Left to right, Caylen Creative, Michelle Avila Navarro and Terrence Zhou co-star in Studio 58’s production of Blood Wedding. (photo by Emily Cooper)
Studio 58, the professional theatre training program at snəw̓eyəɬ leləm̓ Langara College, brings flamenco dance to the stage with Federico García Lorca’s Blood Wedding Nov. 23-Dec. 3.
Recognized for his surreal and socialist works, Lorca’s Blood Wedding is a tragedy of love, repression and duty. Set in rural Spain, a bride is torn between her fiancé and her former lover, and must balance feuds between the families. Blood Wedding is a poetic play that explores the isolation of loyalty versus personal freedom.
“Federico García Lorca’s Blood Wedding premièred in 1933, three years before he was assassinated by the fascists during the Spanish Civil War for being a socialist and a gay man,” explains director Carmen Aguirre in the press release. “This play is about forbidden love, resistance to oppressive societal norms and a foreshadowing of the war. I have set the play in an Andalucian bar on the eve of that war, where a group of flamenco dancers, musicians, actors and cantaores tell us this tragic story.”
The Studio 58 production creative team includes lighting designer Itai Erdal, who is a member of the Jewish community.
Blood Wedding will have 3 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. showtimes. New this season will be a relaxed performance, on Dec. 2, 3 p.m. The show is at Studio 58 at Langara College, 100 West 49th Ave. Tickets (from $10) are available at studio58.ca.
Left to right: Sofie Kane, Zachary Bellward and Angus Yam in Studio 58’s The Rocky Horror Show, with costume design by Donnie Tejani and makeup by Weebee Drippin. (photo by Emily Cooper)
“It’s the fun and freaky escape we’ve all been craving!” announces the press release for Studio 58 at Langara College’s The Rocky Horror Show. And it’s a statement that’s proven true, with an almost sold-out run as the JI went to press this week.
At least two Jewish community members are involved in the production, which takes place live in the theatre Feb. 3-20. Josh Epstein directs and Itai Erdal created the lighting design.
Amid the happy news regarding ticket sales, COVID continues to cause challenges. “We have multiple Plan Bs and we update them often,” Epstein told the Independent. “Enough of the show has been learned that I know, wherever we end up, this incredible group of performers can entertain.”
While Epstein has done other creative works over the past two years, and so has experience dealing with all the pandemic regulations, this show has been “way harder,” he said.
“I was involved in Craigslist Cantata, which was a filmed production; and a workshop of a new musical at Studio 58 I co-wrote, it was basically an outdoor concert. With Rocky Horror, the cast is large, the lighting, sets and costumes are all world-class. We are being extremely careful to follow all regulations, Studio 58 guidelines and avoid infection. We took a week on Zoom when needed and made other adjustments as needed. I also have two kids under 2 – that’s really the harder part!”
Erdal also has been busier than many in the performing arts sector, but he, too, is finding the situation difficult.
“I have been luckier than most designers I suppose, but still, the last couple of years have been a real struggle, both financially and mentally,” said Erdal. “Just last week, I had to postpone my one-man show How to Disappear Completely, which was scheduled to run at Presentation House in North Van – one of the toughest decisions I had to make.
“Making a living as a theatre artist is tough in the best of times,” he added. “Right now, it’s damn near impossible. It’s been tough mentally too – I basically sat at home for a year between November 2020 and 2021. Fortunately, I’ve been writing a play about my military service [in Israel], so that kept me busy and sane for that year.”
That Erdal is also a writer, producer, performer and artistic director (of the Elbow Theatre) must help in his design of lighting for a production, which begins with his reading of the play in question, “taking notes of things like locations, time of day, mood, atmosphere, effects (lighting, gun shots, smoke, haze, etc.).”
He then meets with the director to “hear their vision of the piece and if they have any specific ideas about lighting. Ideally, this is before the set is designed so I have some input into the set design – Is it an abstract set or a naturalistic one? If the set has walls on the sides, then I can’t use side lighting; if it’s staged in the round, it will obviously change my design.”
He takes more notes while watching rehearsals and, for a musical, like Rocky Horror, he needs to know exactly where the performers are for every song.
“Then I will go home and draw the lighting plot – this show has about 150 lights and the crew needs to know where every light is hung, which way it’s facing and what colour or pattern it takes. Then we hang all the lights, circuit them and patch them to the lighting board.
“After the hang is finished,” he said, “we focus all the lights and then we record the cues. A musical will typically have anywhere between 200 and 300 lighting cues, so that will take awhile to record, at least 12 hours. I use light walkers and ask them to stand where the performers will be standing and we record all the cues and put them all in the prompt script so the stage manager can call the show.”
The performers are then shown their every cue, being told “where to stand, making sure the director likes how it looks and the stage manager knows exactly when the cue is called. In a musical like Rocky Horror,” said Erdal, “the vast majority of the cues will be called with the music, so I would give the stage manager a detailed cue list that includes bar numbers so the show can be called musically. After practising all that for a few days, we add the costumes and all other design elements and do a tech dress and then a dress rehearsal. After that, the audience comes in for previews and we do a few last tweaks before we open the show.”
