Peter Rothstein: ‘All Is Calm’ was fitting end to a busy year

December 28, 2007.By Graydon Royce, Star Tribune.

For several years, Peter Rothstein's name has bounced around the room during "Artist of the Year" discussions. His exploration of new musical forms, fresh takes on classics and collaborations with other artists made Theatre Latté Da an essential part of the Twin Cities theater community. Every time, the conversation got around to this: "Yeah, he's good, but maybe we should wait for him to have a really, really big year."

He did in 2007. Rothstein started the year with a dynamic staging of “Disney's High School Musical” at Children's Theatre Company. It was an instant sellout, based on the title for sure, but Rothstein's choreographer for the project, Michael Matthew Ferrell, won an Ivey Award.

Next, Rothstein ventured over to Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company, where he teamed with actor Sally Wingert for her solo show, “Woman Before a Glass.” Wingert went on to win an Ivey for her performance as art doyenne Peggy Guggenheim.

Rothstein stayed home with his staging of Carlisle Floyd's “Susannah” at Theater Latté Da —the troupe's valedictory at Loring Playhouse. Then it was on to Illusion to direct playwright Jordan Harrison's “Act a Lady.” Harrison, a Playwrights' Center alum, ended the year off-Broadway, by the way.

There was his Guthrie directing debut with “Private Lives” (for which Rothstein's set designer won an Ivey), a reprise of “High School Musical,” Theater Latté Da's restaging of Rothstein's adaptation of “La Bohème” (for which he won an Ivey in 2005), “Frog and Toad” at CTC and “A Christmas Carole Petersen.” He ended the year teamed up with the vocal group Cantus for the gorgeously moving “All Is Calm,” a piece he conceived.

With a few other projects along the way, Rothstein directed 13 shows in 2007. That's a pretty good year.

All Is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914

December 24, 2007.By Lanni Willis, Mpls.St.Paul Magazine.

I am a sucker for a white Christmas. But last night, the snow seriously got in my way. Both my husband and mother pointed out I had been overly optimistic in planning a return flight from Sante Fe the same evening as I had planned a family outing to one of the concerts I had most highly anticipated this season: Cantus’s and Theater Latté Da’s All Is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914. Sure enough, our flight was delayed. So in full disclosure, this is a review of the half of the evening that I heard.

All Is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914 is an unstaged but still dramatic telling of an extraordinary event in human history, when during the first year of World War I, thousands of young men lay down their arms and celebrated Christmas together in no man’s land.

Director Peter Rothstein chose to tell the story with the tool that would have been available to the story’s real-life characters—radio. So the concert took the form of a musical radio drama, featuring war documents and letters and journals of the young men in the trenches as text and Cantus’s arrangements of sentimental war-time songs and Christmas carols.

Actors John Catron, David Roberts, and Alan Sorensen narrated convincingly, alternating the voices of French, German, and British soldiers. The men of Cantus provided an effective soundtrack of quiet drones and harmonized hums in addition to the beautiful array of original arrangements in the three languages of the front that lent a compelling emotional through-line to the texts, which themselves were made more dramatic by virtue of their reality.

That cold night in 1914, the enemy troops traded carols, food, and drink, shared Mass and soccer matches, and helped each other bury their dead, who had lain frozen on the battlefield for weeks. They found points of connection in their stories, like the German whose uncle trimmed the beard of the Englishman’s father. These scenes were effectively painted, as spoken accounts mingled with music and a German carol (“In Dulci Jubilo”) merged into a British holiday drinking song (“Wassail”). Another fine moment was the recollection of one soldier’s awe in hearing a French opera star singing “O Holy Night” from across no man’s land. As if from afar, a single tenor voice quietly rang over the attentive hush of the rest of the “soldiers” in the ensemble, and the hush in the audience made me feel I was with them in the trenches.

Inevitably, the truce is ended, and by orders of their superiors, the battlefield they had made a soccer field and graveyard turned back into a battlefield. After the first shot was fired, the young men went back to war, according to one soldier’s account, with a vengeance. This scene was movingly depicted by several beautiful verses of "Auld Lang Syne," the last of which devolved into battle cries.

The concert wound down with a question—not a sappy sound bite, but a real question from a soldier as he reflects that it was as if they had decided to end the war all by themselves. He asked, “What if we’d all walked away and refused to fight? Could the war have ended in a truce?” The same voice admits probably not, but the niggling question lingers, rippling through history. The audience was left to imagine the faces of these young men—the faces of war, and the faces of peace, and again the faces of war.

