Two Holocaust plays bring horror home to actors at Catholic school

Susannah Woods still remembers the first time she learned about the Holocaust, at the age of 7.

"I remember asking my friend why her grandma had a tattoo on her arm," says Woods, the theater arts department director at San Domenico School in San Anselmo.

"I remember being so affected by that information at a really young age."

Today, Woods, 31, and her theater students at the Catholic school are hoping to affect others with the performance of two Shoah plays — "I Never Saw Another Butterfly" by Celeste Rasphanti, and "Playing for Time" by Arthur Miller.

The project has evoked a great deal of passion in the performers, Woods says, as well as apparently in other circles.

To date, Woods has received five hate calls and one letter claiming the Shoah was a hoax and calling Woods "unspeakable things," she says.

Woods — who reported the most serious incident to the police — says she has not let them daunt her. "The more that happens, the more I want to do it," she says "The world will be run by the children. I don't want anyone to ever forget."

"Playing for Time" is about an Aucshwitz orchestra, "a raggle-taggle group of women musicians who were kept alive because they could play an instrument," says Woods.

"I Never Saw Another Butterfly," which focuses on child artists at the Terezin concentration camp and their remarkable teacher, echoes the theme of creativity in the face of devastation.

The young actors, a mixed group of high school and college students (who were brought in to play the male roles at the all-girls upper school), includes Asians and Catholics as well as Jews.

"They have embraced this subject with such intensity and fervor," Woods says.

For Lindsey Andersen, 16, a West Marin resident and junior at San Domenico, taking on the role Adelina in "Playing For Time" personalized the Shoah for her.

"When you learn at school about people who went to concentration camps you think, `Oh, what a terrible, awful thing,' but your brain doesn't really make that connection that people just like me were being imprisioned," says Andersen, who lost some maternal relatives in the Holocaust.

In preparation for the shows, the cast heard from Holocaust survivors and studied "everything from sections of Hitler's `Mein Kampf,' to the poetry of prisoners," says Andersen. She says the experience left them changed.

"Everyone who's been in this play has been exposed to something they've never been exposed to — which is always true when you're doing a play. But it's a lot different when it's something that actually happened in history."

Woods agrees. "Playing someone who actually existed, it brings history home in a way that is visceral and not something they're reading in a textbook."

For some of the students, Woods says, the play has inspired an intergenerational dialogue.

"Some kids have grandparents who were there, so they have talked to them. It's been very exciting to watch these kids turn to older relatives for information."

It's also given the students new insight into events happening now, says Woods.

"It's making them more aware of things that are happening in the world. One girl talked about how it never really occurred to her what the neo-Nazi movment was until she saw these plays. There's more empathy and compassion."

Woods hopes the plays will have a similar affect on audiences.

"If it makes any difference to even one person who sees these plays, if it can change the potential of any kind of hate crime or intolerance, it will have done some good in the world."

For Andersen, her participation in the play is more than just acting, it's taking a stand.

"Everyone participating in the show is making a statement that they want to help heal this prejudice that's going on in our world."