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|Written by Heather Marie Scheerschmidt|
|Friday, 30 October 2009 00:00|
This November, the Ottawa School of Speech and Drama (OSSD) in partnership with the Great Canadian Theatre Company (GCTC) presents a new play about children struggling to make sense of a world descending into chaos, and the man who teaches them to believe in themselves. The Children's Republic, by Hannah Moscovitch, explores the life and work of Dr. Janusz Korczak, a Polish-Jewish physician, author, educator and dedicated advocate of children's rights.
The inspiration for this new work is another man known for his generousity towards children, Ottawa businessman Leon Gluzman. Now in his nineties, Gluzman lived in Dr. Korczak's orphanage in the 1920s, before immigrating to Canada in 1929. His childhood connection to Dr. Korczak had a huge impact on his life and the contributions he has made to his community. One of those contributions was to help the Ottawa School of Speech and Drama construct a new arts facility in his Westboro building. As they got to know one another, Mr. Gluzman shared with OSSD Artistic Director Amanda Lewis the story of his childhood and his experiences with Dr. Korczak. Together they realized the story would make for an interesting play.With that in mind, Amanda Lewis organized a weeklong exploratory workshop at the school. Students ages 10 to 16 worked with a director, a movement coach, and a composer to research Dr. Korczak and explore his philosophies through text, movement, and music. The workshop included a question and answer session between the children and Mr. Gluzman. "The minute he started talking about Poland in the 1920s, we were there with him," Lewis recalls. "It made the orphanage very alive for all of us"
Dr. Korczak ran a progressive orphanage in Warsaw where many children, Catholics and Jews alike, who had lost their parents to poverty and war, found a home and a sympathetic ear. Korczak actively encouraged the children under his care to creatively express themselves. He believed that if they were respected, and really listened to, they could learn to overcome the tragedy of their circumstances and become who they were meant to be. In them, he saw what he called a child's inborn abilities; he believed that children have a spark of potential that needs to be nurtured. He treated them as experts in their own affairs, and strove to make his orphanage a place where kids could structure their own community, and where the role of adults was to support them. Although much has been written about Dr. Korczak, including plays, Lewis decided they would create a new work, "We have a person, in our building, who knew Korczak...I wanted to start from there.""The minute he started talking about Poland in the 1920s, we were there with him."
What emerged from the first workshop was a strong sense of connection to the children of the orphanage, and a desire to tell their stories. As the project grew and entered its second phase, OSSD and GCTC co-commissioned Moscovitch to write a play based on the themes that had been researched and developed with the students.
Hannah Moscovitch, the current "it" girl of Canadian playwriting, is an Ottawa native and a graduate of the National Theatre School. Now a resident of Toronto, Moscovitch's previous work has enjoyed both critical and popular success. Her most recent work, East of Berlin, has been nominated for a 2009 Governor General's Literary Award.
"It was a strange offer," Moscovitch says when asked how she became involved in the project. "Normally when you have children on stage you hire adult actors to play them. So to actually put children on stage seemed to be a really weird idea." Before starting the script, she was able to sit in on one of the workshops and talk to the kids about the material, "It was really interesting to hear what they thought about the rights of children according to Korczak, and what he meant to them." This is the first time Moscovitch has written parts for young people, and she describes the experience as rewarding, "Working with these children is really moving. There's something innately compelling about children, and if you're in theatre you're always trying to work out what's compelling...they're very sincere on stage."
For Amanda Lewis, who regularly works with kids, the fact that child actors impress came as no surprise. "What we did with this work was to involve the kids right from the start, so that they had an ownership of the project that was greater than anybody else's. And when Hannah came into the process, they had a voice already. And she heard that voice."
The creative process for The Children's Republic mirrors Korczak's teachings; the OSSD students, given respect and encouragement, felt empowered to reflect the lives of the Polish orphans from their own perspective. The students' interests drove the project, and their voices gave shape to the story and the characters that Moscovitch would eventually write. There's also an interesting parallel between the teachings of Dr. Korczak and the philosophy behind the Ottawa School of Speech and Drama. The school, thanks to the generousity of people like Leon Gluzman, is a space where children are given the freedom to express themselves and the opportunity to work with professional artists who nurture their creative abilities.
The Children's Republic has become an exciting opportunity for collaboration within the Ottawa community. It started with Amanda Lewis and the OSSD students; soon Janet Irwin signed on to direct, and when Artistic Director Lise Ann Johnson saw a workshop presentation, the GCTC came on board as a producing partner. Hannah Moscovitch, who remembers attending plays at the GCTC with her parents and who briefly attended the OSSD, agreed to write the script. Well known Ottawa actors Peter Froehlich, Kate Hurman, Sarah McVie and Paul Rainville round out a cast that includes an unprecedented six roles for children played by Juliana Krajcovic, Luke LeTourneau, Leah Morris, Adrien Pyke, Hannah Kaya and Louis Sobol."Working with these children is really moving. There's something innately compelling about children."
The subject matter of this piece has inspired the larger community to become involved. The play premieres during Holocaust Education Week and accompanying the show is an exhibit from the Jewish Museum in London, England called Champion of the Child. The exhibition, arranged through the Shoah Committee of Ottawa, charts Dr. Korczak's legacy and shows how his life's work has resonated around the world.
When asked what sets this work apart from others she's written, Moscovitch had this to say: "I've written a lot of plays that are ironic, and clever; not that they don't pack some sort of emotional punch at the end, but this play is a really emotional story. I'm not being clever politically in it, I'm not being ironic...I'm just telling a story, and it's an emotional story."
Dr. Korczak died in the Treblinka concentration camp along with 200 of his orphans. "He is known for the horror of his death," says Amanda Lewis, "for what his death symbolizes, what the death of the children symbolizes. And we could do that play, but we really wanted to look at his life and the lives of these children".
The Children's Republic runs from November 3 - 22 at the Irving Greenberg Theatre Centre. For information and tickets, visit www.gctc.ca. Admission to the accompanying exhibit, "Champion of the Child: Janusz Korczak" is free.
Heather Marie Scheerschmidt is an avid supporter of local theatre and a blogger. By day she is the Circulation Manager for Hill Times Publishing. Check out her blog at: http://ophelia23-surfacing.blogspot.com/