Holocaust drama ‘Letters to Sala’ is spring play

Embracing 'the show must go on' tradition, faculty advisers and students forge ahead, flexibly, amid changes brought on by corona virus precautions at Saint Michael's.

March 12, 2020
Mark Tarnacki
Staff Writer

“Letters to Sala,” a Holocaust drama based on a true story of a Polish Jewish teenager who survived seven labor camps during World War II, has been in rehearsal this semester as the Saint Michael’s College spring MainStage production.

Play poster

The top of a poster, originally designed to publicize the Spring MainStage play before the intended run dates were canceled, shows a scene from the play in rehearsal. (photo by Jerry Swope)

It originally was set to run in late March, but campus disruptions related to the coronavirus pandemic – while not shutting down the production — now are keeping it moving ahead with an adaptable “show must go on” attitude alongside recognition that might not be possible.

For only the second time in the history of the Saint Michael’s Theater Department, the MainStage production is being directed this semester by a student director, Beth Parsons, a senior theater and psychology double-major with a philosophy minor from Bangor, Maine.

Saint Michael’s Theater faculty mentors for the show, Peter Harrigan and John Devlin, said on March 12 that the production preparations are moving ahead in spite of news that the original March curtain dates will not be possible. Harrigan noted that several students are earning academic credit related to the show, and that all the cast and crew will benefit from the experience of continuing and following through with their work as far as possible.

Regarding the latest challenge related to coronavirus, Harrigan said, “We are hoping that it is only postponed, and can be performed after April 14” (when students are tentatively scheduled to return to campus). “John Devlin was at the Theatre late last night, right after the announcement of changes in how soon students might return to campus due to COVID-19 precautions, still working with students on the lighting and sound cues. I’m going to continue work on the costumes with students this (Thursday, March 12) afternoon. It is helpful to finally know that we won’t be hosting audiences on March 25  when we were to open, but ‘the show must go on’ (or at least be ready to go on) is still our teaching principle right now!” Added Devlin, “The approach I introduced to students last night is that we will continue to work on the play and get as ready as possible. I’m approaching my 450th show, and they’ve all opened. So we’ll do what we can to ensure that the hard work of our students is both recognized and appreciated.”

Harrigan said he, Devlin and the students have not yet discussed such specifics, “but if we aren’t able to return to campus, we may try to find a way to share the play with a very limited audience – a Zoom meeting with actors in various locations with their friends and family online to watch. Public performance over digital media would not fall within the royalty contact we have with rights’ holders, but for the students’ sake, we have to find some way to share the work. That’s what it’s all about.”

Harrigan said he recognizes that the cast and crew from “Sala” are “among many campus groups and teams, here and elsewhere, who have worked so hard toward goals that may be delayed, altered or if nothing else works, canceled.”

About this semester’s play

Harrigan says he often finds himself seeking out and being drawn to plays with historical themes that strongly supplement and draw from students’ broad liberal arts educations at Saint Michael’s and carry a strong message from history for modern times. Also, theater faculty also always want to challenge strong students in ways that prepare them for professional theater careers, and Harrigan felt confident based on his four years teaching and working with Parsons that she was equal to the task of directing this major show.

Parsons said that Harrigan “was definitely drawn to the importance of the story, even though it happened 80-some years ago, because the themes are very relevant to today and how important it is not to forget about these experiences.” Another appealing aspect of this show for Saint Michael’s is the flexible casting, with a cast of 13 student actors being able to stage this production. About half are theater majors.

Beth Parsons ’20 is student director of “Letters to Sala.” (photo by Lauren Read)

“As part of senior seminars we get to choose our main focus in theater, be that in directing, acting or designing, and I was interested in directing a Main Stage show so Peter told me to read Letters to Sala and I immediately felt it would be a great play for Saint Michael’s,” Parsons said. “I’m grateful that he gave me that opportunity.”

The play’s main character is the daughter of a Polish Rabbi, Sala Garncarz Kirchner (March 5, 1924 – March 8, 2018) whose correspondences with her friends and relatives during the Holocaust, were turned into a New York Public Library exhibition; a later book, Sala’s Gift, which chronicled her experiences, was translated into seven languages, and in 2013 turned into this play being staged at Saint Michael’s.

A team effort

Parsons said after holding January auditions she had a cast list in a few days and began read-throughs and jumped right into rehearsals; the cast very soon had lines memorized and were “off book,” which encouraged her. An aspect of doing theater at Saint Michael’s she finds appealing is that so many of the cast can be students outside of the theater department who just have an interest in doing plays and bring diverse interests to the group. The play runs about two hours including intermission with two 40 minute acts.

Saint Michael’s Theater Professor John Devlin is doing the lighting and scenic design as he typically does for the College’s MainStage productions, while Harrigan is the costume designer and main adviser for the senior seminar tied to production. The stage management team includes Hazel Kieu, a sophomore theater major, and Kenzie Wright, a junior, and first-year Dove Frishkoff.

Sala closeup

Closeup of a key scene from rehearsal for the spring play. (Photo by Jerry Swope)

“Peter Harrigan and John Devlin are very supportive of people taking the lead or projects they’re interested in,” Parsons said. “They want people ready to go after four years for a professional career, to be able to handle things on their own without being managed by a professor although they are always there if I have questions and need support.” Ultimately Parsons hopes to work in arts administration, “marketing shows and encouraging people to come see performances, raising money for theater companies so they can put on productions.” Working her first two college summers with the professional Saint Michael’s Playhouse “gave me a very good taste of what professional live theater is,” she said.

“It is always very gratifying to see productions come together in all the different aspects – actors, sets, costuming, and seeing everything come together to serve the unified vision we have for this production,” the student-director said. The cast of Letters to Sala was originally set to start tech rehearsal adding lights, sound and costumes just before spring break, then another day of tech and dress rehearsals upon return, though now all this is fluid with recent coronavirus concerns.

A history lesson

Sala's gift cover

The book “Sala’s Gift” is the basis of the play “Letters to Sala.” Student Director Beth Parsons at Saint Michael’s read the book as part of extensive preparation to direct this historically-based show.

Historical research has been a major part of her preparation for the play, Parsons said. “Sala went to certain labor camps so it was important to do the research on difference between labor camps and concentration camps, or the different experiences in Poland versus Hungary, and to know more of her personal story since after liberation she moved to New York with her American soldier husband.

Talking about that historical context with her cast was important for Parsons “since it will “inform their character choices,” she said. To help with that, she found links with interviews that can be watched via the recent New York Public Library display about Sala’s life. (Sala died in 2018 at the age of 94). Parsons reached out to Jeffrey Trumbower, vice president for academic affairs, so he could introduce her to eminent Brandeis University scholar and author Dr. Jonathan Sarna after the professor spoke on campus this semester about antisemitism and Jewish identity. and Sarna was “very informative on Jewish identity and tradition in Europe compared with the U.S.,” she said.

Parsons said her philosophy minor has given her a framework for thinking of issues raised in the play such as identity and free will, another important advantage of majoring in theater at a small liberal arts college like St. Mike’s in her view. “It’s a show about keeping faith in yourself and in those around you even, in very dark experiences that they are going through,” she said.

“One of my goals with this show is to make people think about why stories like these are relevant and what the equivalent to this might be today – what sort of injustice are going on today that people should be thinking about and standing up against,” Parsons said. “I hope it inspires a spirit of empathy.”

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