Collaboration is crucial and it’s one of Epstein’s favourite parts of directing this show – working with the students and the creative team. “After a few years away from this process,” he said, “there is nothing that gets me jazzed more than bouncing artistic ideas off each other and then guiding them to life.”
Given the popularity and longevity of The Rocky Horror Show – first staged in 1973 and then made iconic by the 1975 film adaptation – one might be intimidated when faced with staging it, but not Epstein.
“I love and trust my artistic team and give them a lot of ownership over where we’re headed. If we each dream big and make it happen, it will be unlike any other production – and I think we’ve done that,” said the director.
“Usually,” he added, “I avoid any other productions or history of a show but Rocky Horror has had such a unique life. I researched its beginnings, looked for lyric changes, did consultations with different communities, made conscious decisions about context and intention. I really took to heart ‘Don’t dream it, be it’ and have made that a touchstone of our show – that you can be whoever you want to be and, more importantly, be fabulous.
“One thing that’s going to happen,” Epstein concluded, “is we’re going to honour the audience that this show created, in a big way.”
Anton Lipovetsky is among the professional artists working with Studio 58 to develop Monoceros: A Musical. (photo by Dahlia Katz)
In the face of a pandemic and all its associated restrictions, the show is going on at Langara College’s Studio 58 – albeit in a very different way. Monoceros: A Musical runs through the end of March and features the contributions of two Jewish community members: writer Josh Epstein and composer/lyricist Anton Lipovetsky.
In contrast to other Studio 58 productions, Monoceros is seen as a “development lab,” an opportunity for the creators to tweak the piece, while allowing students to work on a new musical and learn about the process. The production is not a performance in a traditional sense, as the public will not be able to come and watch it. Ordinarily, shows are performed in Langara’s 100-seat theatre, but this is the first time Studio 58 has created a production outdoors – because of the risks of singing inside.
Adapted from a Suzette Mayr novel by Epstein and his business partner, Vancouver writer/director Kyle Rideout, Monoceros tells the story of Faraday, a high school wallflower who dreams of becoming a famous veterinarian. When Ethan, a classmate known for wearing a unicorn outfit, dies unexpectedly, Faraday sets off on a quest to fulfil Ethan’s last wish.
“The book starts with one of the most powerful chapters I’ve ever read,” Epstein told the Independent. “I was engaged from the first sentence, my heart was drawn to every word. I, too, lost my best friend much too early and I felt very connected to this book. We were about to turn the book into a film, for which we had funding, but, at the same time, we felt a musical bursting out of it and attached Ben Elliott and Anton to write the music. We fell so in love with the musical that we halted the film for now to keep working on the piece. Our show tackles difficult subject matter but in a fresh, humorous way, daring the audience to go on a wild adventure and to listen.”
“I read the book and I loved it. It was heartbreaking and brutal and honest – the kind of book that really stays with you after you read it,” said Lipovetsky. “We decided to centre the story more on a singular character, Faraday, and her quest to bring unicorns to Calgary in honour of the student who passed away. Her quest challenges who she is as a person and she discovers herself along the way.”
Putting on a production in 2021 is “completely wild,” said Epstein, an award-winning actor, writer and producer. “Until the day we started, we had no idea if it would actually happen. Now, here we are with a full tent city built by Studio 58, a rock concert sound setup and an incredible creative team that includes one of Canada’s top directors, Meg Roe, and Lily Ling (Hamilton’s musical director) – who was only available to us because Hamilton is on hiatus.”
Epstein emphasized that, “while the show’s path has been altered by COVID-19, the team has used the time to strengthen the script and score, as well as attach some of the best people around [to the project]. Above all, the process is very safe and we’re having fun being able to work together, if only from a masked distance.”
“Acting, singing and connecting with your collaborators while most of your face is covered is not easy. The students are doing a wonderful job,” Lipovetsky said. “And rehearsing outdoors during early March in Vancouver can be challenging – but sometimes it’s magical. There are moments where the students’ voices soar in beautiful harmony and the sun will come out above us and I’ll feel real joy. I have missed making music and theatre so much and I’m grateful to get to do it even under these strange circumstances.”
In addition to the staff and faculty who are involved, Studio 58 has 10 professionals working with the students, 14 student performers, and many other students helping with technical requirements. One of the top theatre schools in Canada, with the only conservatory-style program in Western Canada, the professional theatre training program at Langara is in its 55th season. It typically produces four main-stage productions a season, ranging from dramas, to comedies, to musicals.
Monoceros is commissioned and supported by Toronto’s Musical Stage Company and funded by the Aubrey and Marla Dan Foundation. The show has an elaborate development road planned out that will include workshop productions in British Columbia and Ontario – culminating in Toronto – before continuing to other stages.
