time. Lowell's script was there already so we had that going for us, but we only had a week to rehearse the thing which was daunting. But the group was so talented, focused, well cast, and generous that the piece seemed to come together like magic. Sometimes things take forever to work and sometimes, with the right group, it's almost effortless.
Lowell: The entire experience was memorable. I will always be proud of the fact that we fit this production into a three week time period with one week of rehearsal, and a two week run. The time was so tight since I had to do a show in Gloucester, MA, right before and then leave the day after the production's closing to begin my time as an MFA for the Old Globe/USD. What this ensemble accomplished with only 7 days of rehearsal was pretty remarkable.
What did you want the audience to take away from your production?
Ivette: We wanted our audience to see the grays in an era that is often painted in stark tones of good and evil. Morality can get muddied in matters of life and death. Great historical events are made up of the many individual stories of those involved. A reviewer from Theatre Is Easy said "Luft Gangster is a moving, warm play marked by bravery, camaraderie, and a loving look into the bond formed by good men in impossible circumstances."
Noel: I think it's always important to remember how people have struggled in the past. We need perspective in the States. My lifetime has been a very luxurious period in our history and now I think we're entering a time of a lot more uncertainty. When I think of WWII, or any war for that matter, it's much more affecting to me to hear an individual's story because I can put myself in that person's shoes. I can imagine myself in the same scenarios and it's like holding up a mirror of sorts. How would I have acted under these circumstances? Have I ever even thought about it? What kind of person would I be now if I'd gone through this kind of hardship? Would I have grown up faster…? Looking at history through the eyes of another individual opens the door to a lot of self-examination and I think we could all use more awareness in our lives.
Lowell: I think this play offers, in the toughest way, that common life lesson that we all experience at some point in our lives...you never know what you've got, until it's gone. When I interviewed the real Lou Fowler, the play's main character, he said it was inexplicable just how wonderful he felt when he was given his freedom back after having lost it for 13 months. In this story, Lou had to literally run away from sure death to get it back.
After my initial interview with Lou Fowler in 2009, I had a newfound appreciation of my freedom, not only as an American, but as a human being. I hope the audience could leave my play with a recognition of what their own personal freedom means to them.