This Cantus/Theater Latté Da event came off less as a heart-warming holiday concert than as storytelling, and as such, it was a dramatic, real-life musing about the power this season has to make us stop, reflect, and decide to operate in a mode of peace, and the enormous impact those decision can have.

All is bright about 'All is Calm'

December 21, 2007.By Graydon Royce, Star Tribune.

Tossed off with a chirpy smile and handshake, the clichés of Christmas greetings offer but a slight anodyne to winter's dreary fog. How lovely, then, to reclaim the meaning of the phrase "All is Calm." A new work for spoken word and choral voices uses that title to commemorate an extraordinary moment when Christian peace trumped war in 1914. It is being performed by Theatre Latté Da and Cantus this weekend, and likely will become a classic to be repeated for years to come.

The story is too rare and sweet to have sprung from fiction. At Christmas 1914, Allied and German troops along the Western Front stumbled into a truce -- spending the day sharing small gifts, gathering their dead, skirmishing in football matches. Both sides, vexed by the grinding and dull horror of trench warfare, found comradeship in each other -- often defying orders against fraternization.

"What would happen if the armies simultaneously went on strike?" mused the British officer Winston Churchill (yes, the very same). His is one of numerous quotations taken from letters, postcards and diaries that are woven among some 26 songs -- from optimistic recruiting ditties to mournful carols of hope.

Theatre Latté Da's Peter Rothstein assembled the readings in a concise chronological arc that uses the soldiers' experience as a dramatic prod. We are asked to imagine the wonder of tired, soaked Brits looking up and seeing a single German standing above his trench, singing "Stille Nacht." We see in our mind's eye -- and feel in our heart -- the rush of emotions as these tired fellows clamber over the barbed wire to greet the enemy soldier in No Man's Land.

"It was as if we had decided to end the fighting all by ourselves," wrote one Tommy.

Actors John Catron, David Roberts and Alan Sorensen give us the readings, and eight men from Cantus provide the unadorned human voice in song -- a hollow, pure instrument that is transcendent. Among many, the most moving highlight might be the solo of Gary Ruschman. He reenacts the moment when Victor Granier, a tenor with the Paris Opera, sings "O Holy Night." Within the context of bloodshed and mayhem, the song has never felt so important.

Rothstein, Cantus artistic director Erick Lichte and their charges have given us a great gift this season, reinvesting the words "Peace on Earth" with their true meaning.

All Is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914

December 20, 2007.By Marianne Combs, Minnesota Public Radio.

A new production reminds us of the power of music to make peace, even in wartime. Cantus vocal ensemble and Theater Latte Da are retelling the true story of the Christmas Truce of 1914, when World War I soldiers set down their arms to celebrate the holidays with the enemy.

Minneapolis, Minn. — When World War I broke out, commanders on all sides told their soldiers, "You'll be home in time for Christmas."

But it quickly became clear there was no immediate end in sight. Theater Latte Da Artistic Director Peter Rothstein says as the holidays approached, soldiers fighting in the trenches along the Belgian border were miserable.

"They were living in subterranean conditions, up to their knees in mud," says Rothstein. "Food was scarce, the rats and the lice had taken over the trenches. These conditions were inhuman. In fact, in that first winter of the war, more men died from infection and disease than died from enemy fire."

It's what happened in the coming weeks that inspired Rothstein to create "All is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914." It's a musical retelling of one of the more remarkable events of what some people called "the war to end all wars."

Enemy trenches were just a few yards apart, divided by "no man's land." At night, the various troops took up singing their favorite carols and ballads, in French, English and German. They competed, at first drowning one another out, and then applauding each other's efforts.

Finally on Christmas Day, along several sections of no man's land, soldiers on both sides laid down their arms for a holiday truce.

"Some of them lasted an hour, and some of them lasted up to a week," says Rothstein. "The men met in no man's land, exchanged gifts of tobacco and rum and chocolate, even photographs of family. Some of them played soccer, and they buried each other's dead. And then they returned to their trenches, and the war resumed for another four years."

Rothstein spent close to two years collecting firsthand accounts of the truce, traveling to war museums and libraries in Belgium and London.

He approached Cantus vocal ensemble artistic director Erick Lichte to work with him. Lichte says having a dramatic story made it easier and more inspiring to arrange the music.

