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August 17, 2012

When I decided to portray Gretel Bergmann, a female track and field athlete in Germany in the 1930s, I began by doing research. As an actor, I inhabit a character by studying the culture and events of the times, but also by drawing up a complex mixture of both of our histories and emotions. In this case, I researched the Olympics of 1936 in Berlin, but also thought about my mother's childhood in the 1960s in the U.S. and my years of training as an actor.

Gretel Bergmann was an outstanding athlete. She was a high jumper. She was German. And she was Jewish. She moved to England as a young undergraduate because she was not allowed to pursue sports as a Jew in Germany under the growing anti-Semitic laws after Hitler rose to power in 1933. In England, she quickly became the British high jump champion. Her story is one of those told in the play, How She Played the Game.  

Worried that world powers would refuse to attend the showcase 1936 Olympics because of claims of anti-Semitism, Hitler manipulated German Jewish athletes, wherever they were living, to try out. With her family under pressure, Bergmann went back to Germany, trained under anti-Jewish restrictions and beat the high jump records. After the United States committed to participating in the Olympics -- the real goal of German leaders -- Bergmann was summarily cut from the team.

She was the best: she would have won a silver or a gold, but she was not given the chance simply because of who she was. Exploited and sensing the growing tenor of the Nazi movement, she left Germany with a few dollars.

In the play, Bergmann describes her athletics by saying: "The times when we are what we are everything comes together, the body and the soul, the heart and the mind..."

This line led me to think about my mother. As a child and teenager, my mother was an excellent athlete. She played with the boys and had no fear or intimidation when faced with the prospect of winning. But in high school in the 1960s, her physical education teacher told her that it was a shame that she wasn't a boy -- she was good enough to be a professional athlete.

Luckily, my mom was also an extremely talented musician and she has made her life and career in music, but when I think of her as a young girl being told that she had no option to do things at which she excelled, my heart breaks a little, still.

For me, acting also feels exactly as Bergmann describes her athletics in the play. After many years of study and practice, I am a skilled artist and I am completely in flow when I am engaged in my craft. We all know the jokes about out-of-work actors, but I must tell you, it is extremely difficult to spend years in training, only to be faced with very low prospects of living wage employment.

As I researched Gretel Bergmann, I could not help but think about Iago in Shakespeare's Othello a character that I long to play. Iago is the most delicious villain in western theatrical literature. At one point, he says, But I will wear my heart upon my sleeve; For daws to peck at: I am not what I am.  But the character of Iago is a man, and I am a woman, therefore, I cannot play Iago.

Of course, there are legitimate groups that produce wonderful all-female versions of Shakespeare's plays. But I am not talking about that. I want to play Iago: the man; the villain. I want to explore a psyche that wants nothing but to destroy, out of envy and jealousy and pain and suffering. As an actor, it's challenging to go to the dark places that we do not address in our everyday lives. As a female actor, there are just so many great male roles in classics that are off limits to me, and female roles in modern plays are also underrepresented or fall into yawning stereotypes wife, mother, girlfriend. Gretel's description of being unable to do what she loves -- be an athlete -- resonates with the part of me that feels similarly.

What brought Gretel Bergmann joy is the same as what she was deprived. The universality of not being allowed to do what one loves, or to be who one is because someone deems it inappropriate or unacceptable or -- in the extreme of Bergmann's case, considers it inhuman -- should always be explored, investigated and critiqued. For it is still going on all over our world today.  Muslim women, for example, are still awaiting full inclusion on Olympic teams and in civil society in many nations.

If we allow it, we can feel the pain and sorrow of others -- that is the power of arts and literature. Empathy is what keeps us human, inspires us to protest indignities, allows us to be grateful for the freedom and blessings we do have, and to speak out against injustice when it is compromised. The challenge for our times is to assure that the doors to freedom are open fully to all people, regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, gender.

(Note: Stacey Linnartz is performing "Gretel Bergmann," a selection from How She Played the Game by Cindy Cooper, at the Anne Frank Center USA in New York City on August 23, 2012 at 6 p.m. in an evening celebrating "Jewish Women You Should Know" and in recognition of Women's Equality Day the following week.)