You don’t hear the words “improv” and “Holocaust” together very often: Side-by-side, they conjure images of actors lined up on stage while audience members yell out dramatic commands: “You’re hiding under the floorboard!” or “You’re in line for the gas chamber!”
According to the program’s organizers, however, the Holocaust Project—a 12-week class culminating with a performance at the Washington District of Columbia Jewish Community Center’s Theater J—is nothing of the sort. Theatre Lab instructor Dorothy Neumann, who is in charge of the project, says it’s more like a trip to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, where visitors receive cards with information about people persecuted by the Nazis.
“Each actor will be assigned a character, someone who was in the Holocaust, who survived it or did not,” says Buzz Mauro, co-director of the Theatre Lab. “They will have certain details of this character’s life, but as with all acting, they’ll have to fill out part of these characters’ lives themselves.”
Mauro says the project is geared toward actors who crave an “intensive dramatic experience,” but it’s also “for people who want to learn about the Holocaust and explore it in a non-traditional way.” Theatre Lab is even offering students an opportunity to discuss their characters with a Holocaust survivor: Irene Weiss, who wrote the memoir, Life at the End of the Tunnel. Weiss will answer actors’ questions by phone as they work out their characters and plans to attend the final performance at Theater J, says Associate Director Jane Coyne.
And just to be clear, “comedy improv has nothing to do with it,” Mauro says. “Improvisation for us simply means serious acting that is done without a script.” Though he recognizes that the Holocaust Project is “a bit daring,” he says, “we haven’t found it to be off-putting. If people are finding it off-putting, they haven’t told us that.”