"It was great to have these scenes in our head. When we have the drinking and the camaraderie, we have this wassail song that's really expressive, with the burying of the dead we have a setting of Auld Lang Syne," says Lichte.

Cantus performed excerpts of "All is Calm" for a group of veterans in for a day of physical therapy at the Minneapolis VA Medical Center.

Tom Donovan served in World War II, or as he calls it, "the WAR war." By the end of the performance, Donovan is clapping heartily with moist smiling eyes.

"I think this is tremendous! I went through two Christmases [in World War II]. It's always hard," Donovan laughs sadly.

Cantus Artistic Director Erick Lichte says his group is regularly asked to sing Christmas music at the holidays.

"And you can lose sight as to why you're singing that Christmas music," says Lichte. "And I think this story reminds us. It is about peace on Earth, goodwill toward men -- that's not just a thing you sing in a carol you like the tune of."

Lichte says "All is Calm" has brought new life to the music. Director Peter Rothstein says what makes the story of Christmas 1914 extraordinary is that everyday soldiers transformed themselves from warriors into peacemakers.

"It puts a human face on war," says Rothstein. "The heroes of the story are not the kings and the queens and the generals and the army strategists, and those people that make up biographies and history books. They were the men in the trenches, and they took it upon themselves to have a moment of peace and to honor the spirit of Christmas."

Rothstein says such a remarkable story should be a part of our history books.

Theater Latte Da and Cantus vocal ensemble perform "All is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914" at churches in Minneapolis and Excelsior throughout the weekend.

'All Is Calm' brings to stage the true story of a heavenly truce in 1914

December 20, 2007.By Don Lee, MinnPost.

It was humankind at its worst; it was humankind at its best.

Christmas Eve, 1914: In trenches carved out of the fields near Ypres, Belgium, British and French troops peered across No Man's Land at the Germans dug-in some 70 yards away. On the German side something remarkable was about to happen.

"All was quiet. No shooting. Little snow. We placed a tiny Christmas tree in our dugout. ... We placed a second lighted tree on the parapet."
—Hugo Klemm, 133rd Saxon infantry

"There was a lot of commotion in the German trenches and then there were those lights — I don't know what they were. And then they sang 'Stille Nacht.' I shall never forget it. It was one of the highlights of my life."
—Albert Moren, 2nd Queen's Regiment

"Then one German took a chance and jumped up on top of the trench and shouted out, 'Happy Christmas, Tommy!' So of course our boys said, 'If he can do it, we can do it,' and we all jumped up. A sergeant-major shouted 'Get down!' but we said, 'Shut up, Sergeant, it's Christmas time!" —Pvt. Frank Sumpter, London Rifle Brigade

Within moments, soldiers from both sides found themselves standing in the middle of No Man's Land, unarmed, shaking hands, laughing and doing their best to communicate in a foreign tongue. During the next several hours, they would exchange gifts, share a little rum, pause to bury fallen comrades, play a game of soccer and sing Christmas carols.

Along with at least two recent books, this piece of history has inspired a new stage depiction: "All Is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914," by Twin Cities director Peter Rothstein. The premiere production, opening Friday, combines three actors from Rothstein's company, Theater Latte Da, with eight singers from the men's vocal group Cantus. (Friday's 10:30 a.m. performance at Westminster Presbyterian Church will be broadcast live on Minnesota Public Radio.)

Mulling how to tell 'epic event' on stage As the founder of a company that looks for new ways to integrate text and music, Rothstein knew when he first heard the story of the truce that he wanted to bring it to the stage. The question was, how? How to evoke the powerful contrast of this shimmering glimpse of hope on a bleak midwinter landscape?

"One of the challenges of thinking of it as traditional musical theater is to come up with an organic structure," says Rothstein. "This piece is about a lack of conflict. The soldiers emerge from a confined, claustrophobic world to the glory of being above ground. This was an epic event. How do you create it on stage?"

Rothstein came up with what he describes as a "docudrama" approach, although he adds that he does not want it to come off as "a slide show that feels like a history lesson."

To judge from Tuesday's rehearsal, "All Is Calm" follows a path that has led Ken Burns to glory. Narration is kept to a minimum. Actors recite poignant passages from soldiers' letters (including those above), then flatly intone the name of the writer. Music of the era hovers in the background, swelling to sustain the mood as spoken words leave off.

