An old theater adage says actors must be their character’s best friend. For Elizabeth Stahlmann, that’s not too hard these days. The actor is returning to her role as Dr. Rebecca Erbelding in Here There Are Blueberries at Shakespeare Theatre Company, after starring in its premiere at San Diego’s La Jolla Playhouse last summer. The play centers on a mysterious album of photos sent to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum showing Nazis at leisure. To prepare, Elizabeth spoke with a real-life archivist and historian at the USHMM, Dr. Rebecca Erbelding. The two hit it off.
Written by Moisés Kaufman and Amanda Gronich, directed by Kaufman, and devised with members of the Tectonic Theatre Project, Here There Are Blueberries is a work of documentary theater. The company developed the play over a dozen years from interviews with Dr. Erbelding, the families of Holocaust survivors and perpetrators, and others. The full story of the real photo collection, known as the Hoecker album, reveals profound questions about the nature of atrocities, legacies, and the act of keeping, and telling, stories themselves. The play won the 2022 Theater J Trish Vradenburg Jewish Play Prize.
In a joint interview with DC Theater Arts, the connection between Stahlmann and Erbelding was as clear as it was joyous. Read on for their discussion of the play’s origins, their first meeting, and their thoughts on bringing this powerful story to the nation’s capital.
DCTA: What was your experience of the play’s beginning, Dr. Erbelding?
Dr. Rebecca Erbelding: Moisés reached out to me via Facebook Messenger in the fall of 2010. I knew who he was because I had done theater in high school and college. He said he had read about the Hoeker album and was coming down to DC for something else, could he come over to the museum and talk about it? He said something like, “I think there’s a play in this.” I kind of ignored that part because I thought “There’s not a play in this,” but I would still get to meet Moisés and talk to him about this album I find fascinating. So he came down the Friday before Thanksgiving. I took him into the basement of the museum, where our conservation labs were at the time. I don’t know how long he had thought we were going to be there but it was at least two hours. Then he went away. Over the next 13 years, he would do other productions but keep returning to this story, keep coming back into my life. He would ask for more interviews or email about one specific thing. In 2018, there was a reading in Miami, which was the first time I saw anything. I went in completely cold, a wild experience. Then they said it was going to La Jolla, where I got to see it with the amazing cast out there. It actually became a play!
What was your first reaction, Elizabeth, to reading Here There Are Blueberries?
Elizabeth Stahlmann: I was on vacation, in Miami in 2021, and got an audition for the next day. I was like, “What?” I read the script. There was a little bit of Becky in there, but the script was really just taking us through the pictures. It was kind of a skeleton. What I hadn’t realized was, in true Tectonic form, they had been developing a whole visual vocabulary and a whole sonic vocabulary that help tell many aspects of this story.
What about playing a character based on Dr. Ebelding?
Stahlmann: I immediately Googled Becky, like, “Who is this woman? She’s amazing!” There wasn’t a lot of time to encapsulate her, but as it turns out that wasn’t the point of the production. It isn’t about just emulating Becky. They extracted her curiosity, her passion, and her essence and put that in the play. But there are lots of verbatim aspects to the play. When I say words that Becky has actually said, I’m able to access a point of view and a perspective.
When did you two first meet?
Dr. Erbelding: It was a preview night at La Jolla. Did you know I was going to be there?
Stahlmann: I’m one of those weird actors who like to peek at the audience before going out so I can know who’s out there. I was so excited you were there.
Dr. Erbelding: My husband, Matt, and I watched the show. I was talking with Moisés afterward when I saw Elizabeth. Matt took a photo of the two of us minutes later and we’re in the same pose, laser-focused on each other. We mind-melded.
Stahlmann: It was so cool. As an actor, I jump into these worlds and I try to learn as much about these worlds as humanly possible. Then suddenly I’m standing in front of not only the person who I play, so I get to ask questions about her experience, but also a leading expert on the subject matter. How could I not pick her brain about every aspect of this play? It’s thrilling to know her. She’s remarkably smart and articulate, not to talk about her as though she’s not here [laughs].
What’s your experience watching a character based on yourself, Dr. Erbelding?
Dr. Erbelding: I got to sit in on some rehearsal when the actors came to town. At one point, Elizabeth and Moisés were trying to decide some motivation and what the character knew at a particular moment. And finally, they just kind of looked over at me. “It’s what Elizabeth said.” I was very excited to be able to provide my own motivation.
Stahlmann: Two weeks ago, Moisés gave this direction like, “You know when Becky does this. Add that.” And I’m not going to tell you what it is [laughs].
Dr. Erbelding: My husband’s going to notice it. There are a couple things already where he’s like, “Oh, that’s from you.” I will say when [the company] adds something they’re not sure about for my character, they send it to me. At one point I gave them a list of all my favorite archival supplies for props, certain folders, and boxes I like best. Before La Jolla, they asked me what I was wearing in 2007, when the events of the play take place, for the most part. I was a poor 25-year-old grad student. I put together some pictures in which I tried to look cool and sent them to the costume designer, Dede Ayite, who is very cool. Thankfully, the team decided the show is in the present and so ignored all of my fashion choices. But there was a debate in La Jolla about whether I would wear khakis or jeans.
Stahlmann: We went with really nice pants.
Dr. Erbelding: I even talked with Elizabeth about wearing my actual work badge.
What are your thoughts about having Here There Are Blueberries in DC?
Stahlmann: When I was first cast, my fiancé, Andrew, and I drove down to the Holocaust Memorial Museum. I immediately thought this play needs to be done in DC. As a theatergoer, it’s so rare to have a play where the primary source is right down the street. It’s really powerful to witness the collaboration between these art forms and these three national institutions, Shakespeare Theatre Company, Tectonic, and the Museum.
Dr. Erbelding: The play has been part of my life for 13 years. My colleagues have helped out at various points, but I’m really excited and anticipating what they are going to think seeing their work represented. I hope I’ve done them justice. I also think the play asks profound questions about collaboration and complicity that are relevant not just in DC but to all Americans. How do we make decisions and how do we justify things that maybe we shouldn’t be justifying?
Stahlmann: One of the things that continually astounds me is that one of the ways the Holocaust happened is certain procedures were made legal. To do this play in our nation’s capital, where our laws are created, is a really important opportunity for us to really recognize and also question what we are participating in.
Here There Are Blueberries plays May 7 through 28, 2023, at Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Harman Hall, 610 F Street NW, Washington, DC. Tickets ($35–$125) are available at the box office, online, or by calling (202) 547-1122. Special discounts are available for members of the military, students, seniors, and patrons age 35 and under. Contact the Box Office or visit Shakespearetheatre.org/tickets-and-events/special-offers/ for more information.
Running Time: 90 minutes with no intermission.
The company has curated a series of events with company members, scholars, and others. See the full listing here.
COVID Safety: All performances in Shakespeare Theatre Company spaces are MASK RECOMMENDED. Detailed Safety and Health information is here.
Here There Are Blueberries
By Moisés Kaufman and Amanda Gronich
Conceived & Directed by Moisés Kaufman
Devised with Scott Barrow, Amy Marie Seidel, Frances Uku, Grant James Varjas, and the Members of Tectonic Theater Project
Shakespeare Theatre Company adds ‘Here There Are Blueberries’ to season (news story, February 1, 2023)