From the Holocaust to the war: how a San Francisco educator created an online theater with the participation of children from Ukraine
Elena Bilyak created her first theater in her native Lviv in the late 80s. As a student of philology, she came to practice at the school where she studied herself. The reporting of that time required not only the holding of lessons, but also the so-called "test events", in which Elena decided to spend an evening in memory of Vladimir Vysotsky together with high school students.
"And what do we put next?"
Elena recalls: at that time, despite the beginning of perestroika, Vysotsky was still treated with caution, so the evening turned out to be revolutionary in a sense.
«Nevertheless, I managed to write a diploma on Vysotsky's poetry. It was some kind of special happiness: I graduated from the university, worked on my diploma, and at the same time stayed at school every day until almost nine in the evening, as the children and I rehearsed intensively. The evening turned out to be wonderful, and immediately after it, the students came up to me and asked in a tone that brooked no objections: “What are we putting next?"- says Elena.
And so the school theater and discussion club arose - one of the first at that time, which became a second family for its participants. Elena Bilyak remained at the school until her departure to America in 1993. According to her, the members of the club still remain close friends and are very supportive of each other against the backdrop of the war.
In the United States, Elena began teaching almost immediately: first at a Russian-language Sunday school, then at the Tikva (Hope) school at the San Francisco Jewish Community Center (JCC). In parallel, she worked in the city agency of social services. "Tikva" is open to students on Saturdays, which made it possible to combine two jobs, and the presence of excellent audiences and two stages - large and small - made it possible to teach children theatrical skills and put on a play every year.
Children's poems and the tragedy of the Holocaust
At first, Elena Bilyak worked with teenagers, but gradually she began to involve younger children in productions. The first such joint production was a 2017 performance dedicated to the Holocaust. Elena wrote the script for it herself. The performance about the tragedy of the Jewish people began with careless games and funny scenes, and ended with the symbols of the tragic death of orphans under excerpts from a poignant poem Alexander Galich "Kaddish".
As Elena explains, the performance was dedicated primarily to the ghetto teachers, as well as to all other adults who voluntarily stayed next to the children during the most terrible periods of their lives and went with them to the gas chamber. The most famous of them was a doctor and teacher Janusz Korczak, who died along with his pupils from the Warsaw boarding school "House of Orphans" in the extermination camp Treblinka.
«I thought about it and realized that it is, of course, very difficult to put Kaddish in its pure form, but if you add light verses there Ovseya Driza and combine with lighter looks, this is possible even for babies", explains the teacher.
The action of the performance begins in the fictional place of Helom with children's poems by Ovsey Driz. Young children, together with their elders, act out skits, quarrel theatrically and make peace, dream while sitting on a mound and, of course, tell fairy tales. Sometimes adults help them with this. And only gradually the nature of the poems changes, the village houses of the scenery are fenced with barbed wire, and a yellow six-pointed star appears on the chest of the children.
«Of course, I did not tell the students from the younger groups the details, such as the fact that the children were burned alive. They knew that all the inhabitants of the ghetto had died, but without further details. By the age of eight, children had already heard something about the war and the Holocaust, but the elders mostly talked about death itself.", - says Elena.
According to her, the tragic mood set by the older group was fully conveyed to the younger ones.
«I wanted them to play a scare at the end of the performance, but they did it all for real. They sincerely clung to the elders, which made the production even more poignant.", - says the screenwriter. By the way, the performance took first place at the international festival of youth amateur theaters Gingerfest in the nomination "best script".
Theater at the school "Tikva" was preparing for the release of a play based on the play Evgeny Schwartz "Snow Queen" when the pandemic began. Teenagers suffered from long sitting at home, and Elena began to conduct Russian lessons via Skype.
«At first, we did not think that we would be closed for a long time, and hoped that the quarantine would soon end. Therefore, we began to rehearse "The Snow Queen" online, hoping to put it "live" soon', recalls the teacher.
Gradually, virtual meetings migrated to Zoom. Some of the children continued to participate in them, while others wanted to join after the end of the quarantine. However, the pandemic dragged on, and soon it became obvious to Elena that the performance was not working out. However, instead of it, a network theater "Vinaigret International" arose, uniting children from the USA, Switzerland, Israel and Ukraine.
«I remembered that there was once such a genre as theater at the microphone. We tried to read poetry online, but it turned out pretty boring. Meanwhile, a friend of mine signed up for an online clowning school and sent a link to their meeting. I liked how the participants interacted with each other - how the pictures gradually turned on, how the order was observed", - says Elena.
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Gradually, the virtual troupe mastered the tricks of interaction in the network. In addition to acting, it was important to know who and when should turn the camera on and off, where to look without even seeing a partner in front of you, and so on.
«I realized that in front of the camera it is necessary to strengthen the gesture, to overplay a little in terms of facial expressions compared to the stage, but to be less zealous with makeup, because it is already enhanced by the camera", - Elena reveals the tricks.
The children staged the first performance in the network based on the poems of Ovsey Driz. The audience was amazed: despite the fact that the "actors" were on different ends of the earth, they really created a real theater. Elena emphasizes that, unlike reading, children try to learn and play their roles. As in a real theater, the actors put on makeup, try to use some kind of props, and most importantly, interact with each other, as if they are on the same stage. The next performance that the virtual troupe planned to put on was “The Tale of Fedot the Archer” - when the war suddenly began.
Rehearsals under the bombs
«We stopped rehearsals, absolutely everything froze, because we simply did not understand what to do. But then we decided that we would still stage Fedot, because the aggressor needed exactly this - for us to cry, not laugh", - says Elena.
The guys staged the performance already against the backdrop of the war. Spectators were offered to make a charitable contribution in favor of Ukraine, and they readily responded. The next production was based on the works of Zhvanetsky.
«Fortunately, our participants did not come under direct fire, but several times it happened that during our rehearsals they had sirens howling. At first, we had to interrupt rehearsals, but then the children got so used to determining the direction of the missiles and the approximate points of arrival that they did not react to the air raid alert. By the way, a girl from Israel, a country that has been living under shelling for many years, at such moments scolded them and said that anxiety should be taken seriously.", - says Elena.
The troupe had to adjust plans. For example, on holidays like the Independence Day of Ukraine, shelling became more frequent, and the theater did not plan performances for this time. Elena emphasizes: teenagers constantly support each other, share everyone, including those that connect them with Ukraine, and are extremely frank with each other.
«This group is not only engaged in theatrical performances. Here they conduct discussions on various topics, arrange poetry readings, play “What? Where? When?". At the same time, Vinegret International is an absolutely volunteer project, whose participants do not pay for classes and do not receive remuneration for performances.", - Elena explains.
According to her, the next production is planned about a virtual theater that held rehearsals during the war and gradually decided to put on a completely different thing, inspired by current realities. Elena notes that the theater somehow makes it easier for teenagers to experience the war, and “colleagues in the troupe” have become real and close friends for the guys.
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