Friday, March 12, 2010

Getting outside the box

Back in early winter as I began preparations for this spring's production of The Diary of Anne Frank, I decided to investigate the possibility of locating resources on the subject of the Holocaust that might enrich the theatrical experience for my cast, the student body, and the community as well. I contacted a couple of Jewish organizations in Portland, and one, the Oregon Holocaust Resource Center, eventually steered me in the direction of an intriguing idea for a field trip.

It so happens that during the months of February and March this year, the Jewish Theatre Collaborative is producing a play called Kindertransport, which explores the midlife crisis of Evelyn, a woman who as a nine year old Eva, was shipped to England by her German Jewish mother in an attempt to save her from increasingly virulent antisemitism triggered by the awful experiences of Kristallnacht. While Jews were free to leave Hitler's Germany in the months prior to the outbreak of WWII, there were precious few ports of entry willing to accept them. A few dedicated activists and organizations prevailed upon the British government to accept Jewish children to be placed with British families. The parents of these children were not allowed in and most of them perished in the nightmare that followed. The children were, like the protagonist in the play, mostly between the ages of three and fifteen; they were raised for the most part as English. Many of them lost all contact with their former lives and their former selves; they became English and many were baptized and became Christian.

The play revolves around a crisis of identity which breaks out when Evelyn's own daughter Faith, discovers letters and papers in an attic box that suggest a past which her mother has kept secret. What at first seems like an understandable desire to leave the past behind, slowly reveals itself to be something darker, more haunting and infinitely more heartbreaking. I won't spoil the plot for people who hope to see the production one day, but suffice it to say that I was more than a little excited about the opportunity to travel with my cast to see a play so topically relevant to our own and at such a timely stage of our own rehearsal process.
The people at the OHRC and the JTC arranged tickets at very cheap rates for a morning matinee production just for high school students. I was unable to secure any funding for our trip, though I was granted a sub for one day. We paid for the entire experience out of our own pockets.

We left La Grande immediately after school on Wednesday in three cars piloted by mothers of cast members. The kids proposed a stop at a supermarket just before Portland as a way of economizing on food costs. We hit Fred Meyer in The Dalles. I watched these kids choose their evening fare, mostly sandwichesm, crackers and hummus or dip, and fruit. One kid came out with a block of cheese, a jar of peanuts, and a 48 oz pop. I asked him what his favorite fruit was, thinking I might get him an apple. He shrugged. How about vegetable? "Pumpkin, " he said with a guileless grin on his face. I shrugged and gave up. Twenty four field trip, he won't starve on my watch.

We arrived in Portland at about 8:45. As I finished checking in I was taken aback when I saw two colleagues of mine from the English department of our high school standing in the hotel lobby; we all laughed and then I noticed about four more colleagues. Turns out the school district had sent a team of teachers and administrators for a two day, two night junket on writing across the curriculum, all expenses paid, one bed for each person. I felt a little twinge of envy, I suppose, but it didn't last long. Our group was fairly tingling with excitement, and I was pretty sure we were going to have a better time than my colleagues. Our group, which included three mothers who drove the cars, met up a half hour later in the lobby, and we walked to Powell's where we stayed until it closed at 11:00 pm. It was a kick seeing a few of the kids experience Powell's for the first time, kind of jaw dropping for the uninitiated. That night I shared a room with a couple of my actors and stayed up late talking about books and music. I told them that if I had hung out with guys like them when I was in high school, I surely would be smarter and more creative today. They laughed.

Early next morning we got breakfast. It was raining, and as we prepared to walk the twelve blocks to the Artists Repertory Theatre for the 10:00 am show, I noticed the kid who liked pumpkin standing there in cargo shorts and a tee shirt. "Where's your pants? You have a jacket?" He shrugged still wearing that smile. I hadn't thought to explicitly require my group to bring pants and coats. Maybe next time.

We watched the play. My actors, only four weeks out from their own opening night watched the performances with a keen interest. At intermission we compared notes about favorite moments, the set design, the actors, and the annoying habit some of the kids in the other groups had of texting and chattering during the show. One kid behind me munched on chips and crinkled the plastic wrapping during the first five minutes of act two. All that being said, the actors managed to win everyone's full attention at length.