Epstein, whose work has taken him around the world, is currently writing an original feature for Paramount with Rideout. Lipovetsky is an acclaimed composer, lyricist, performer and teacher, and he is currently an artist-in-residence in the Musical Stage Company’s Crescendo Series.
Katherine Matlashewski and Tanner Zerr in Fast Foward. (photo by Emily Cooper)
Since COVID-19, we have been learning how to relate to one another from a distance, as well as how to use the technologies, like Zoom, that have allowed us to retain a more personal connection than we could have if we had experienced the pandemic even a handful of years ago. While our reality seems stolen from the script of a futuristic sci-fi horror film, playwright Rosamund Small’s visions of love in the future and how technology affects it, TomorrowLove, are “hilarious, snappy, moving and refreshingly fun in these times,” according to Shekhar Paleja and Lauren Taylor, co-directors of Studio 58’s production of Small’s playlet collection.
Jewish community members Samantha Levy and Katherine Matlashewski are among the cast members of the production, which will be released online on Feb. 28 and available to watch individually or collectively until March 7.
Studio 58 is Langara College’s professional theatre training program, and this spring’s lineup – which TomorrowLove launches – is the first under the direction of Courtenay Dobbie. Both Levy and Matlashewski are in their second year of study.
“I was finishing up my first year when the pandemic began in earnest here,” Levy told the Independent. “COVID-19 has forced me to be more isolated from my school community through Zoom classes, but it has not taken away the care and dedication of my professors, or the support of my peers. We are still a family, even though we are distanced or online.”
It has become a hybrid program since the pandemic, with some classes online and others held in person with social distancing, said Matlashewski. “Since Studio 58 is a hands-on conservatory program, the transition to online studies was challenging at first,” she admitted. “The faculty and staff, however, have been extremely supportive during these uncertain times. They have all worked tirelessly to adapt our training while also prioritizing our safety.
“That being said,” she added, “as a result of COVID, students are now required to commute to and from the college quite a bit … [and] the hours of online Zoom classes are exhausting. Despite these challenges, I appreciate the continuation of our small in-person classes.”
Prior to her post-secondary training at Studio 58, Matlashewski appeared as Mopsy in King Arthur’s Court (Metro Theatre), where she received the Community Theatre Coalition Award for best supporting actress. Other select credits include Alana in Dear Evan Hansen (Laughing Matters), Luisa in The Fantasticks (Stage 43) and Little Red Riding Hood in Into the Woods: In Concert (Royal City Musical Theatre). Most recently, she was awarded the 2021 Cheryl Hutcherson Award by Applause! Musicals Society.
“I have been a part of the Vancouver theatre and dance community from a very young age,” said Matlashewski. “I feel incredibly blessed to live, create and play on the unceded territories of the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh Nations.”
In TomorrowLove, Matlashewski said, “I have the pleasure of acting in the playlet called Fast Forward, alongside Tanner Zerr. This playlet explores themes of love, abandonment, age difference, time travel and the consequences that come with it.”
Levy plays the role of Jessie in the short play Take This Soul. “In Take This Soul, Jessie’s ex-partner, Rylan, shows up at her doorstep after having disappeared for four days,” explained Levy. “He tells an outlandish tale of an experiment in a distant country that has allowed him to return and present her with his literal soul.”
In addition to this Studio 58 production, Levy’s acting credits include Love, Loss and What I Wore (Centaur Theatre), Fancy Nancy: The Musical (Côte Saint-Luc Dramatic Society, Segal Centre) and It Shoulda Been You (Dora Wasserman Yiddish Theatre, Segal Centre). Her TV and film credits include Annedroids and 18 To Life.
“I’ve been performing since the age of 5, when my parents signed me up for an extracurricular theatre troupe in my hometown, Montreal,” said Levy. “Little did they know that I would fall in love with performing! Since then, I’ve acted on stage and on screen, trained at the Stratford Festival’s Theatre Arts Camp, and dabbled in directing both plays and musicals. Now, I am so thrilled my love of acting has led me to Studio 58!”
But the experience is not what it normally would be, of course.
“During the pandemic, the lovely production team has been working extra hard to keep us all safe,” said Levy, “and that includes managing our schedules closely to avoid contact between folks. So, I have come to value the time I have with others in person even more. When we are in person, we are also wearing masks and social distancing at all times. This often means coming up with innovative new ways to express ourselves without proximity or touch on stage, which has been a wonderful challenge. It is incredibly uplifting for me to have the privilege to be able to continue to create with others, be vulnerable and connect.”
Acknowledging that the “pandemic has been an emotional rollercoaster for everyone,” Matlashewski said, “One of the challenges that I have faced is navigating acting while wearing a mask. Prior to COVID, I did not realize how much I relied on the non-verbal cues and facial expressions of my scene partners. However, now that two-thirds of the human face is covered by a mask, I find that I have to listen more closely to fully understand my scene partner. With that in mind, we all have had to adjust and be patient with ourselves and others.
