As I was leafing through the pages of our newspaper a couple weeks ago, I was struck by an ad for The Theatre Lab. It was a photograph of a bearded man and a shmata-sporting woman huddled over a book. Beneath the pair was an invitation: “Take an improv class like no other, The Holocaust Project.”
Improv and Holocaust. Now there are two words you don’t see together very often. Immediately, I imagined a group of actors lined up on stage while the audience members yelled out dramatic commands:
“You’re scrounging crumbs to eat!”
“You’re hiding under the floorboard!”
“You’re in line for the gas chamber!”
My mind raced from one unsavory scenario to the next. Intrigued and just a little disturbed, I called The Theatre Lab.
As it turns out, The Holocaust Project is a 12-week class culminating with a performance at the Washington DC JCC’s Theater J. It’s the brainchild of Dorothy Neumann, a Theatre Lab instructor. She says the project is a bit like a trip to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, where visitors receive cards with information about people who were alive during the period of Nazi persecution. “Each actor will be assigned a character, someone who was in the Holocaust, who survived it or did not. 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,” says Buzz Mauro, co-director of The Theatre Lab.
He says the project is geared towards 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, the author of Life at the End of the Tunnel, a memoir, will be available by phone to answer any questions actors might have, and will be attending the final performance at Theater J, says Jane Coyne, associate director.
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,” he says. While 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.”
Still, says Coyne, it’s been tough to get people to sign up for the Holocaust immersion. Classes, which began March 13, are under capacity, she says, and Theatre Lab would welcome any latecomers who want to join.