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Shelter under the big top: A musical about the Nazi era

Philipp Jedicke
May 5, 2023

"Waldo's Circus of Magic and Terror" is about a fictional circus troupe during the Third Reich. This tale of humanity in inhumane times is told by disabled and non-disabled people.

A scene from "Waldo's Circus of Magic and Terror" - a man dressed as a circus director sits in a wheelchair, smiling and with arms outstretched, while acrobats and clowns perform around him
Circus director Waldo (Garry Robson) and his troupeImage: Paul Blakemore

British playwright Hattie Naylor had originally wanted to tell a very different story from the one currently touring successfully through Britain. Her initial plan was for a play based on the cult 1932 horror film "Freaks" by US director Tod Browning, a movie that had made a big impact on her.

"What's really special about it is that disabled people are the heroes in the film," said Naylor. But the copyright situation was problematic, and the deeper Naylor delved into the history of circuses of the early 20th century, the more a very different story formed in her imagination — one that would become the musical "Waldo's Circus of Magic and Terror."

During her research, Naylor encountered numerous stories of circuses that employed disabled people, both before and during the Nazi regime. She read about people of short stature working as acrobats and clowns, about Jewish circus directors, and about Adolf Althoff, a non-Jewish German circus director who took in the Bento family of Jewish acrobats, hiding them and giving them work. And Naylor learned how several people were able to save themselves from certain death in extermination camps with touring and connections with international circuses. 

A woman with a laptop and a man in a wheelchair have an animated discussion.
Hattie Naylor (right) collaborated with co-author Jamie BeddardImage: Steve Tanner

Extermination of disabled people

During the Second World War, the Nazis murdered more than 250,000 disabled people. Disabled people were mercilessly persecuted or even turned in by their own relatives. They often met their deaths only after inhumane experiments were performed on them — as in the case of Lya Graf, a world-renowned short-statured circus star who perished in Auschwitz in 1941.

Naylor was especially horrified to read that the "Law for the Prevention of Hereditary Diseased Offspring" was one of the first enacted by Adolf Hitler just six months after he seized power in January 1933. In his racist fantasy of omnipotence, German children were to be "nimble as greyhounds, tough as leather, hard as Krupp steel." That law was only the beginning.

Under the Nazi dictatorship, thousands of disabled or short-statured people and those with psychiatric illnesses were forcibly sterilized, with the aim of "keeping the German national body pure." Those people were as undesirable to the Nazis as Jews, Sinti and Roma, homosexuals, non-conformist artists or political opponents.

The speed with which the measures were implemented in the 1930s convinced Naylor of the importance of telling these stories today. "I am really aware of the rise of fascism in Europe again, and in my own country, and very dubious national and international movements," she said.

In a scene from "Waldo's Circus of Magic and Terror," a seated man smiles at a woman of short stature who is posing as if performing her circus act, with outstretched arms.
Gerhard (Lawrence Swaddle) is in love with Krista (Abbie Purvis). Image: Paul Blakemore

Courage in the face of ever-present threats

From the unfathomably tragic stories of people who died in agony and the hopeful stories of people who risked their lives to save others, Naylor wove a tale of a fictional circus troupe in Brandenburg, Germany set in 1933.

Krista (Abbie Purvis), who is small in stature, is the star of the troupe. Gerhard (Lawrence Swaddle), a non-disabled newcomer, falls in love with the tightrope acrobat. Gerhard's sister Margot (Mirabelle Gremaud), a staunch Nazi, wants Krista and the other disabled performers forcibly sterilized. The circus director Waldo (Garry Robson) is at first unmoved by the growing threat to his troupe, but then decides to help his people. 

The story reads like a classical drama, a kind of Romeo and Juliet tale in a time of great danger. But it is, in fact, groundbreaking: It focuses on an aspect of the history of the Third Reich about which there has been little literature so far, let alone stage shows. Produced as a musical circus show by the inclusive circus troupeExtraordinary Bodies, the piece is not just thought-provoking, but moving and entertaining. It has earned rave reviews from the British newspaper The Guardian, among other outlets.

Inclusive and open to all

In writing the play, Naylor collaborated with co-author Jamie Beddard, who has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair.

Producing the circus show was itself a kind of balancing act. The producers wanted the greatest possible authenticity, and casting the performers became like searching for a needle in a haystack, a process that took a year and a half, according to director Claire Hodgson. "We had to find people who are musical theater performers, who are actors, who are circus artists and then had particular identities around disability or deafness or Jewishness," she said.

A group of people with and without visible disabilities rehearse acting and acrobatics
The inclusive cast of 'Waldo's Circus of Magic and Terror' during a rehearsalImage: Steve Tanner

"Waldo's Circus of Magic and Terror" premiered in March and is touring until June through theaters in the south of England.

As with the casting, the team of Extraordinary Bodies wants the performances to reach especially those people who might otherwise not go to the theater: The show has an interpreter for British Sign Language on stage, the theaters are meant to be as accessible as possible, and the performances are "chilled," meaning the audience is free to make involuntary noises or get up and move around, without worrying that they may disturb the performers.

A live orchestra plays the score, composed for the production by Charles Hazlewood.

Hoping for international productions

Hodgson, the director, is especially proud that "Waldo's Circus of Magic and Terror" has become a hit with the Deaf community in and around Bristol, despite its being a musical. "As a director I did work hard to make sure that the British Sign Language version of the show really works," she said.

She added that there are plenty of moments in the play when Deaf audience members can enjoy purely visual storytelling. Hodgson was touched by the enthusiastic audience responses in Bristol: "You know, Deaf people clap by waving their hands in the air, and every night I would see a sea of people doing that."

A woman in a pink sweater and with a pink streak in her hair talks with a man wearing glasses and sitting in a wheelchair
Director Claire Hodgson (left) with actor Jonny LeitchImage: Steve Tanner

The team behind "Waldo's Circus of Magic and Terror" said that thus far, no German media have reported on their production. But they hope that other theater companies are interested in producing it, since the production by Extraordinary Bodies ends its run in June.

That would be not just an acknowledgement of the significance of the play, they said, but also of all the untold stories of disabled people in the Third Reich. Tens of thousands of them remain unknown to this day. "I wrote for those people," said Hattie Naylor.


This article was originally written in German.