“My biggest take away from acting during COVID is the importance of human connection,” she continued. “We have had to find new ways to connect and communicate while maintaining physical distancing. During the rehearsal process of Fast Forward, I discovered how social distancing impacted my acting choices. Since I had to maintain a two-metre distance from my scene partner, each movement that I made on stage had to be carefully considered. Our fantastic director, Lauren Taylor, guided us through this process and helped specify our blocking.
“Although we are required to maintain physical distance and wear masks while we are acting, I am thankful that I get to act in person for my first mainstage show at Studio 58.”
Reflecting on her connections to Jewish community and culture, Matlashewski said, “Within Judaism, community is a value that is held with the highest importance. Although we cannot gather in person, I invite you all to find the light where you can and share it with those around you.”
For her part, Levy said, “As my parents are across the country in Montreal and my brother (he’s a doctor!) is in St. John’s, Jewish culture and art are an anchor to the family who love me. Seeing Jewish representation in art is healing and beautiful.”
She then added a “non-performance-related anecdote.”
“I walked into a Jewish bakery during Chanukah to get a few latkes,” said Levy, “and I left with tears in my eyes and a bag full of items I had not planned to buy.”
To see one or all 13 of the TomorrowLove playlets, visit studio58.ca.
Ryan Beil, left, and Mark Chavez. (photos from Studio 58)
Studio 58’s 55th season continues with the world première of Theatre: The Play, a comedic love letter to the art form, written and directed by Ryan Beil and Mark Chavez.
The Nearlake Theatre Festival & Bar & Grill faces certain closure, unless it can produce a hit show. Dudley, the festival’s intrepid artistic director, throws out all the stops in an attempt to stage a masterpiece the likes of which the theatre world has never seen: Macbeth, War on Christmas. But, can the cast and crew deal with their personal demons before the punters show up? Theatre: The Play is both an homage and a sly middle finger to the world of theatre, asking, “Why would anyone work in this unforgiving and unstable field of make-believe?”
Studio 58 students in their fourth term will perform the play, which will be filmed and then offered online to viewers, who can watch from the comfort of their homes Nov. 29 to Dec. 6.
“We are so excited to push the boundaries of what it means to produce a play online,” said Beil, a member of the Jewish community, and Chavez. “To go beyond just setting up a camera and pressing record, instead making the experience for people watching at home just as electric as it [would be] for those watching in the theatre.”
A husband competes with his oldest daughter for his wife’s affections, a man ponders whether he is more attracted to a 10-year-old girl or her divorced older sister, a woman has an abortion she didn’t necessarily want, a young man violently rebels against his abusive father. Jonah Rosenfeld tackles difficult subject matter in his short stories, with no compulsion to solve any particular problem or correct behaviours, but to explore the thoughts and feelings of his characters, and thereby offer insight into parts of humanity that we may shy away from contemplating. English readers can now access these stories and ideas, originally conceived in Yiddish, thanks to a newly published translation by Langara College’s Rachel Mines.
The Rivals and Other Stories (Syracuse University Press, 2020) comprises 19 of Rosenfeld’s stories. Born in Chartorysk, Russia (now, Chortorysk, Ukraine), the prolific writer lived from 1881 to 1944, immigrating in 1921 to New York, where he was a major contributor to the Forverts. In total, he wrote 20 volumes of short stories, a dozen plays and three novels. Rosenfeld’s “stories provide a corrective to the typical understanding of Yiddish literature as sentimental or quaint,” writes Mines in the book’s press materials. “Although the stories were written decades ago for a Yiddish-speaking audience, they are surprisingly contemporary in flavour.”
The first Rosenfeld story Mines read, in Yiddish, was The Rivals (Konkurentn), six or seven years ago. “I’d only been studying Yiddish for a few years at that point and was reading to improve my language skills,” she said. “I was so impressed with the story that I decided, just for practice, to translate it into English. Later on, I found out that an English translation had already been published in [Irving] Howe and [Eliezer] Greenberg’s A Treasury of Yiddish Stories, but, by then, I was hooked on both Rosenfeld and Yiddish translation.”
Mines was a Yiddish Book Centre Translation Fellow in 2016 and The Rivals was her translation project during that fellowship year. “I’d already translated several stories before that, but 2016 was when everything started coming together in terms of improving my skills as a translator,” she said.
The project was her own idea, not work assigned by the Yiddish Book Centre, although the centre did support it.
“I should also mention,” she added, “that Vancouver is a veritable hotbed of Yiddish translation (who knew?), with a number of active translators, all of whom have been helpful at various times. Helen Mintz, in particular, was a huge inspiration and support. Her book of translations, Vilna My Vilna, a collection of Abraham Karpinowitz’s short stories, was published (also by Syracuse UP) in 2017. Helen and I spent several years together on Skype, regularly workshopping each other’s translations and helping each other out with advice and information. We’re still doing that, in fact.”
It is his exploration of the psyche that attracts Mines to Rosenfeld’s work.
