On Oct. 29, six young actors offered a powerful rendering of Survivors, a play by Wendy Kout, at the University of Victoria’s Phoenix Theatre. The production will tour BC and other Western provinces. (photo by Peter Nadler)
On Oct. 29, six young actors offered a powerful rendering of Survivors, a play by Wendy Kout about 10 Holocaust survivors. The performance at the University of Victoria’s Phoenix Theatre had the audience, many of whom were decades older than the actors, reaching for handkerchiefs as the last words of the play, “never again,” were spoken in unison on stage.
The Victoria organizers, who have been given the rights to perform Survivors across the Western provinces, are hoping the play and its message will eventually reach, inform and educate students about the Holocaust and the dangers of hate.
Suitable for audience members from Grade 6 and up, Survivors is intended to provide students the ability to recognize the short- and long-term effects of prejudice, discrimination and, ultimately, genocide. Other objectives are to foster critical thinking in young (and older) people and impress upon them the importance of human rights and social justice advocacy.
The six actors – Julie McGuire, Ryan Kniel, Sarah-Michelle Lang, Nolan McConnell-Fidyk, Sophie Radford and Brandon Sugden – took on the roles of the 10 Holocaust survivors and dozens of other characters pertaining to their respective stories during the 65-minute performance.
Survivors progresses chronologically, portraying events leading up to, during and after the Holocaust, bringing to the stage the experiences of Jewish children and teenagers from Europe. The professional cast portrays the survivors, starting at innocence and continuing through the terrifying rise and rule of bigotry, xenophobia and violence, before they immigrate to America.
Among others, the play includes the stories of a teen who watched her boyfriend being taken away to a concentration camp, a girl who was separated from her parents and relocated to England through the Kindertransport, and a boy whose family struggled to escape to China.
Four of the 10 survivors on whom the play is based were still alive when the play premièred in New York in 2018. Though each story is unique, all the survivors “went through this horror and came through the other side to build meaningful, contributing, beautiful lives,” notes Kout. “We’re not just telling history. We’re telling history as a cautionary tale for the present and the future.”
Several prominent members of the public, such as MLAs Murray Rankin and Rob Fleming, were in attendance at the UVic performance. In remarks made after the show, Rankin suggested he would press the Ministry of Education and Child Care to bring Survivors to schools in the province.
Rankin’s comments preceded the announcement by Premier David Eby the following day, Oct. 30, that Holocaust education would become mandatory in high schools throughout British Columbia beginning in the 2025-26 academic year. The move made British Columbia the second province, after Ontario, to mandate study of the Shoah.
There is a tangible sense of urgency by the organizers of Survivors to have the play viewed as widely as possible.
“We need to capture young minds of young people at an early stage before hate and racism becomes normalized,” their literature states. “We need to do this in the schools, because that is where most young people can be reached and it’s an opportunity to educate children and engage teachers.”
Survivors, with its aim to educate young people about hate, comes at a time when clear evidence of the ignorance of history has been in the news. In September, Anthony Rota, the speaker of the House of Commons, stepped down after honouring a Ukrainian veteran who fought with a Nazi unit during the Second World War.
More broadly, the organizers of Survivors cite a report by the Azrieli Foundation, Yad Vashem and others, which found that 62% of millennials did not know that six million Jews were killed in the Holocaust, 22% of millennials had not heard or were not sure if they had heard of the Holocaust, and 23% of all Canadians believe that two million or fewer Jews were killed during the Holocaust.
The Victoria production of Survivors that played last fall in school auditoriums, theatres and libraries, and had four public performances was the first international tour of the play. (See jewishindependent.ca/survivors-a-cautionary-tale and jewishindependent.ca/theatre-that-educates.) There are other tours currently on both coasts of the United States, and Kout, along with the New York company that developed Survivors, is creating a documentary on how the play came to be.
Survivors was originally commissioned and developed by CenterStage Theatre in Rochester, NY, in 2017, when Kout was asked to write a Holocaust play about survivors who had immigrated to the city. Shortly thereafter, while watching neo-Nazis march in Charlottesville, Va., Kout expressed the feeling that she was not simply writing an historical play but also a “warning play.”
For the Victoria troupe, Zelda Dean, the director, said, “Our goal is to expand the tour to more of Vancouver Island, to Vancouver on the mainland, and to select schools in the interior. The following year we will expand to include more schools throughout BC and other Western Canadian provinces.”
To learn more about Survivors and to donate, visit holocausttheatre.com.
Sam Margolis has written for the Globe and Mail, the National Post, UPI and MSNBC.