'Radio musical drama' rang true But "All Is Calm" is not a slide show. The form that ended up making sense to Rothstein was "radio musical drama." At the time of World War I, he says, "radio was becoming a primary communication tool for both the public and the army. It seemed like a logical fit."

"In live performance, the approach asks the audience to engage its imagination to complete the story," says Cantus Artistic Director Erick Lichte.

The story begins in summer 1914 as recruiters enlist young Britons to fight for King and country. The boys respond with bravado, confident the war will be over in a matter of months. By the time the Christmas truce has ended, they know the harsh truth first-hand.

Rothstein created the arc of his story this past summer from letters and official war documents that he found archived in London and Belgium. "The words [the soldiers] wrote have such power," he says. "What we end up with is a plethora of voices telling a single narrative."

Singing in the trenches with Cantus Erick Lichte had a tough question of his own to face: how to make "All is Calm" a satisfying musical experience? "It's a Long Way to Tipperary" is no one's idea of a choral masterpiece.

"What's fun for me is that it felt like composing one big 52-minute piece," says Lichte, who arranged the music in collaboration with group member Timothy Takach. "The soldiers really did sing in the trenches. For songs like 'Long Way' I just told the guys to let their hair down and not worry too much about technique. Then we push to the other side — to what Cantus can do — negotiating our way to an eight-part arrangement of 'Silent Night.' "

Which brings up another issue. This is the annual Christmas show for Cantus. "Is this going to be too depressing?" Lichte wondered. "Do we have enough Christmas in it for our audience to feel like it's their Christmas?"

Along with "Silent Night," the singing soldiers of Cantus perform about 10 other carols in "All Is Calm." That sounds like plenty, but Lichte is acutely aware of the expectations placed on a choral group at this time of year. There's nothing wrong with a traditional Christmas concert, he says, "but you can lose perspective on what it means. For me personally, when we get to these songs [in 'All Is Calm'], we get to a basic human need — what those songs are really about."

Hopes and fears meet when "Silent Night" is sung. "The soldiers all knew the song," Rothstein says. In the arrangement for this production, "They navigate their way to harmony, and it's glorious." But Rothstein did not want "All Is Calm" to be about "the glorification of war." As the truce ends, the arrangement becomes cacophonous.

"When that happens," he says, "you see the destruction of this harmony that's been created."

All is Calm

December 19, 2007.By Quinton Skinner, City Pages

A battlefield during World War I (or any war, for that matter) is one hell of a place to spend Christmas Eve. This new work by Peter Rothstein, with musical arrangements by Erick Lichte and Timothy C. Takach, depicts events on the Western Front in 1914. When a young German soldier steps into "No Man's Land" and begins singing "Stille Nacht," a night of music, a measure of brotherhood, and a fragile peace emerges. Rothstein based All Is Calm on real events, and here he brings his Theater Latte Da into a collaboration with the vocal ensemble Cantus. The tunes are new arrangements of European carols and songs sung during wartime. While it's unfortunate how often, and how much, we need a transcendent message of peace, this promises to be a work of beauty. For tickets call 651.209.6689. 
Fridays, 10:30 a.m. Starts: Dec. 21. Continues through Dec. 21, 2007

Giving peace a chance

December 14, Graydon Royce, Star Tribune.

A moment in time: War and peace Theatre Latté Da and Cantus combine to re-create a moment when soldiers chose peace over war.

They gathered on ground that was drenched in the blood of their countrymen — to share peace in the midst of war. On Dec. 24, 1914, Allied troops saw flickering lights along German trenches on the western front. Soon, the sound of "Stille Nacht" filled the cold, clear night. British troops responded with carols, voices rising from their subterranean warrens 60 yards across the no-man's land dividing the combatants.

By Christmas morning, German and Allied troops were cautiously tiptoeing up to barbed-wire barriers to glimpse fighters who days earlier had been shooting at them.

All along the western front, news rippled of these spontaneous truces, of soldiers exchanging smokes, candy, food and photos as they ventured forth to gather their dead and share "Happy Christmas." Impromptu football matches broke out in areas that had just been cleared of bodies.

Working-class Brits were amazed to learn the lights they'd seen the night before were from small fir trees — tannenbaum, the Germans called them. The kaiser had sent thousands to the front, complete with candles.

