Once the fire started, the 123 mostly Jewish and Italian young women had virtually no chance to survive. Doors were locked to prevent stealing, an elevator only held 12 people at a time and the flimsy fire escapes collapsed. Some jumped to their deaths and 23 men died as well. The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911, in Manhattan, was one of the most harrowing horrors of American history.
Playwright Alix Sobler made this the subject of her play The Great Divide and on Jan. 25 was named the winner of the 2015 Canadian Jewish Playwriting Competition for it. Sobler received a $1,000 prize and a public reading of this work will take place at Montreal’s Segal Centre for Performing Arts on Feb. 16.
In addition, her play The Secret Annex which imagines Anne Frank’s life if she survived the Holocaust, opens Jan. 31 at the Segal Centre. Its first run was in 2014 at the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre.
As she ate a salad and prepared for a rehearsal for The Glass Piano that will open at Columbia University on Feb. 12, she spoke about winning the award and what drives her writing.
“To get noticed in that way is such an honour,” she said. “I worry sometimes that people will be less interested in stories from the past, but every once in a while, you are reassured that people recognize the relevance today.”
She said her writing is informed by her feminism, her Jewish upbringing and her study of the labour movement.
“It just felt like we learned this lesson over 100 years ago and yet still workers are facing those challenges,” she said. “The immigrants who worked in the factories in those days were as far away from the people who bought those clothes as we are from the women and men who work in Indonesia and Taiwan who are making our clothes now.”
Her script shows the women making clothes being overworked and underpaid. But even in an environment like this, One character, Rosa Friedman, finds love. Anne Frank also falls in love in The Secret Annex.
Sobler is getting her MFA in playwriting from Columbia University. Born in New York, she now splits her time between New York and Winnipeg.
Sobler said unique depictions of women are needed.“Not just Jewish plays, but for plays in general, we like our heroines of history to be young, pretty and dead,” she said. “What does it mean when a woman is alive and older than when we remember her but tries to tell her own story? Would we have cared what Anne had to say had she survived?”
She recalled how in 2014, Justin Bieber caused a stir when he visited the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam.
Sobler, who is in her 30s, said the criticism was unfounded and believes Anne would have been a fan of Bieber.
“Anne Frank was obsessed with pop culture stars of the time and I think she probably would have been a ‘Belieber,’” Sobler said. “I was impressed he went. When you’re in the media like that, people are really hard on you and they pick on you a lot.”
Sobler, whose writing is peppered with comedic elements, said she trusts her audiences.
“I don’t preach to people,” she said. “I don’t claim to have anything figured out. Do I hope that my writing can inspire social change? Sure, but really, I encourage investigation.”
Sobler’s real-life love story was theatrical. While doing improv at The Fringe Festival, she met an actor at Lydia’s Pub in Saskatoon.
“He was adorable,” she said, dropping her fork in her bowl. “It was love at first sight.”
She moved from a New York suburb to Winnipeg in 2005.
While the bar she met her husband at on Broadway Avenue in Saskatoon is now closed, she hopes to eventually open a play on Broadway in Manhattan.
“Someday,” she said with a smile. “I like to dream big.”
The Canadian Jewish Playwriting Competition is put on by the Miles Nadal JCC and the prize is funded by the Asper Foundation.