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Play Inspires Dialogue on Survival and Creativity

Photo credit: Kaitie O'Hare

Performing Arts Professor Gail Humphries Mardirosian works extensively as an activist presenting theatre that risks representation and provides a catalyst for thinking, giving voices to the thousands of Jews that suffered at Terezín during the Holocaust.

She helped develop the Voices of Terezín initiative on campus and now expands awareness into the larger D.C. community through a musical performance of I Never Saw Another Butterfly, which runs Nov. 12–14 in Katzen Studio Theatre.

The play, written by Celeste Raspanti, is based on the book I Never Saw Another Butterfly, a collection art and poetry created by children at Terezín, a ghetto near Prague that held Jewish captives. Named after a poem by Pavel Friedman, the play is a fictional musical based on true events about a teacher that defies her circumstances and helps children cope with captivity by making art and poetry.

While developing this emotional and compelling musical, Mardirosian and her students also joined outreach initiatives to share their performance with local youth in surrounding elementary and middle schools, focusing on 4th – 7th graders. They prepared students to see special performances of the play by developing eight workshops, using art, sign language, and other techniques, to educate students about the social injustices that took place at Terezín.

“One 7th grade student said she was nervous [to see the play] because she knows it will make her sad, but she thinks it’s important to see it,” says Mardirosian. Along with the workshops, students and Mardirosian created a study guide that teachers can share with their students to prepare them further. The students learn key words and concepts associated with Terezín and the Holocaust before seeing I Never Saw Another Butterfly, allowing them to get a more meaningful understanding from the play afterwards.

“I would not want to present this particular play to younger children,” says Mardirosian. “It’s such a harsh message, but it’s an important one.” She stresses the value of reaching middle school students with the play, as many of the children featured in the book and play are from their own age group. “I think it can really speak to them deeply,” she says.

The creative process of the play, and the university student’s work has astounded Mardirosian. “There have been moments when the cast and I have cried. There’s a song at the end that impacts me deeply. We are reminded of the loss and waste that Terezin represents, juxtaposed to the art that still provides a witness across time. There’s much personal resonance for me in the lyrics of the final song."

Mardirosian travelled to Terezín three times and plans to go back again this Spring. Each time she goes, she says she experiences a cycle of emotions that eventually leave her feeling empowered. “It’s my obligation as a professor of humanities to generate difficult dialogue around important ethnical issues,” she says.

Through theatre, she hopes to provoke thought around this difficult subject that raises issues of great relevance today. “I really believe the arts can engender difficult dialogue. If we sit in the fire and reckon, it can challenge us to make difficult connections and ultimately act upon them as voices of reminder and truth are represented."