City Theatre's Kellee Van Aken to Direct Kindertransport
City Theatre's Artistic Associate Kellee Van Aken did a lot of research to prepare herself, and her cast, for Seton Hill's production of “Kindertransport,” the story of child survivor Eva Schlesinger, one of the 10,000 Jewish children sent by their parents to Britain from Nazi Germany to start a new life prior to WW II.
Van Aken started out by watching documentaries, most notably the Academy Award winning “Into the Arms of Strangers,” and the Sundance favorite “Suddenly My Knees Were Jumping.” She studied timelines of the Holocaust and WW II. She read “Pearls of Childhood,” the memoir of Czech Kindertransport survivor Vera Gissing. She researched Jewish cultural traditions. And she asked a friend, dialect coach T.C. Brown, to help her identify and coach the dialects of Hamburg, Germany and Manchester, England in 1939 and in the present.
“One character loses her Jewish/German identity completely and becomes a Protestant English woman,” Van Aken says. “We portray 1939 Germany as well as England in 1939 and in the present - sometimes on stage all at the same time.”
In order to depict these cultural, emotional, geographic and moment-in-time shifts successfully, Van Aken feels that an understanding of the historical context of the play is vital.
“At our first rehearsal I showed the cast the documentary 'Into the Arms of Strangers,' she says. “Throughout the rehearsal process I shared what I learned from my research. I even passed out copies of the Haggadah - the Hebrew text used as part of the Passover service - so the cast could see the book which plays an important role in Eva's childhood.”
According to Van Aken, the use of dialect in the performance also helps the cast understand, and portray, the changes in their characters' lives while making it easier for the audience to understand the shifts in time and place. “We spent a whole rehearsal on how to do each accent, and then followed up with individual coaching sessions,” she says. “We have one cast member who portrays different characters with different accents - he literally wears many different coats and hats,” she adds with a laugh.
As a result of Van Aken's enthusiastic coaching, the cast became so engaged in learning about the Holocaust and the Kindertransport rescue operation that they took a trip to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. “They planned it all on their own,” Van Aken says. “I was surprised and very happy when I found out about it.”
In one sense, Van Aken's research for this play began six months ago, although she was unaware of it at the time. “I got married the week before I started rehearsals,” Van Aken says, “and my husband is Jewish. For six months I took classes in Judaism. …I was busy preparing for the Young Playwrights Festival when Seton Hill approached me about this production, but as soon as I found out what it was I said 'Oh. Absolutely!'” “It's ironic that this whole process is taking place during the High Holidays,” she adds. “My husband keeps asking 'When will I see you?' and I just say 'At Temple.'”
Seton Hill University's performance of “Kindertransport,” directed by Van Aken, will open November 11, at 8 p.m. and run through November 19. For specific performance dates and times and ticket information, please visit www.setonhill.edu, call 724-838-4241, or e-mail: email@example.com.
Kellee Van Aken is the Artistic Associate at the City Theatre where she assists with casting, play selection, and producing City Specials. She produces the Young Playwrights Festival and City Theatre's MOMENTUM: new plays at different stages. She just concluded her sixth season directing for the Young Playwrights Festival. With visual artist Cheryl Capezzuti she runs the production company Fuzzy Boundary. Together they have created: “Night Flight” (Pittsburgh International Children's Theatre Festival), “Coming Up!” (Phipps Conservatory) and “Colorfast,” an original musical for children with composer Doug Levine. (Pittsburgh International Children's Theatre Festival). Also with Capezzuti, “Leaping, Twirling, Tapping Lint” and “Mismatched Pair,” which has been performed across the state. Other playwriting credits: “Tipton” (Flying Pig Theater), “Ordinary Phoenix” (timespace), “Shakespeare for Small People” (University of Pittsburgh), and an adaptation of “The Hudsucker Proxy” (University of Pittsburgh). Her acting credits include: “Pericles” (Gower), “Hamletmachine” (Ophelia), “The Castle” (Skinner) and “Machinal” (Young Woman) with timespace. Other credits: “Eating Dirt” (Lori) and “Another Round” (Joan). She recently performed in “Yo Mama!” presented at the 3 Rivers Arts Festival.
Seton Hill students cast in “Kindertransport” are Sarah M. Danko of Latrobe, Pa. as Eva; Maureen E. Lydon of Bethel Park, Pa. as Faith; Danielle Nortum of Johnsonburg, Pa. as Evelyn; Elizabeth J. Serra of Latrobe, Pa. as Lil, Jonathan P. Stewart of Thompson, Pa. as Ratcatcher and Laura A. Stracko of Nazareth, Pa. as Helga.
The National Catholic Center for Holocaust Education (NCCHE) at Seton Hill University is hosting the following events in conjunction with the performance of “Kindertransport:”
Exhibit: “The Kindertransport Journey: Memory into History” at Reeves Library on Seton Hill's campus from November 8-20. The NCCHE, Reeves Library and Harlan Gallery are pleased to host an extensive historical exhibit that provides pictures, letters and quotes from those that were involved in the Kindertransport rescue operation. The exhibit is free and open to the public. Reeves Library's Fall 2005 hours are: Monday - Thursday 8:00 a.m.-10:50 p.m.; Friday 8:00 a.m.-4:50 p.m.; Saturday 8:30 a.m.-4:20 p.m. and Sunday 1:00 p.m.-10:50 p.m.
Discussion Sessions with Kindertransport survivors: The NCCHE is pleased to partner with Seton Hill's Theatre Department in presenting Talk Back sessions with Pittsburgh Kindertransport survivors Ilse Schwarz and Margit Diamond following performances on Sunday, November 13, 2005, 2 p.m., (Ilse Schwarz) and Thursday, November 17, 2005, 2 p.m. (Margit Diamond).