Volume 22, Number 15 | The Newspaper of Lower Manhattan | Aug. 21 - 27, 2009

Theater

A TIME TO DANCE
Written and performed by Libby Skala
A New York International Fringe Festival and Artistic New Directions presentation
August 15-24
At the Lafayette Street Theatre, 45 Bleecker Street
For tickets: 866-468-7619 or www.fringenyc.org

Libby Skala encapsulates 100 years of life, love, dance
Narrative, motion reveal ‘tart, glamorous grandmother’

BY JERRY TALLMER

  The operative word is “Ja!” As in the following:
 
“One day my older sister Lili, the big shot actress Lilia Skala, says to me: ‘Look, do you want to spend your life in the basement?  Is that why God put you on earth? To live and work in the basement?’…
“So one day, I’m walking down Lexington Avenue in New York City, and I see a sign that says: ‘Lexington School for the Deaf.’ The deaf! I wonder: Do deaf children play like how other children play?  I look into the playground. Oh! Ja. They’re running around, they’re chasing one another. And I think: Ja, these are normal children. They would like to learn how to dance too.”

And then Libby Skala, the lissome granddaughter of Lilia Skala, the grand-niece of Elizabeth (Lisl) Skala and of sister No. 3, Lizi (pronounced Litzi) Skala,, starts to dance. For this is Libby Skala’s much-applauded one-woman show, “A Time to Dance,” interweaving narrative and motion, the successor to her knock-’em-dead “Lilia!” of nine years ago.

It was back while she was researching “Lilia!,” the monodrama about the Vienna-to-Hollywood life and times of her Oscar-nominated grandmother Lilia Skala (the Mother Superior of “Lilies of the Field”), that the human material of what would someday be “A Time to Dance” unfolded before Libby’s eyes and ears without her realizing it.

Happened like this: When Libby Skala, in the summer of 1998, sat down to write “Lilia!,” she soon became aware that, for all the one-to-one personal memories she had of her tart, glamorous grandmother, Libby actually knew very little about Lilia Skala’s early life in Vienna.

“Though I had closer touch with my grandmother” than with her two sisters, Libby says, “when the three families got together every Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter, I realized I really had three grandmothers.” And it was grandmother No. 2, Lisl Skala, whom Libby with tape recorder went to interview, in the Berkshires, in that same summer of 1998.

The interview didn’t turn out the way Libby had hoped and planned. All Great-Aunt Lisl wanted to do was talk — in her own bumpy English — about herself, her private struggles, pitfalls, poverty, setbacks, labors, triumphs, strivings, lovelife (still a virgin at 32), hollow marriage, escape from swastika-draped Austria, lifelong career in the United States as dance therapist Elizabeth Polk.

After a while, interviewer Libby turned off her brain, tuned out, stopped listening, while the tape recorder spun on and on. She stashed the tapes away somewhere, and forgot them. Until…

Lisl Skala died in 2001, shortly after dancing the Macarama at a celebration of her 100th birthday.

What rang in Libby’s ears was Lisl saying to her: “Honey, I’m still alive at 99 because I can laugh.”

Libby suddenly remembered those tapes. She hunted then up, turned  them on, and — this time — tuned in. Really listened. Then she once more sat down to write.

What you get in “A Time to Dance” is the sordid underside, the grit of life in pre-Hitler and then straight-out Nazi Austria. Says Libby: “She [Lisl] would describe things that my grandmother would never have repeated — so awful. But it’s the lens though which Lisl looks back at her life…a little as if she is saying: ‘Isn’t this strange?’ ”

The parents of those three-L girls were Katharina Skala, a Roman Catholic, and Julius Sofer, a Jewish entrepreneurial businessman who reaped a fortune in the European and American manufacture of snap-fasteners for fabric, Schnap! Schnap!.

Julius Sofer’s Jewishness, to the Nazis, made the three daughters Jews themselves, whatever their mother’s religion.

“I once,” says Libby, “asked (Lilia and Lisl) why they felt they had to get out of Austria, and Lisl said: ‘Darling, are you crazy?’ ”

Well, they certainly did feel they had to get out, and one of the tensest passages in “A Time to Dance” is the nerve-wrack of waiting, waiting, waiting, day after day, for the affidavits that could clear their entry to the United States.

There was also the need of getting certain other papers stamped by the Austrian authorities once a month. Lisl’s nebbish husband Harry, whom she seems never to have loved, goes down to the government office for the renewal stamps, but there is a line around the block. “Viennese blocks are long blocks.” Harry gives up, returns home empty-handed.

“We have a little 16-year-old friend named Ruth who is not Jewish,” the Libby-who-is-Lisl says in the show. “When Hitler comes in, [Ruth] tries to kill herself. I get the idea to bring to her in the hospital a little blue nightie I received as a wedding gift. I never wore it…

“She comes to live with us, she wears that little blue nightie, and she never tries to kill herself again. She claims I saved her life…

“[When Harry comes home without the affidavits] Ruth says: ‘I will go.’ She looks just like a Hitler Youth with her little blonde pigtails and knee socks. She puts a big swastika on her arm,  marches down there. ‘Heil Hitler. Heil Hitler. Heil Hitler. All the way to the front of the line…

“In ten minutes she gets us the [stamped] papers.” 

A few interminable afternoons later, the affidavits arrive from America. In which new country, Lisl, who wants only to dance, will be given a job as accountant in her father’s schnap factory. The trouble is, “in Vienna a comma is the same thing as a decimal point,” so that Lisl, born and bred in Vienna, turns thousands and thousands of minus dollars into the same amount of nonexistent pluses.

And Lizi, pronounced Litzi? She becomes a social worker and then a baby nurse—is in fact the nurse who attended at the birth of Libby Skala in Englewood, New Jersey, thirty-something years ago.

“I have always loved to dance,”  says the Mrs. Stephen May that baby grew up to be. Or the Lilia or the Lisl that the stage opens its arms for her to be.


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