The Christmas Truce of 1914 was long a bizarre blip on history's timeline — obscured by governments embarrassed by their soldiers' unwillingness to wage war on the holiest day of the year. Slowly, though, the story has spread into public discourse, and now Theatre Latté Da and the vocal ensemble Cantus have collaborated to tell the tale in a theatrical concert.

“All Is Calm” uses 26 songs and narration taken from combatants' journals to illuminate the moment when ragged bands of soldiers put a temporary stop to war — in some places for just the day, in others for nearly a week.

"There were eight truces along the front and more than 100,000 men took part," said Peter Rothstein, Latté Da's artistic director. "So it was an epic event, but very personal. I felt a responsibility to put a human face on war."

The show is conceived as a radio piece, with three actors portraying more than 30 characters and Cantus singers providing the a cappella voices that rang out along the 80-mile front.

"The heroes of the story are the guys in the trenches," Rothstein said.

Horror replaces glory

Warfare retained a patina of glory when troops marched forth in August 1914. However, technology — particularly the emergence of the machine gun as a defensive weapon — produced a grand-scale stalemate.

Soldiers who had assumed they would be home for Christmas that first year found themselves calf-deep in frigid muck, waiting to go over the top and spill their blood in fruitless raids.

As grandeur gave way to disillusionment, troops along the front found more commonality with their similarly deprived foes than they did with their families — comfortably ensconced far from the horror. Song became a bond. Germans would lob choruses of "Deutschland über alles" from their trenches, and Brits would sally forth with "God Save the King." Despite this odd comradeship, fierce enmity existed, particularly among western soldiers who had been taught that Germans were only one step above beasts.

These conditions, however contradictory, created an environment in which the Christmas truce could break out. Rothstein first heard of the incident in a song by folksinger John McCutcheon. Since then, historian Stanley Weintraub wrote a 2001 account, "Silent Night." Intrigued, Rothstein was determined to develop something, even if it wasn't "a full-fledged musical." For example, it would be impossible to re-create the epic scale or the visual presence of trench warfare. Too, how do you dramatize a moment that is remarkable for its lack of conflict? He approached Cantus with only the notion that the show would be driven by music. Everything else was up for grabs.

How to tell such a story?

Rothstein visited several museums in Europe last summer, walked through authentic and re-created trenches in Flanders and visited small towns near Ypres, Belgium, searching for a thread to hold his ideas together. He thought he might find the account of a single soldier to carry the story — much like Erich Maria Remarque's fictional construction “All Quiet on the Western Front.”

He did come upon a diary by Sir Edward Hulse of the Second Scots Guard, but it was a slice of life rather than a full tale. Finally, he settled on a documentary approach similar to that used by Tectonic Theater in “The Laramie Project.” Characters step up to read from their experience. By the end, you have a tapestry of voices rather than a single, clear narrative.

Woven among the stories are the carols. The centerpiece is "Silent Night," sung in four languages. Others include a mournful "Auld Lang Syne," made even more poignant by the sense of departure that promised no reunion. And an extraordinary moment was recorded by witnesses of Victor Granier, a tenor with the Paris Opera, singing "O Holy Night."

The show is presented as a radio concert, without costumes or set. Rothstein said he believes that fits with the means of communication in 1914 — oral and audio rather than visual.

"When we did a workshop, a woman just sort of lay down on a bench and closed her eyes," Rothstein said. "And you can do that with this piece. We don't have room so that everyone can lie down, but you can close your eyes and simply listen."

There would be three more Christmases during World War I, but the radical peace introduced that first year by foot soldiers was never replicated. Officers quickly rotated troops away from the front with the threat of execution for anyone thinking of fraternizing with the enemy. Rothstein chose a poignant diary entry from a Brit near the end of “All Is Calm.”

"A German soldier was walking along his parapet carrying a bucket when one of the members of my company, further up the line, took deliberate aim and shot him. Inevitable perhaps, but I felt unhappy that it was one of us that had broken the unwritten trust. ... The war was on again and with a vengeance."

ALL IS CALM WHAT: By Theatre Latté Da and Cantus. When and where: 2 p.m. Fi.­ Westminster Presbyterian, 12th St. and Nicollet Mall, Mpls.; 7:30 p.m. Sat. Mount Cavalry Church, 301 County Road 19, Excelsior; 3 & 7 p.m. next Sun. St. Joan of Arc Church, 4537 3rd Av. S., Mpls. Tickets: $12.50-$25. 651-209-6689, or