“I’m interested in psychology – always have been – and particularly in people’s unconscious, and sometimes counterintuitive, reasons for thinking and behaving the way they do. So Rosenfeld’s insight into the darker corners of the human mind was an instant draw. I should say that his stories stand up very well to many current theories of human thought and behaviour. For example, the protagonist of The Rivals is a classic malignant narcissist – he ticks all the boxes. It’s interesting to note that Rosenfeld’s story was first published in 1909, several years before Otto Rank’s and Sigmund Freud’s theories of narcissism came out. Rosenfeld was an intuitive psychologist, and a very perceptive one.
“Another reason Rosenfeld’s stories appeal to me is that they work very well in a 21st-century, multicultural setting,” she said. “I’ve taught a number of the translations to first-year students at Langara, and students are attracted by his stories’ takes on immigration, women’s rights, male-female relationships, generational conflict, culture clash – this list goes on. Clearly, these ideas are as relevant today as they were when the stories were first written.
“Finally, I like Rosenfeld’s attitudes to his characters, even the less admirable ones. He seems interested in and sympathetic to their dilemmas; as an author, he doesn’t judge or blame his characters – he leaves that up to his readers. I like that Rosenfeld is more interested in exploring his character’s situations and psychology than he is in blaming or moralizing.”
Mines, who is retiring this year, taught in the English department at Langara College since 2001. One of the department’s main offerings has been a first-year class on the short story, she said. “Around the time I started translating, I started introducing stories with a Jewish theme to my classes. A bit to my surprise, despite coming from non-Jewish backgrounds, my students found the stories interesting and engaging, so I gradually added more and more stories with Jewish content. The last few years, I’ve been teaching Rosenfeld’s stories exclusively. My students love the stories and readily identify with (or at least understand) the characters and their predicaments. We’ve had many lively discussions!”
In an introductory chapter to The Rivals, Mines poses several questions she hopes keen PhD students or other researchers will take on, including where Rosenfeld’s place might be in the American literary canon. With the disclaimer that she is “just a lowly translator,” Mines said, “But, if pressed for an answer, I’d have to say it’s Rosenfeld’s psychological insights. He’s not entirely unique – other Jewish and/or American authors of his time were psychologically astute and wrote compelling character studies. But Rosenfeld went a bit beyond, in that his stories are almost Greek tragedies – his protagonists fail in their quests (for love, belonging, security, etc.) not because of external forces, but because of some internal, self-defeating habit of thought that they may not be consciously aware of. Rosenfeld isn’t the only author to explore this type of psychological dichotomy, but he does so very consistently.”
Xianzhi (Paul) Chen, in the Lakers T-shirt, not only led programming at the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver, but participated in it. (photo from JCC)
Xianzhi (Paul) Chen came to Canada from China in 2011 with his family. He loves outdoor sports, especially basketball, and has always been community-oriented, including providing care for Chinese seniors at a nursing home. But how did he find his way to the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver?
Paul is pursuing a recreation and leadership diploma at Langara College. Last year, he approached six organizations for an internship, to apply the training and skills of this program to a real-world environment, but was turned away by all the organizations he approached. When he initially interviewed for a position at the JCC with Lisa Cohen Quay, Adult 55+ program coordinator, she also said no. However, the issue was not whether he could do the work required, but rather that the requirements and expectations of the Langara internship were too much for her department to oversee.
Paul is blind in one eye and has limited vision in the other. He requires accommodations. But accommodations were not the issue either. Lisa’s mom lives with extremely low vision. She knew that, with slight adjustments to the work environment and access to a CCTV machine and specialized software like ZoomText, Paul would be able to meet and even exceed expectations. His disability, as so often is the case, was not the barrier.
Fortunately for the JCC, Paul would not take no for an answer. Without an internship, he would have had to delay the completion of his education. So, he wrote Lisa after that first meeting and asked her for a chance to show his skills. Paul – bright, friendly and tenacious – left a powerful impression. Lisa could not stop thinking about his abilities and the challenges he had faced. Determined to provide him with a meaningful and useful internship, she reached out to me, the coordinator of the JCC’s inclusion department, to see if we could create one between our two departments.
We did just that, agreeing to co-supervise Paul’s internship. We decided to provide him with program planning experience and program support experience, while also allowing him to actively participate in some of the JCC’s inclusion programming. Lisa then reached out to the Langara internship coordinator to negotiate a modified internship for Paul. The school agreed to Paul interning between the two departments at a reduced load over a longer, five-month period.
Paul was very nervous at first. He did not know how to set up for events like mah jongg, poker or bridge, how to manage a budget or how to plan programs. But, he took instruction well, was eager to learn and did his best. He demonstrated care in all his interactions with community members and poured his heart into every project in which he participated.
“I oversaw Dumpling Night at the Community Kitchen to share the Chinese New Year with community members,” said Paul by way of an example of how he incorporated his previous experience into his internship at the JCC, and learned more about leading programming.
