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KAMP’s survival songs 

The new musical reveals a little-known part of WWII, where gay men kept culture alive in the darkest of circumstances.

  • riley smith

To November 11
Neptune Theatre Scotiabank Stage, 1593 Argyle Street

"It blew my mind. I thought, 'This is a musical begging to be written,'" says Garry Williams. Williams was visiting Sachsenhausen, a Nazi concentration camp north of Berlin. He learned the site had housed a sub-camp for homosexual men, "so they wouldn't spread the gay," he says. The prisoners were somehow able to come together regularly "to put on cultural evenings, readings and cabaret performances, including satirical songs about the camp."

In the ensuing years Williams, a composer and actor (and artistic director of DaPoPo Theatre), has joined forces with the playwright Jamie Bradley and after a few staged readings and performances, the resulting show, KAMP, has become Eastern Front Theatre's biggest production ever. It opens tonight as a co-production on Neptune's second stage.

"I never knew about the homosexual victims of the Holocaust," says Williams, a gay man who grew up in Berlin. "Even after the liberation from World War II, homosexuality was still a crime. Prisoners who survived were still criminals—there were no offers of reparations, no one was considering them bona fide victims of Nazi terror."

"The second World War is pretty well-covered; unfortunately the stories of these men are not," says Bradley, who pulled research from a tiny handful of memoirs. "I tried to imagine what it was like, which was difficult since I have a soft life."

Directed by Eastern Front's artistic director Sam Rosenthal, KAMP is the company's largest production in its 25-year history. "See this show before the word spreads and it's selling out on Broadway. It's that good," Michael Lake wrote for The Coast of a work-in-progress presentation last spring. This production, clocking at two-and-a-half hours, employs 29 people and involves multiple levels of choreography: Songs, fights, sex. An obvious comparison is Roberto Benigni's Academy Award-winning film Life is Beautiful from 1998.

"There's a major difference," notes Williams. "In Life is Beautiful, the premise is a father invents a fiction. It's an escapist way of dealing with that, to mislead his child into believing there is no danger." The men depicted in KAMP, "they do the opposite. They wrote about the torture. They wrote about the probability of their murder. It's not escapist. They're not perpetuating a fantasy—they are in fact making art out of the suffering of their life."

The story of KAMP finds the prisoners attempting to put on a particularly ambitious cabaret. Playwright and composer both describe the show as darkly comic. "For me the notion of camp allows the darkness to exist with the lightness," says Williams, paraphrasing Christopher Isherwood: "'It's not making fun of something, it's having fun with something.' You set the fact that you are in a dangerous place where you're probably going to be worked to death, and you choose to perform that truth in a song."

"It's about them trying to survive, and trying to maintain their identities," says Bradley, "to live together with people you are forced to live with and forming a family. Supporting each other and not supporting each other. And having the release of the horror by expressing themselves through humour."

For the prisoners, says Williams, "their own weapon is wit. They sass and they quip. That's historically documented. The prisoners who wore the pink triangle—it's amazing to imagine a Nazi guard hearing someone carrying a rock and mincing."

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