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Jane Enkin

WJR's Jane Enkin Interviews Tom Dugan, Actor and Writer of the One Man Play About Simon Weisenthal at Royal MTC Nov 19-Dec 5

by Jane Enkin November 13, 2015


by Jane Enkin


November 19 – December 5 | Preview November 18


Tom Hendry Warehouse, RMTC

Written by and starring Tom Dugan

Directed by Jenny Sullivan




“When we come to the other world and meet the millions of Jews who died in the camps and they ask us, ‘What have you done?' I will say, ‘I did not forget you’."


Simon Wiesenthal, a concentration camp survivor, dedicated his life to searching out Nazi war criminals – identifying them, finding their locations, and building enough evidence to lead to solid legal cases against them.


Actor and writer Tom Dugan brings Wiesenthal to life in his one-man play. Dugan has toured the show across the United States, has played to great acclaim in New York and Toronto, and is planning to tour to Israel. He has recently been honored with the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Award, as well as nominations for the Los Angeles Ovation Award, the New York Outer Critics Circle Award, and The New York Drama Desk Award.


Reviews of the play describe Dugan's powerful acting presence as well as the impressive storytelling of his script. Reviewer Matthew Murray writes, “The fire and the hope burn so brightly behind his eyes that you both understand and get enveloped in his passion,” and mentions “an intimacy that gives the script a disarming, avuncular, and strictly conversational feel.” (


I had the opportunity to speak with Tom Dugan over the phone from his Los Angeles home.


Inspired by great one-person plays of the past, such as Hal Holbrook's Mark Twain, Dugan has specialized in one-person shows for many years. He enjoys the control and artistic expression involved in creating a character, beginning with research, writing a script, and then acting the role. “The suspension of disbelief is just part of the magic of theatre, and I believe a one-person show has just a little bit more magic.” In moments, you feel you are really in the presence of an historical figure.


For this play, Dugan had the opportunity to study not only Wiesenthal's own books and several excellent biographies, but also documentaries and interviews featuring Wiesenthal. “It's the first time I've had that challenge. I do a play about General Lee and no one knows exactly what he sounded like or what his mannerisms were. But here we have Wiesenthal whose friends are all over – hundreds of his friends have now seen the play.”


The drama is set in Wiesenthal's Vienna office, in 2003, when Wiesenthal was over 90 – actor Dugan transforms himself with makeup, costume and a style of movement based on his observations of an elderly Polish uncle. “I'm not an impersonator, but combining all of these elements – a happy accident is that everybody who knew Wiesenthal who sees the show says, 'He was exactly like that!'”


Dugan is an Irish-Catholic American, so he brings his own perspective to what some people might consider a Jewish story. “My father received a bronze battle star in World War II and he liberated a camp called Langenstein in Germany. So I did grow up with Holocaust stories, from the perspective of a liberator.” Asked why it was that his father chose to tell these stories, Dugan said, “I think I was so persistent that I wore him down. My older siblings, when I shared his stories, said 'He told you that?' Dugan enriched his research by talking with survivors who shared their stories. “I was able to apply the intensity to Wiesenthal's experience in the camps.”


Wiesenthal often welcomed student groups to see his operation, and the audience takes on the role of a visiting group who can listen to Wiesenthal's stories but also watch the great man in action. A one-person show needs to have a good plot, explained Dugan. “With my plays I always make sure there's a strong urgency, an obstacle that has to be overcome, and a plot that the audience can follow and be part of.”


A master of public speaking, Wiesenthal valued communication, and used humour as a bridge. Many reviewers have been surprised to find humour in a play on Holocaust themes, but to Dugan, it's an essential aspect. “I say it's meant to be entertainment, and if you're not careful, you might learn something.” Fortunately, comedy came naturally to Wiesenthal, so it wasn't hard to integrate into the flow of the script. “When I started meeting his friends, the first thing everyone would say is, 'Here's a joke Simon told me.'”


Wiesenthal understood “how much a group of people could take when it came to the dark material before they needed a break and I was thankfully able to capture that, in a way that audiences are not overburdened with the sadness. In fact they go out of the theatre and – I get emails all the time – they say they feel uplifted.”


Dugan believes strongly in Wiesenthal's cause. When he was in college, in the early 80's, there was debate about whether it made sense to pursue war criminals. Dugan recalls a Jewish fellow student saying “Enough already, what's it going to serve? Just let it go...” After his research for this play, Dugan feels, “I completely agree with keeping the pressure on these criminals, whatever crime they committed in whatever war. Not only as a punitive measure, [and as a way to demonstrate] how that crime has affected his entire world and his entire family, what a burden it has put on the entire community that he may be involved in. It also shows the murderers of tomorrow what to expect if they go down that dark road.”


There were frustrations for Wiesenthal in his career. He spent many years following leads on the whereabouts of war criminals as a volunteer. Honoured later in life by many governments and the UN, he struggled on his own at first. “He was a practical man. He learned along the way how to do his job and he failed a lot in the beginning. He chose practicality over emotionality, and that got him into trouble. People would criticize him and say, 'Great – you caught this guy and threw him in jail, but that one, with many more victims, you haven't gone after.' And his answer was, 'Yes, but this guy with fewer victims, him I could convict.' He wanted results.”


Wiesenthal's great legacy, Dugan feels, is as a teacher of tolerance. “He didn't focus just on the Jewish experience. He went broader than that. He understood you have to appreciate all genocides in order to stop all genocides. He was a forward thinker. His mission was as a human rights activist.”


Dugan meets the audience after every performance for questions and answers. The play is appropriate for everyone age 14 and up, and he hopes many Winnipeg high school students will attend. His favourite audience is grandparents who bring their grandchildren. Some survivors have told him “You tell my story better than I do.”

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