The finale of the play has a bit of surreal staging which delighted all of us in much the same way a magic act might. The director came out immediately after the show and tossed a few questions to the audience, there were two other high school groups there, both from the Portland area. Initially the director's questions were met with silence, not altogether surprising. But then the kids opened up, several of my cast had things to say, including the one in cargo shorts. I was proud of them.

After that, we heard the testimony of a Dutch survivor of the Holocaust. Chella is an eighty-something who, like Anne Frank, hid for a time in an attic. The Nazis invaded her country on her fifteenth birthday. She and her sister and father evaded the Nazis for a time but ultimately were betrayed and sent to Auschwitz were she spent a year and a half. Her father was gassed upon arrival, but she and her sister survived the ordeal, including the death marches in the final winter as war came to an end. Chella, whose gentle, smiling demeanor make you anticipate the arrival of a plate of chocolate cookies and a glass of milk at any moment, fixed every teenager in the house with tales of her harrowing experience and the long and painful aftermath of coming to terms with what she had seen. She spoke of surviving her survival and how it took her thirty years to find her public voice, but when she told us "You have to fight to live...every day you must live," we all sat still and accepted her admonition. When she said, half to herself, half to us, "You must tell yourself, "I can do it." And then you must do it," we all nodded. She told us the survivor adage, "If you cry, you die." She had to pause more than once, to collect herself and continue on.

My eyes welled up with tears several times. I thought of all the hurt in the world, and of her brave stance vis a vis that hurt. I thought of how one lifetime is hardly enough time to heal some kinds of hurt, and how it is not nearly enough time more often than not. I thought of how important, how necessary, it is that people like Chella show the rest of us how to undertake that healing regardless of how little time might be left because the hurt in the world, left to its own devices survives every lifetime and is bequeathed to the newly born. Chella appeared to me in that moment to be a true hero. There was steel and milky human kindness mingled in her.

After Chella's talk my cast was given a private sit down with play's director, Sacha Reich, one her actors, Patricia Hunter, and Chella. The kids sat on the floor of the lobby and we carried on a rambling hour long conversation about the Kindertransport, The Diary of Anne Frank, acting (Patricia had also been in a production of The Diary of Anne Frank), and the Holocaust. My kids seemed willing to sit there and absorb every syllable, every story. The director had to, finally, tactfully suggest that it was time to go. Everyone hugged Chella, and she, though very hard of hearing, seemed delighted by all the enthusiasm and affection.

It was almost two o'clock in the afternoon when we finally walked back outside. I gave them an hour and a quarter free reign to walk the area. We had to head back to La Grande since we were all expected back in class the next day, a Friday. We hit the road right at rush hour. I felt grateful to the mothers who had volunteered to drive. I spent the trip down and back poring over the script of our play, finalizing my light and sound cues. Every so often one of the kids would call out a question about a movie or a music group and we'd toss it back and forth for awhile as we headed east.

My colleagues, some of them anyway, were sure to take advantage of the junket to spend part of the weekend down in the metro area, possibly catch our boys basketball team's quest for the state trophy in Corvallis. They've got a real good team, a fun team to watch, full of talented and dedicated players and led by an equally talented and dedicated coach. I look forward to hearing about it, and there is no doubt that I will hear about it. In the meantime, I thought I'd set down the tale of our own team's experience, just in case anyone might be curious.


Blogger Erin said...

Dad, you're a teacher in every sense of the word ♥

5:29 PM  
Blogger exwifesoulmate said...

Delighted to have stumbled upon your blog. If there was enough notice, I would love to try to get to see you students in DIARY OF ANNE FRANK. Please let me know details at or KINDERTRANSPORT was a wonderful script to digest, perform and savor - more astounding for me, were the "talk backs" with the incredible men and women who jumped onstage after each performance to give voice. So important to "remember" and go on.

Break a leg to all!

Patricia Hunter

4:32 PM  
Blogger helane said...


Your students lucky to have you.
Keep it up.


8:24 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is the first time I've discovered your blog. I of course immediately searched for any posts about Anne Frank, and was stunned to come across this. Reading your thoughts and remembering the experience made me cry. I find that I remember more details now than I did before-Chella reaching out to my face in that photo is something I will never forget. I just want you to know how much doing Anne Frank profoundly affected us all. I made friends through the show that I would never have spoken to otherwise. This is especially meaningful to me as I've left LaGrande behind, and miss everyone so much. Just wanted you to know.

7:22 PM  

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