“I oversaw all aspects of a balcony beautification project, including [doing] the budget by myself,” he added. “I learned how to use my hands to make art during the Art Hive program.”
Paul tried many new activities during his internship and, as a result, made a lot of friends. He learned quickly that friendships are forged through recreation.
Paul said the highlights of his internship were “making three excellent art pieces,” the beautification project and the “terrific relationships with people that I met in this community.”
“Paul has demonstrated a passion for community development through his internship at the JCC, with a focus on diversity and inclusion,” said Erin Wilkins, department chair, recreation studies, at Langara College. “He has also demonstrated how to provide engaging recreation experiences that support diverse community members and build resilience through empowerment.”
She said the department is “so proud of Paul’s accomplishments at the JCC, and thankful for the support he received throughout his internship, which is the final semester of the recreation leadership diploma.”
The JCC is proud to have been part of Paul’s training and professional development. We are happy to have provided him with a meaningful and diverse introduction to recreational programming, to community building and to leadership development. We are equally grateful for what he has given back to our community and us as professionals, and hope that he will continue to participate in our community and lead programming in the future.
Access to opportunity, we are reminded, requires adjustments and flexibility and is always worth the effort.
Leamore Cohenis inclusion services coordinator at the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver.
Langara College recently held the closing ceremony for Writing Lives: The Holocaust Memoir Project, a two-semester collaboration between Langara College, the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre (VHEC) and the Azrieli Foundation.
At the April 26 event, Dr. Rachel Mines, a member of Langara’s English department and coordinator of the project, described Writing Lives.
“In the first semester of this project,” she said, “students learned about the European Jewish culture and the Holocaust in the classroom, through studying historical and literary texts. They also researched and wrote a paper on prewar European Jewish communities.
“In the second term, students were teamed up with their survivor partners. They interviewed the survivors, transcribed the interviews and turned the transcriptions into written memoirs. The memoirs will be archived and possibly published, and they will also serve as legacies for the survivors and their families.”
Mines also relayed a message from Melanie Mark, B.C. minister of advanced education, skills and training.
“The Writing Lives project gives a voice to Holocaust survivors and teaches us about the type of courage and resilience it takes to overcome injustice,” said Mark in her statement. “These emotional and moving stories help connect people from different cultures and inspire us to do better for each other. I am proud to be part of a government that is committed to building a vision of reconciliation through the adoption and implementation of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s calls to action. As an indigenous minister whose grandparents went to residential school, as the first person who ever graduated from high school in my family and went to college and university, I know the power of education. I know how transformative it is and how impactful it can be on our communities. Thank you for being truth tellers and helping to keep these stories alive in the minds of people.”
Gene Homel, former chair of the liberal studies department at the British Columbia Institute of Technology, encouraged students to consider entering the fields of history, politics or literature.
“History is very important in providing context to some disturbing developments, not so much in Canada but other parts of the world, which are not as fortunate as Canada,” he said. “History is a scientific-based discipline, and that kind of approach is all the more important in the context of fake news and alternative facts. It is very important that the stories be told, and for us to take an inclusive but evidence-based and scientific approach to history.”
“When I invited the survivors in this program,” said Dr. Ilona Shulman Spaar, education director at the VHEC, “I mentioned two things: first, I expressed that the VHEC is confident that the experience of meeting with a Holocaust survivor will prove meaningful for the students and, secondly, I mentioned that I hope the survivors, too, will benefit from this opportunity. Listening to the positive feedback that I received from both the students and the survivors, and looking at the overall outcome of this project, I am glad to see that my hopes for this program became true.”
Serge Haber, a Holocaust survivor and a Writing Lives participant, talked about the significance of his memoir. “It is very crucial to me, because, for the last 35 years, I have been thinking of writing my experience in this life,” he said. “I never had a chance, the time or the person to listen to me. I hated the machines that record, so [a] personal touch was very important to me. And here it was, presented by Langara. I worked with two students, and I think we created a relationship, a personal understanding of what I went through.”
Haber added, “In fact, I have never been in a concentration camp, but it is important to know that the Holocaust happened not only in camps but also in many cities around Europe, where thousands upon thousands of Jewish people, young and old alike, perished for nothing, only because they were Jewish. I profoundly remember three words that [I was told] while I was watching what was happening on the streets below, where thousands of people had been killed – my father mentioned to me, ‘Look, listen and remember.’ And I remember.”
Heather Parks, reflecting on the passion and dedication that she and her fellow students contributed to the project, shared an emotional speech.
“For their trust in us, we poured our hearts into building their legacy,” she said. “We spent our days and long nights taking words told to us in confidence. We poured our hearts – and sometimes tears – into making a story fit for the most incredible people we have had the honour of meeting. Every part of this was hard work, and every part of this was worth it. We learned so much from them.
