Friday, September 14, 2012

Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage

Great Lakes Theater School Residency Program includes about a dozen (and growing) lesson plans, for students in first grade through seniors in high school. These five days residencies may cover a single play (e.g., Romeo and Juliet, recommended for freshmen) or in the case of elementary school students, a variety of classic children’s tales. Our actor-teachers are paired off in teams of two, who visit the schools bringing costumes, props, scripts, swords, stage blood, whatever is necessary to facilitate the plan. Our people perform keys scenes, put scripts into students’ hands and act with them, conduct relevant theater exercises, and hold meaningful discussions which connect the students’ own lives to the classic text at hand.

During September, which is to say right now, our actors are in training. We have five return individuals, and three people new to the program. They have a weight of new material to memorize and learn to facilitate before working with actual kids, and only three weeks to get it all in. Usually this means picking up one new residency a week, throughout the process.

On occasion, though not every not year, not even every other year, we take some kind of relevant field trip. When everyone is learning the elementary school residencies, we have visited the zoo to study animals and tell stories about them. In my time with the program, we’ve only done this twice, in 2004 and again in 2007. When there was a special exhibit at the Western Reserve Historical Society on Maurice Sendak in 2005, we went there as well. However, such journeys are time-consuming, often taking an entire day away from rehearsal, which is why they are so infrequent.

My favorite of all the lesson plans is the middle school one, which is called the Classic Drama Residency (CDR), as it covers several plays in the course of one week, each day addressing a different form of conflict in society, and how to cope and resolve conflict. Junior high is a powerful, sometimes extremely troubling period in human development (worst period of my life) and having the opportunity to address issues that directly affect students that age is moving, exciting, and important.

The work that gets the most attention through CDR is The Diary of Anne Frank. This is the story of an astonishingly self-aware girl. It is also a story of the Holocaust. our actor-teachers do not teach Holocaust history. But in order to appropriately understand the girl and her circumstances, you must understand the time. Part of my job is to bring our performers -- whose average age is 24 or 25 -- up to speed on an awe-inspiring period in human history, and to do that in a couple hours. We have so many lessons to prepare for, there isn’t time. I have tried long-form improvisations, sharing books, documents obtain from various sources ... it all feels woefully inadequate.

However, we have in Cleveland a remarkable resource in the Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage, and in preparation for this year’s rehearsal process we arranged a tour of the exhibits, requesting special attention on Antisemitism. What we received was a truly moving experience.

The permanent exhibit at the Maltz Museum is a must-see, which I especially recommend to my fellow Clevelanders, because it is not simply about Jewish history. These fascinating displays, many of them interactive, chronicle the immigrant experience in America, through the particular lens of European Jews, with an emphasis on (wait for it) Cleveland!

Our docent led us to particular points of interest on our journey to the extreme manifestation of hate. There is, in fact, a room labeled HATE, which includes a stirring film of Billie Holiday singing Strange Fruit, the song about lynching, lyrics by Jewish-American Abel Merropol -- a man who events would have it adopted the orphaned children of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg (I heard that on NPR.) Several of our people took in the map of known hate groups in the US and were astonished to learn how many are in the Cleveland area.

The thematic connection of race-hatred toward American blacks and its relation to Antisemitism extended to the 1936 Berlin Olympics display, prominently featuring our own Jesse Owens.

Our docent kept asking questions of the group and it was my role to play Hermione, putting my hand up every time.

Docent: Does anyone know why we have Superman here?

Me: Glenville High graduates Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel!

Five points from Gryffindor for being an insufferable know-it-all.

Zap! Pow! Bam! (2009)

We eventually came to the Holocaust room, which is set off as an alcove from the main path of the exhibits. I had brought my son for the Zap! Pow! Bam! exhibition in January 2009. He wasn’t yet four years old, but enjoyed the Superman serials and the supermarket Batman car which you could ride for a quarter. Taking in the permanent exhibit, I guided him past this certain alcove.

The images are horrible. There are hateful cartoons of leering Jews, reminding me, for example, that Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice was considered, in spite of modern revisionist thinking, supposed to be a hilarious comedy where the villainous Shylock gets what’s coming to him. Just because he’s a more interesting, nuanced character than say, Marlowe’s Barabas, only means Shakespeare was a better writer, not a better person.

Mounted on the wall is an article (which I will, someday, include in its entirety) written by my old nemesis, theater critic William F. McDermott. Poor Bill. He was supposed to be taking a summer holiday in Austria in 1938, instead was appalled to find the treatment of Jews there something he was unable to keep silent about, and on July 7 had penned an op-ed for The Plain Dealer warning America of what was happening, and what was next.

The three-minute film of the liberation of the death camps is simply unbearable.

This part of our tour, albiet all-too-brief, was not without hope, though we did, unfortunately, have to dash through one of my favorite parts -- the hall of inspiring Clevelanders of Jewish descent. It’s a list too long to cover here, but I am glad to say I know many of them!

We were hurrying to meet a special guest, Mrs. Betty Gold, formerly of Trochenbrod, Poland (now Ukraine) a city which no longer exists. Mrs. Gold was not one of those who endured the camps, but rather an 11 year-old girl whose family members lived for two years in a swamp, hiding from the Nazis before being rescued by the Soviets.

Listening to her story, it was impossible for my mind not to wander to my own girl, age 9. Mrs. Gold’s stories of her own father, whose determination and good sense and good fortune made his most of his family members of the only 40 people who survived out of a city of 5,000.

Sometimes I forget that, in spite of my own research, this time continues to slip further and further into the past. As I press on into my mid-40s, the actors-remain in their mid-twenties. Great books have been written, and films made, of this horrible time in an effort to ensure that no one forgets. Or that it is understood that these things do not simply happen. They were caused, intentionally, by people.

The next day, our actors were back at work, performing scenes from A Raisin in the Sun and The Glass Menagerie, playing theater exercises, eating sandwiches from various PlayhouseSquare establishments. But as we revisit the scenes from Anne Frank -- or even a new scene included in the Macbeth residency, in which Macduff learns the news that his entire family has been slaughtered -- our young actors can no longer say they have never met someone to whom this has happened.

“Atticus was right. One time he said you never really know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk around in them.” - Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird

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