Blanka Zizka's Acceptance Speech for the Zelda Fichandler Award, Oct. 24, 2011

Posted Wednesday, October 26, 2011 - 3:08pm

I’m extremely honored, thrilled and humbled to receive the Zelda Fichandler Award and to find myself in the company of these distinguished finalists: Richard Garner, producing artistic director and co-founder of Georgia Shakespeare in Atlanta; Joseph Haj, artistic director of PlayMakers Repertory Company in Chapel Hill, NC; and D. Lynn Meyers, producing artistic director of Ensemble Theatre in Cincinnati, as well as my good friend Howard Shalwitz of Washington DC's Woolly Mammoth Theatre. I’m very grateful to be in their company.

In 1950, Zelda Fichandler left New York City for Washington, D.C, founded Arena Stage, and started the remarkable regional theatre movement that has grown into a myriad of voices, artistic missions and aesthetics that is exemplified in Philadelphia, the city where I have been working for over thirty years. Today, Philadelphia is experiencing an unprecedented birthing of small theaters. The artistic fermentation of new projects and the enterprising spirit of small companies – these are very exciting realities not only in Philadelphia, but across the United States.  I’m curious to find out if these energies can be sustained and if there is enough support for growth, learning, and maturing, so that these companies can grow and become extraordinary at their craft and yet not lose their initial idealism, energy, originality, and need to share ideas through art.

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The Politics of Memory

Posted Tuesday, October 18, 2011 - 10:54am

by Walter Bilderback

Tadeusz Słobodzianek was inspired to write Our Class after reading Jan T. Gross’ book Neighbors, which revealed to Poland and the world that, on July 10, 1941, most of the Jewish population of the small town of Jedwabne was massacred – not by the German Army that had recently invaded the area, but by some of their Polish Catholic neighbors, three days after a similar massacre occurred in nearby Radzilow. Neighbors provoked a debate in Poland that continues to this day. The Polish-Jewish journalist Konstanty Gebert writes that before Gross’ book, “There was…not even an intimation of the fact that a group of ordinary Poles might have, as soon as the Germans gave them a push and a nod, tortured, raped and murdered their Jewish neighbors – women, children, elderly; looted their houses, and then continued to live on, as if nothing had happened.” He suggests that the controversy over Jedwabne is “probably the most important debate of the post-Communist period” in the country. A memorial erected for the sixtieth anniversary of the massacre was vandalized just a week before rehearsals started for the Wilma’s production.

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A Visit to Jedwabne, Part Three

Posted Thursday, September 29, 2011 - 12:21pm

Large blocks of stone are arranged to suggest the outline of the former barn where the Jews of Jedwabne were burnt. As I look at it and walk inside the space, even I have to wonder how 1,600 hundred people could fit into this space. It seems impossible. Tadeusz is telling me that the number is still a large controversy, but that the killing of the Jews in Jedwabne went on throughout the day and that many were killed before the barn burning.

Until early summer 2001, a small memorial stood here with an inscription stating that 1,600 Jews were murdered in this space by the Germans. Since the end of World War II, the Polish historical narrative has insisted that the awful acts that happened here were committed by Germans. When Jan Gross’ book Neighbors came out in Poland in 2000 it stirred up an intense national debate. Every Pole I know read the book. Most people, including Tadeusz, at first couldn’t believe that the perpetrators were not the Germans but locals. Jan Gross’ book changed that view for many. On July 10th, 2001, the 60th anniversary of the massacre, the President of Poland, Aleksander Kwasniewski, publicly apologized for the pogrom in Jedwabne at a commemoration ceremony and unveiling of a new memorial, where Tadeusz and I now stand.

I’m looking around, trying to imagine the horror. The landscape is so flat! I don’t see any woods around here! The only way to hide would be in the fields. A line from the play comes to my mind,  “I can still hear their screams. It was awful." Tadeusz has taken these words from a witness to the pogrom, a Polish woman, who was interviewed in Agniezska Arnold’s documentary Neighbors. I was watching the documentary the day before our trip to Jedwabne. The memory turns the witness’ face - full of wrinkles sixty years later -  into a pained grimace.

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A Visit to Jedwabne, Part Two

Posted Friday, September 23, 2011 - 11:59am

The school has been closed since the 1990s. The windows are boarded and a wild tree grows on a small balcony above the boarded entrance to the building. A school photograph of the future murderers and victims of the Jedwabne pogrom, standing next to each other, smiling for the camera, inspired Tadeusz to make the fates of the ten classmates the center of the play. The schoolyard is overgrown with nettles. I’m taking pictures for Marsha Ginsberg, the set designer of Our Class. We will be finalizing the design for the Wilma production as soon as I’m back in Philadelphia. Tadeusz is telling me that in the late thirties the school hired a Jewish teacher, but many of the Polish students sabotaged her classes, and she was fired after a while. 

We are slowly walking towards the main square where in 1941 the majority of Jews were first assembled and forced to pull weeds from between cobblestones. The square has been turned into a park named after Pope John Paul II. It is dominated by a huge church which, according to Tadeusz, was built over a long period of time. In 1937 the town ran out of money and forced the Jewish community to pay for the roof. This fact is mentioned in Our Class.

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A Visit to Jedwabne

Posted Tuesday, September 13, 2011 - 9:46am

The terrain from Warsaw to Jedwabne is a flat, boring landscape, but the conversation in the car is lively. Tadeusz is talking about faith and free will, free choice and destiny, and how these seemingly contradictory notions mysteriously coexist in our lives.  These are the themes that permeate the text of the play. In Our Class, Tadeusz touches on the biblical story of Isaac, Abraham, and Sarah, which he brings up as we are driving towards Jedwabne: “In the Jewish interpretation, the story gives a deeper meaning to suffering and suggests the absolute necessity for faith. The Polish Catholic Church sees in the lamb Jesus who was sent as the lamb to be sacrificed instead of Isaac, and thus Jesus resolves the conflict between free will and destiny. This is of course nonsense,” adds Tadeusz, who was brought up in a Catholic family but is now lapsed. Then he adds, “Some conservative Rabbis explain the whole Holocaust as the deeper meaning of fate, as God’s will.”  

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