“Besides the lessons on history, we learned what true strength means,” she said. “We learned that love can remain even after trauma, loss or heartbreak; that new love grows as lives move forward, and that time can heal many wounds, even though they may leave scars. We were lucky to have been included in this love, this trust and this experience. I am not the only one in this project – in the experience of all of us, this project was illuminating and enlightening. It was surreal and awe-inspiring in every sense of the word. The experience taught us compassion, how to listen and what it means to love in the face of hate.”
The Writing Lives closing ceremony, however, may be an end that ushered in a new beginning. According to Dr. Rick Ouellet, director of Langara College’s indigenous education and services, his department is currently taking initiatives to continue the program. Writing Lives was a collaboration in the two years it ran. Similarly, the future project would be in collaboration with organizations that are working closely with residential school survivors, such as the Indian Residential Schools Survivors Society and the British Columbia Residential School History and Dialogue Centre, to establish necessary protocols and ensure the stories of survivors are respected and the students are well prepared. Though not yet finalized, Ouellet aims to initiate the new Writing Lives program in fall 2019 at Langara.
Marc Perez, a Writing Lives student participant, lives and works on the unceded territories of the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations. His creative nonfiction and fiction appear in Ricepaper Magazine and PRISM international 56.3. His personal essay “On Meeting a Holocaust Survivor” is published in Zachor (May 2018).
This academic year marks the second session of Writing Lives, a two-semester project at Langara College, coordinated by instructor Dr. Rachel Mines. Writing Lives is a partnership between Langara, the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre, and the Azrieli Foundation. Last fall, students learned about the Holocaust by studying literary and historical texts. In January, students began interviewing local Holocaust survivors and are now in the process of writing the survivors’ memoirs, based on the interviews. Students are keeping journals of their personal reflections on their experiences as Writing Lives participants. They used their most recent journal entry to reflect on the topic of The Importance of Memoirs. Here are two excerpts.
Memories are our experiences: our interactions with people we love or hate, our communication with the ever-changing world. Our memories remind us of our moral values, our knowledge, our appreciation of our own lives, and perhaps our own inadequacy in being the person that we wanted to be. Our memories are a true reflection of who we are, and that is exactly why they are our most valuable asset.
Writing down our memories is a great way to retain them and, hence, it is meaningful to write a memoir on behalf of David, a man who has experienced one of the most controversial and complex events in history – the Holocaust – so that his memories will be retained in concrete form and can be passed on to many generations. I believe David’s descendants, and anyone who cares about other human beings, will be inspired by what David fought for in the past and will be grateful for what they have. Sometimes, we take food and safety, peace and dignity, the privilege to love and to be loved, for granted, and we forget about the unfortunate ones.
Most importantly, memoirs of Holocaust survivors are a stern reminder of the fact that we humans can turn into perpetrators for not so obvious reasons. It would be wrong for us to think that, since we are civilized, rational, educated people, we cannot become perpetrators. We have come to realize that it is not the case that only psychotic or inherently evil people can harm others in callous and appalling ways. The Holocaust has demonstrated that hatred, racism, conflicts between religions and a sense of insecurity can easily be used to justify our wrongdoings. With the real-life experiences of survivors recorded in memoirs, hopefully people will never forget this painful lesson in human history.
– Bonnie Pun
Storytelling is a phenomenon that all manners of societies and cultures have practised since the hominid species first learned to communicate. We use stories to convey social values and wisdom. In Western society, thanks to pioneers such as Sigmund Freud and Carl Rogers, storytelling forms the bedrock of modern counseling practice. The intimacy of sharing a story with a compassionate and safe person can literally transform a life. Stories transmit meaning, both individually and socially. It’s as simple and complex as that.
Memoirs are a place where individuals can encounter and transform their experience into one that has larger meaning. On a societal level, projects like Writing Lives present the human experience and personal costs of the atrocities that have occurred. The personal narrative transforms historical facts into real and impactful events that can be felt, if not fully understood.
The Holocaust is so often constructed and taught as an historical anomaly, a mysterious evil; however, the fact of the matter is that it is a story of social relationships. Sadly, “stories” such as this have occurred far too frequently over the last 70 years. Globally, we have seen genocidal processes of hate in countries such as former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Cambodia, Russia, Sudan … the list goes on. As our neighbour to the south, the United States, struggles with an ideological divide that has become so significant it is now one of the countries monitored by the NGO Genocide Watch, memoirs from the Holocaust become particularly important here in the Western world. I think it is sometimes easy to look at racially motivated brutality in the second and third worlds and feel a certain sense of safety. These memoirs confront us with a different reality, one which is too important to ignore.
This academic year marks the second session of Writing Lives, a two-semester project at Langara College, coordinated by instructor Dr. Rachel Mines. Writing Lives is a partnership between Langara, the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre and the Azrieli Foundation. Last fall, students learned about the Holocaust by studying literary and historical texts. In January, students began interviewing local Holocaust survivors and are now in the process of writing the survivors’ memoirs, based on the interviews. Students are keeping journals of their personal reflections on their experiences as Writing Lives participants. They used their most recent journal entry to reflect on the topic of Multicultural Perspectives. Here are a few excerpts.
