ED2015 Interviews ED2015 Theatre ED2015 Week0 Edition

Shelley Mitchell: Performing with angels

By | Published on Wednesday 5 August 2015

Talking With Angels

You may or may not have heard of Gitta Mallasz, but hers is an amazing story: an Olympic athlete and graphic artist who was honored by the state of Israel for her role in rescuing one hundred Jewish women and children during the Nazi occupation of Hungary. Though she is perhaps best known for her book ‘Talking With Angels’, recalling how events during the war were impacted on by supposedly ‘channeled messages’ she and two others received through a friend, messages they believed originated with angels.
It was thirty years after the war that Gitta Mallasz first spoke of those events, resulting in the book being published in 1976, and in English three years later. Actress Shelley Mitchell first read the book in 1981 while studying the works of influential spiritual teacher George Gurdjieff.
Moved and inspired by the story, she immediately saw the potential to turn the book into a script, finally getting the opportunity to do just that two decades later at the San Francisco Fringe. Subsequently transformed into a one woman play, with Shelley playing multiple roles, ‘Talking With Angels’ debuts at the Edinburgh Fringe this August. We spoke to Shelley about Mallasz, the events described in her book, and how they were adapted for the stage.

CC: I think we should start off talking about Gitta Mallasz herself. For the uninitiated, give us a quick precis of her life.
SM: Gitta Mallasz was an Olympic athlete and graphic artist who rescued over one hundred Jewish women and children during the Nazi occupation of Hungary, and in 2012 she was honoured as Righteous Among Nations by Yad Vashem in Israel. Born in 1907 to a distinguished Christian military family, she had moved to Hungary when she was fifteen. Later, in 1960, she emigrated to Paris and remained in France until her death in 1992.

CC: Mallasz’s book ‘Talking With Angels’ is based on a series of specific events in her life during the Second World War. Tell us a little about the experiences it documents.
SM: Gitta and her three close friends – Hanna Dallos, Joseph Kreutzer and Lili Strauss – received ‘channeled messages’ via Hanna from a source that seemed to them, at the time, to be angels. Gitta was the only survivor of the group and saved the word-for-word transcriptions they made of their weekly experience, which later became the French best seller ‘Talking With Angels’.

CC: Why do you think Mallasz waited three decades before writing about her experiences?
SM: Well, from 1945 to 1960 she supported herself and her family working as a graphic artist in communist Hungary. She raised the children of her brother who was jailed by the Soviets for his role in the Hungarian military during the war. Once her brother’s children were grown up, she moved to Paris where she had to rebuild her life from scratch. In 1976 she was interviewed about her experiences on French radio and afterwards the station received bags and bags of fan letters imploring her to publish the dialogues; the book was published shortly thereafter. ‘Talking With Angels’ was actually banned in Hungary until 1992 and was finally published in Hungarian in 2005.

CC: After the book was published, Mallasz then spoke a lot about those events. How did she explain what had happened?
SM: The first time Gitta ever lectured about her experience was at the Carl Jung Institute in Zurich. You can see some of her talks now online and it’s clear that her emphasis is not so much on the delivery system as it is the content. The universal message in the dialogues is rousing to anyone searching for answers to life’s big questions. I don’t think the word ‘channeling’ was very common until the 1990s, and I don’t think Gitta ever used that word to describe what happened, though I think that’s the most succinct way to put it.

CC: When did you first come across the book?
SM: In 1981, I had just moved to London from New York. A friend, who was in a Gurdjieff group that I belonged to, told me about a newly published Holocaust diary with an intriguing channeled message in it. I immediately went out and got a copy. As a Jew, I was deeply moved by the story, and as an artist I was deeply inspired by the message.

CC: Tell us how the book first came to be adapted for the stage – I think the original adaptation had a full cast?
SM: Yes, that’s right. If you look at the book it’s practically a script as it is, so I could see the potential to dramatise it right away! It resonated deeply with the things I was studying in the Gurdjieff group, and it resonated equally deeply with the interest I had in the work of the great Italian actress Eleanora Duse, who influenced Stanislavsky and Lee Strasberg to develop what is commonly known as method acting.

By 2000 I was living in San Francisco and some of my students were participating in the fringe festival there. I thought the San Francisco Fringe might be a good place to experiment with Gitta Mallasz’s book, so I took some of the most beautiful dialogues and strung them together for a cast of nine performers. We sold out the shows and won best of the fringe. The publisher of the book, Robert Hinshaw, who lives in Switzerland, saw the online reviews and encouraged me to keep going with it.

CC: How did that morph into the one-woman show?
SM: In the winter of 2000 I went to Switzerland and met with Mr Hinshaw. He showed me hours of Gitta speaking about her experience in English. That was the springboard for the solo show. You can see lots of videos of Gitta online now, but back then it was pretty sensational.

CC: It must be a challenge playing so many characters in the piece?
SM: I’ve performed it over 300 times and it’s almost like rapping now. I’m grateful to have such a muscular piece to perform. One just has to commit to it.

CC: As you say, you’ve performed the show many times now. How do people respond to Mallasz’s story?
SM: Oftentimes at the end of the show the audience is thunderstruck. It becomes very personal, so many things in the dialogues are private yet universal. The audience is often silent for a minute at end of the show; they came to see a play and end up having a personal experience rooted in their greatest hopes and dreams.

CC: What motivated you to bring the show to Edinburgh?
SM: I’m looking to bring this incredible true story to a wider audience. Friends have been telling me for years that Edinburgh is full of producers and bookers looking for unique pieces of theatre, so I thought I should finally give it a try!

‘Talking With Angels: Budapest 1943’ was performed at Summerhall at Edinburgh Festival 2015.

LINKS: talkingwithangels.com