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Columbia Missourian

West Junior High School students bring the Holocaust onto the stage

By Di Zhu
November 16, 2011 | 6:00 a.m. CST
Zachary Cunning, 14, theater teacher Sarah Gerling and Chloe Ellis, 13, work on the set of "I Never Saw Another Butterfly" at West Jr. High School on Tuesday. Gerling was teaching Chloe how to spray paint rubber bands to look like barbed wire.

COLUMBIA — The costume crew has been finding, making and altering World War II costumes.

The set crew is building and painting barbed wires on prison-like flats. The prop crew has been making a Jewish wedding canopy.

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During the past six weeks, 28 students at West Junior High School have pulled together to produce U.S. playwright Celeste Raspanti's one-act play "I Never Saw Another Butterfly." It runs Saturday at 7 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. in the school's auditorium.*

"I Never Saw Another Butterfly" tells the tragic story of a Jewish girl named Raja (played by Helen McCarthy) who lives in the Terezin ghetto during World War II. Also known as the Ghetto Theresienstadt, it was a Jewish camp in former Czechoslovakia controlled by the Nazis from 1940 to 1945.

In the play, Raja shares the story about her life in the concentration camp, while sheltering an inner life of butterflies and flowers. It was based on a collection of art and poetry compiled by Czech author Hana Volavkova in 1994.

Rehearsing the play about the Holocaust has been a challenge for eighth- and ninth-graders, said Sarah Gerling, the theater arts teacher at West Junior High and the director of the play.

"I wanted to do a serious piece with the students to challenge their acting skills, as we have focused on primarily comedies," Gerling said. "Plus, this show is incredibly powerful."

The actors say it is a particularly demanding task because students need to have an emotional connection to the work and think beyond themselves on stage.

"I think the hardest part of this play is being able to represent people who were actually in the concentration camps and show to other people what they went through properly," said Neil Cathro, who plays a child in the ghetto. "I hope I'm presenting a child in Terezin accurately."

The sorrowful romance in the play between the young Jewish girl and her boyfriend has added a level of gravity to rehearsals that has been problematic for the students.

"Actually, the first couple of times when we practiced, we almost couldn't do it because we're laughing so much," said Kyle Shearrer, who plays the boyfriend, Honza.

Shearrer said learning to be serious in a play is new for him. His previous stage experiences have been comedies and upbeat musicals.

In order to help the students understand the emotions expressed in the play, Gerling said she has talked a lot about the Holocaust, showing actors visuals from the place and time period.

At one point during rehearsal, Gerling was trying to explain loss to Myriah Araiza, who plays the mother of the the young girl.

"You're going to lose your sister, your son and your husband," she said. "Everyone is going to die."

"We're not really comfortable dealing with this kind of emotions in our real life, so you need to concentrate on your character and understand what is going on in her life," she said.

Claire Majerus plays Irena, the passionate teacher who tries to preserve hope among the children in Terezin and encourages them to express their thoughts in paintings and poems.

"I have a lot of directions from Mrs. Gerling, like trying to use a lot of facial expressions and gestures to convey the emotions," she said.

Students also researched the history of Nazi Germany and learned to speak a little German. Nikki Faber, who plays Raja's Aunt Vera in the play, recalled having questions about how to pronounce some German words and not finding the answer on the Internet.

McCarthy (Raja) sent an email to a friend in Germany who gave them the correct pronunciation.

About half of the students putting the production together are participating in various backstage projects, Gerling said.

The cast and crew are making 1,500 paper butterflies, as well as backdrops and stage settings. Each butterfly represents 10 children from Terezin who died in the Holocaust.**

Gerling said she believes students have come to a greater understanding of what life was like during the Holocaust, as well as becoming better actors by doing such a challenging and powerful piece.

The young actors agreed. Faber said she was terrified about public speaking before. A friend signed her up to audition because she knew Nikki always wanted to do it.

"This play has so much meaning," she said. "When you are part of the play, you feel like that you were there. You begin to have the mind-set that 'at any moment, my entire life could be taken away from me.'

"When you look back at your regular life, it really makes you appreciate what you have."