It’s been more than half a year since I decided to join the Writing Lives program. The historical context should have been enough motivation for me to join when I first heard of the program about a year ago, but I hesitated. I’d never done a writing project as large or as important as this. I felt that my skills and experience were inadequate in preserving the stories of Holocaust survivors. I still feel that way.
As a child and then later, as a student of history, I regarded my sources as just that: sources. The stories I listened to were filtered, edited for a younger audience. The books and films I read and watched were similarly altered. As I delved into the history and historiography of it all, I had an inkling in the back of my mind that people actually lived through these events, experienced them. But the moment our survivor partner started telling his story, it really struck me that yes, this is real, these are real people.
This project isn’t just a curiosity, an interest – it has become more of a duty. It has been mentioned many times since the program started that it is crucial for these stories to be told, written down and passed on, for time is running out. I never felt the gravity of that responsibility until we heard the history from someone who saw it with his own eyes.
– J.V. Malabrigo
Courses like Writing Lives are a reminder of the damage complacency can cause. Without knowledge, without tolerance, we are doomed to walk in circles until our hatred ends our capacity to recognize each other as human beings. We will fail to recognize that we all bleed, cry, laugh and need each other to survive.
I have learned the beauty of a human story. I have learned what it truly means to be triumphant and what it means to be a survivor. I am learning what it means to achieve true greatness and compassion, despite the lack of it that is shown to so many. I have explored the reality of how complacency may be our true enemy. I have learned that ignorance and acceptance of extremism means turning off our humanity and letting hatred rule minds and hearts alike.
We see history as ancient stories…. Through this class, I understand how to immortalize living, breathing history and to show a history of peace and love coming out of trauma and violence.
– Heather Parks
The Writing Lives program has had a significant impact on me. I hope to become an elementary school teacher, specifically teaching a primary grade (kindergarten to Grade 3). Holocaust education may be out of my hands in terms of the curriculum, but there is a major, never-ending lesson that I take away from this experience. I hope to teach my students the importance of embracing and celebrating our differences.
When someone looks different from us, celebrates different holidays, eats different food – whatever the case may be – these are opportunities to learn and to love. If there are things we notice about each other that we don’t understand, there are ways to respectfully ask questions. We will always have differences of views and opinions, but the most important thing to remember is that no single person’s opinion is “proper” or more important than anyone else’s. Our differences make us unique. Our differences are what make the world such an amazing place. If we remember the importance of respect and understanding, we can ensure that we will never see another Holocaust.
– Chelsea Riva
My father is Chinese South African. Born in 1965 in Johannesburg, South Africa, he grew up in the final stages of apartheid. This racist system denied people of colour, namely black people, basic human rights and dignity. Laws were based on the race or colour of a person and, while laws were well-defined for most ethnic groups, Chinese people in South Africa were such a small minority that most of their daily lives fell into a legal grey area. In this system, Chinese people were above black people, below white people. Chinese people in some cases would be allowed into white institutions but could be refused service at the discretion of the owner. While Chinese people were given certain privileges, at the end of the day, my family was denied the full rights of humanity. They had to carry identification cards, they were victims of racism and their lives were constructed in fear of punishment from a racist system whose punishment was seemingly random.
My mother is Japanese. Born in 1965 in Hiroshima, Japan, she grew up in a conservative society that often refuses to talk about its violent history of invasion, colonialism and war. This is not to say that my mother herself denies this history, but, in general, Japanese people become uncomfortable when discussing the role of Japan as an invading force in Asia. Numerous Japanese war crimes remain unacknowledged to this day, and even those that have been acknowledged have never reached the same global recognition as the crimes of the Holocaust.
It is unfair to compare separate instances of invasion, imprisonment or murder. The discrimination my father experienced was distinctive and had similarities to the Holocaust, but by no means was it the same. The invading history of my mother’s homeland was horrific, but to compare the actions of the Japanese army and government to those of the Nazis dilutes the complicated issues of Japanese society while disrespecting the unique experience of those terrorized by the Japanese. However, it was with knowledge of these two sides of my family, both Chinese and Japanese, that I took this class.
Taking this class did not change my perspective of the Holocaust. Instead, the Holocaust became more real, more detailed. I came to this class with the utmost respect for what we were studying and with an intense desire to do something that “mattered,” which is a common goal for many people my age. What I didn’t expect was to form such a personal connection with our survivor. I didn’t expect for it to become so real that I would break down crying.
My experience in this class has been enriching in ways that I didn’t expect. I don’t think that I can say this class changed me, but it deepened the ideas of legacy that I held because of my background, and it helped personalize the Holocaust. My family’s history helped me form a deep respect for my elders. Because of them, I learned that there is power in the retelling of stories told with fear, shame and beauty. I have family that comes from the side of both the oppressed and the oppressors, and this informed my perspective and my need to take this class.