Because sometimes only music will do:
Because sometimes only music will do:
The experience of one life is limited, bound in time and space, culture and personality. But a story does not have those limits. A story lets us peer into lives that are quite different from our own. A story can build empathy and human understanding.
This was brought home Friday night when we saw HANA’S SUITCASE at the Seattle Children’s Theatre. The play dips forward and back, from recent times in Japan to 1940s Germany. It follows the present-day investigations of two children and their teacher at a Holocaust museum in Tokyo who are given an artifact from the Auschwitz museum. The simple brown suitcase says “Hanna Brady,” on the side. And her date of birth. And “Waisenkind,” (orphan child). The museum group’s investigations lead to a single Jewish family’s experience in wartime eastern Europe.
As the Japanese teacher and her students uncover Hana’s story, playgoers learn that before Hana turned 11, her mother and father were sent to concentration camps. That year, 1942, she and her older brother George were sent to Therensienstadt, called Terezin by the Czechs. They were able to see each other about once a week during their two years there. Hannah participated in an art class taught by Bauhaus artist Friedl Dicker-Bandeisova. Friedl smuggled 5,000 pieces of children’s art out of the camp and some of Hana’s art survives. This provides one of the few happy moments in the play.
The Japanese teacher and her students learn that Hana and George were transferred to Auschwitz in 1944. He became part of a work crew and she was sent to the gas chambers shortly after she arrived. Hana and George’s parents died in Auschwitz in 1942. Artist Friedl Dicker-Bandeisova in 1944.
Of the 140,000 people sent to Terezin, 15,000 were children. Only 300 children survived. Much of what the Japanese investigators learned they learned from George Brady, who was one of those survivors. He moved to Canada after the war and raised a family. At age 89, he attended the opening night of the play in Seattle.
Such a powerful story, made more powerful because it is told through the viewpoint of a Japanese teacher and her two students; experienced through children’s eyes halfway across the world.
• • • •
It is a tradition at Seattle Children’s Theatre to end performances with a Talk Back.
My favorite question Friday night was from a kid who asked, “Why did the Germans hate the Jews?”
Why indeed? I cannot begin to answer that question. Even Hana’s brother George long avoided such a question by telling his children that the tattoo on his wrist was an old telephone number.
Nazis, like ISIS terrorists, depend on dividing the world into “us” and “other.” Even a certain presidential candidate participates in this kind of blanket dehumanization.
But stories build our compassion for each other. Stories have the capacity to make us see our common humanity and break through walls of hatred.
Note: Hana’s Suitcase the play is based on a book of the same name by Karen Levine. The SCT play, from Toronto’s Young People’s Theatre (see? another world connection), runs through February 7.
The Brady family has a wonderful website, http://www.hanassuitcase.ca/
Now’s the time of year to dig into holiday picture books. And who better to suggest titles than my fellow grandmother, Judy Luiten? Judy has spent the last 35 years teaching pre-schoolers, which includes lots and lots of reading to them. Her list of Christmas books features tried and true favorites as well as a new title she recently ordered for her students.
Judy notes these books are all good read-alouds. The list includes a wide variety because she believes in exposing kids to lots of kinds of books.
The Christmas Wreath by James Hoffman, illustrated by Jack Stockman, School Ground Publishing Co., 1993. A polar bear gets a Christmas wreath caught on his neck and eventually saves Santa’s own Christmas experience. Magical.
Mr. Wallaby’s Christmas Tree by Robert Barry, Doubleday, 2000. Mr. Wallaby’s tree is too tall for the parlour. What to do? Rhyming text. Delightful.
The Puppy Who Wanted a Boy by Jane Thayer, re-illustrated by Lisa McCue, Harper Collins, 2005; original illustrations by Seymour Fleishman for Morrow, 1958. Most boys want puppies for Christmas. This puppy wants a boy. Judy can’t read this one without crying.
Merry Christmas Big Hungry Bear by Don and Audrey Woods, Childs Play, 2004. Little Mouse worries who will bring a present to Big Hungry Bear who lives on the top of the hill. These are the same characters who first appeared in the beloved The Little Mouse, The Red Strawberry and the Big Hungry Bear, 1984.
Judy has ordered Jan Brett’s latest Christmas book, The Animals’ Santa, Putnam, 2014, based on how kids respond to Brett’s tried and true story, The Mitten. She says her students love to predict the next animal to appear in Brett’s books by looking carefully at the illustrations.
The Santa Mouse by Michael Brown, illustrated by Elfrieda DeWitt, Barnes and Nobles, 1996; reprinted from the original Grosset and Dunlap, 1966. A cute classic in which a mouse gets to go along with Santa on his deliveries.
Thanks to Judy for these wonderful suggestions. It is so fun to be grandmas together and also to share our love of picture books.
Happy holidays to you all!
“Unpredictability is important to film. Know the objective of the scene, and then surprise yourself.” Veteran actor Stacy Keach shared that insight with an audience of theatre-goers at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, OR last Saturday. While never quite sitting down on a high stool, he recounted highlights from his over-50 years in the acting biz, and offered advice he gives students when he teaches at George Mason University.
