Learning How to Loathe in ‘The Wave’ at Bay Street

A one-person show, which will be presented at the Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor tonight at 7, Friday at 8, and Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m.
Jon Kovach in "The Wave"

Fifty years ago, Ron Jones, a young teacher in Palo Alto, Calif., devised an unusual project as an experiment for students in his sophomore high school history class. While it was mentioned only in the student newspaper at the time, it has since become the subject of a short story, a TV movie, a novelization, and a German feature film screened at Sundance, a musical, a documentary, and a full-length play.

Its most recent iteration is “The Wave,” a one-person show, which will be presented at the Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor tonight at 7, Friday at 8, and Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m. Jon Kovach stars, Aaron Rossini directs, and Mr. Jones will participate in question-and-answer sessions after each performance.

Mr. Jones’s intention was to convey to his students how ordinary Germans were able to accept the actions of the Nazis. Over the course of five days, he conducted a series of classroom exercises that emphasized discipline and community.

At first, Mr. Jones morphed into an authoritarian figure who established rules for the students. On the second day, he named the movement “The Third Wave,” developed a Hitler-like salute, and ordered students to salute each other out of class. Participants received membership cards and were encouraged to recruit new members. By the end of the third day, there were more than 200 members, some of whom reported others when they failed to abide by the rules. By the fourth day, Mr. Jones realized the experiment was slipping out of his control.

Only on the fifth day did he reveal the truth: The entire enterprise had been a deception, one that resulted in the students’ developing a sense of superiority, as German citizens reportedly had done.

Mr. Kovach, who is based in Jersey City, N.J., is a writer, director, puppeteer, and musician in addition to an actor. He discovered the story when he came upon the German film “Die Welle (The Wave)” while browsing on Netflix. “I was just absolutely taken with it,” he said recently, “so I had to look up everything I could on it.” 

While watching a video of Mr. Jones telling the story, Mr. Kovach said he thought it could make an excellent one-person play. “I reached out to Ron, pitched the idea, and showed him some of my previous work. . . .  He loved it and decided to give me a chance to create a script from the story.”

Mr. Kovach drew from a story Mr. Jones had written in 1976, which spawned the other versions, and some poetry Mr. Jones had written while teaching the class in 1967. “This is the only time his poetry has seen the light of day. Ron also touched on the project in ‘Airman,’ a novel he self-published. He let me use all those writings to create the story we have now.” 

“The Wave” has evolved since Mr. Kovach first developed it. The original version included film footage from the Nazi era, but the 50-minute Bay Street performance will include only some images from World War II. 

“Ron did write a full-cast production of this; he also wrote a musical. Since mine is a solo performance, there are moments when the audience finds itself in the role of the students. One of the reasons I find the story so fascinating is that so many people want to keep telling it in different ways. It has been performed in various versions worldwide.”

 “I enjoy all aspects of storytelling, but acting is my main source of artistic satisfaction. What makes our play unique is that it involves some of Ron’s writings that haven’t been seen elsewhere, and ours is the only one-person version of it.”

Tickets are priced from $20 to $45.