The Washington Post
Committed to Memory
Theatre Lab Students Take On Roles of Real Holocaust Victims
By Rachel Beckman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 31, 2007; C05
For the past three months, a small group of actors has been gathering one night a week in a church basement in Chinatown, trying to imagine what it would have been like to be a victim of the Holocaust.
It's part of a class offered by the Theatre Lab School of the Dramatic Arts that culminates next week in a performance at Theater J.
Here's how it worked: At the first class, instructor Dorothy Neumann gave each student an identification card from the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. Students used the biographical information to create dramatic roles, improvising scenes in character and writing monologues.
The focus, Neumann says, is "to explore possible situations that could have happened to these people."
In one class earlier this spring, students struggled with their ethical reservations about creating fictional lives for real people. The students sat in metal folding chairs around a cafeteria table at Calvary Baptist Church, where the Theatre Lab holds classes.
"I've got a picture of a real woman with real biographical information," said Edna Boyle. "I don't want to do a disservice to her memory and her family by making things up."
Boyle's character, Helene, a Russian Jew who lived in Germany before the war, survived Auschwitz. Boyle's research for her role included reading history books, watching films and writing for more than an hour every day outside of class.
Neumann encouraged her students to use the biographies only as jumping-off points for acting. But the issue came up again an hour later. Another student said she felt restrained because it was a real person.
"Look at it as if you're giving life again to the memory of this person in a very positive way," Neumann said.
Neumann, who came up with the idea for the Holocaust Project, wanted a dozen students for the class. Only five will perform next week. Real estate agent Eileen Garner took the class for the opportunity to perform at Theater J, she said.
Yassir Nadifi, a 32-year-old actor and business student, enrolled to fulfill one of his requirements for the Theatre Lab honors program. Nadifi, who is Muslim, studied the Holocaust in college history classes, but has since learned more about Nazi atrocities during the war.
Boyle, who will not perform next week because of health reasons, signed up for the class because she felt a deeper connection to the Holocaust after converting to Judaism in 1985. A few years later, she was filling out a family tree in her daughter's baby book when she got to the space for her husband's grandfather's name. He had died in Auschwitz.
"I felt like I had gotten run over by a truck or something," she says. "Suddenly, it wasn't '6 million Jews.' It was more real."
Deb Gottesman, co-director of the Theatre Lab, says that the class had a lot of buzz around it, but that didn't translate to enrollment forms. A month into the course, Gottesman recruited a former Theatre Lab student to join the fledgling class.
"I think it piqued people's interest but, in truth, there are people who thought they couldn't spend 12 or 13 hours immersing in the Holocaust," Gottesman says.
Classes were intense. One night, each student read a Holocaust-related article aloud. Nadifi read one about Nazi medical experiments on concentration camp prisoners. He kept reading the horrific material even though his classmates seemed uncomfortable, shifting in their seats, sighing and shaking their heads in disbelief. Nadifi kept reading to the tense room until Garner said, "I can't listen to any more."
The class will perform monologues and scenes in character, then read poetry about the Holocaust. A panel discussion follows with Neumann, poet Myra Sklarew, Rabbi Laszlo Berkowits and the Rev. Amy Butler of Calvary Baptist. Theater J's artistic director, Ari Roth, will moderate.
"Whenever you tell people the name of the class, inevitably they say something like 'Ooh, heavy,' " Garner says. "And it's like, yeah, well, it's what I do for fun."
The Holocaust Project performs at 8 p.m. Wednesday at the Goldman Theater, D.C. Jewish Community Center, 1529 16th St. NW. Pay what you can. 202-824-0449.