Keach said an actor can use unpredictability to amp up the vigor of a character. I flashed back two years to a performance of My Fair Lady at OSF. Ken Robinson, the actor who played Freddy, and sang “On the Street Where You Live,” was wildly unpredictable. He began the song typically, the opening notes delivered in a resonant tenor as he strolled the sidewalk in front of Professor Henry Higgins’ house, where Eliza Doolittle had taken up residence. But things diverged as the song progressed. Freddy sprawled on the street, hugging the pavement. By the end he was lying on one side and bicycling his legs in a circle, still singing full voice his love for the “street where you live.” The traditionally poignant song soared with this fresh and hilarious and unforgettable delivery.
We were hooked. We couldn’t wait until Freddy came on stage again, just to see what he’d do. We’ve seen many fabulous performances in the seven years we’ve been going to OSF. This performance stands out.
Unpredictability is something I appreciate in books, too, as a reader and also as a writer. What can be better than discovering the unexpected bits your characters offer as you write your way through a scene?
So here’s some advice from Stacy Keach, transposed for writers: Next time you get bogged down, try injecting some unpredictability. Commit to the intent of a scene, then let something unpredictable happen: write in an unanticipated character, an unexpected action, a less-obvious reaction. Or play around with the mechanics in an unpredictable way: point of view, verb tense, chronology, word choice, sentence structure.
Surprise yourself and discover a more compelling story.
This is a story about a search for the right word, and another search, too.
At our last critique meeting, I read my latest version of LITTLE WOLF’S FIRST HOWLING. Bonny suggested I find a new word for “twinkle” in the sentence, “They watched as the stars twinkled on and a full moon peeked over the mountain.”
I have consulted friends and Google, too, of course: blinked, winked, flickered, appeared. What is the word for that moment when a star becomes visible? Maybe blossomed? (No, a friend pointed out, that mixes the plant world and the moon’s anthropomorphic action of peeking.)
I was thinking of this “twinkled” challenge Wednesday night. All summer I have looked forward to the Perseid Meteor Showers, billed as this year’s biggest star event. Wednesday night, August 12, was supposed to be the best for viewing. The new moon would set early and the skies would be very dark. We could expect 80 to 100 shooting stars per hour. Talk about twinkling.
I imagined John and me watching this all from a mountain meadow, far away from the Seattle’s city lights. We’d be ensconced in our butterfly chairs that fold out into chaise lounges. Refreshing drinks would rest in the special cup holders that are built into the chairs’ arms. Our sweet spaniel, Izzi, would rest at our feet. It might be romantic.
So Wednesday afternoon we headed for the Cascades. Just as we cleared the tangle of city traffic, we realized we’d forgotten the special chairs. And the cooler.
At least we remembered the dog.
More challenges were, literally, on the horizon. Low clouds hung along the hills and a haze of smoke blew in from forest fires. After all this effort, would we be able to see stars at all?
• • • • •
Smoky winds sliced through the sliding doors as we stepped out on the balcony of our room in Suncadia Lodge. A smoky haze persisted after sundown but we headed out to find a dark spot away from the Lodge. We chose a driveway apron to a vacant lot and lay down on hard new asphalt to stargaze. Right away, I realized I could see the stars better without my new glasses, so I stuck them in my coat pocket. Several meteors streaked across the sky, but I was sure we’d see even more if we could find a darker spot. I talked John into walking another half mile down the barely lit road and following a string of bistro lights through the forest to the parking lot.
The skies cleared a little as we drove around looking for a dark cul de sac in the unbuilt part of the resort. We found the perfect spot, the kind of place young lovers seek on a warm summer night. Only it was on Rocking Chair Lane. We positioned the car so it blocked the one small streetlight and spread the dog’s old sleeping bag on the still-warm pavement. I folded my coat into a pillow and we lay down with Izzi between us to look at the now fully twinkling skies.
Despite the sky not being completely black, we counted 24 shooting stars over the next hour and a half. Then a local drove by to see what we were doing and we felt self-conscious lying out there in the deserted cul-de-sac on the dog’s old sleeping bag. We packed up. That’s when I realized my new glasses were missing.
Backtrack, Backtrack. Backtrack. Every place we’d been. We combed the dark roads and trails with our cell phone flashlights. No luck. We were bummed as we went to bed, the wind still whistling through the open sliding door. Then at 3 am an alarm on the room’s refrigerator started beeping. Which was annoying until we looked outside. All was calm. The night was perfectly black, the sky sugared with so many stars that it was hard to pick out the constellations. Those stars dazzled and danced. They sparkled and salsa-ed. They even twinkled.
The next morning before I got up, John went out with Izzi. He walked back to that first driveway apron and met a man working on the gate there.
“Did you happen to see some glasses?”
“As a matter of fact, I have them right here in my truck,” he said. “Lucky I didn’t drive over ‘em.”
Maybe now that I have my new glasses back I will see stars in a new way and find that right word. Or maybe twinkled is enough.
John and Izzi and the hazy Cascades.