Why We Laugh Explores a New Kind of Resistance in the Terezin Ghetto

I sat down this week with playwright Kira Obolensky and composer Craig Harris to talk about Kira’s play, Why We Laugh. This new adaptation of a cabaret written and performed in 1944 in the Jewish Ghetto at Terezín features characters based on the original Terezín performers. They encounter a present-day scholar who explores why Terezín prisoners laughed, and what that laughter means to us today.

Was Terezin a city or concentration camp?

Kira: There’s a lot of discussion about what Terezin was exactly. Here’s a line spoken by the Scholar, a character based on Dr. Lisa Peschel, who found the original cabaret along with other examples of theatrical productions produced during the holocaust.

“Concentration camp? Certainly, Terezin was a collection point where the Jews of Central Europe were gathered before being transported to the death camps. Or was it a ghetto, a prison? In this lecture, I’ll refer to it in the same way as the prisoners themselves did— as the ghetto.”   The word used most often today to describe the cultural life of Terezín/Theresienstadt is “resistance.”

Why We Laugh is an adaptation of a cabaret performed in Terezin by Jewish prisoners. What drew you to this subject?

Kira: I was asked by Lisa Peschel, through contacts she made at the Playwrights’ Center, if I would be willing to transform the cabaret into a play that could be performed for American audiences.  I was drawn to the project by the incredible stories behind the cabaret—the resilience, the heart and the courage of the original creators.  It felt like a story that was important for us to understand and know.

Tell me how you arrived at the music for this play.

Craig: When the cabaret material came to the attention of Lisa Peschel, there was a script, and some music fragments. There were six lead sheets located – basically handwritten melody lines with some chord labels and lyrics in Czech. Lisa translated the lyrics; then Kira adapted lyrics for use in the play, and I based my musical arrangements and adaptations of the original songs on Kira’s lyrics. Some of the songs were used basically as they appeared in the original cabaret, like the opening song “Long Live Cabaret”. One song, “March,” didn’t really have a place in our realization of the original cabaret. We decided to use that in a comical context to show how so many jokes in the cabaret were based on situations only people of that era in that situation would understand, requiring numerous footnotes of explanation. We turned “March” into the “Footnotes” song to play with that idea. Another piece was used mainly for setting mood and transitions. And there were two places where we needed new music that I composed for those situations.

Did your perceptions change at all as you were writing the play?

Kira: One of the things that felt affirmed for me in working on the play was the great human desire and capacity for joy even in the most horrendous of situations.

Have you learned anything that surprised you about the characters or plot while writing or composing?  

Kira: I tried to try to stay loyal to the original intention of the cabaret.  As I worked on the cabaret, and in the subsequent first production of it in Terezin, I felt astonished, surprised and moved by the capacity for narrative to revisit the past and create a framework for understanding the emotional tenor of history.

Craig: What surprised me is how these creators and performers were able to create a world that could simultaneously reflect and make fun of their situation. They weren’t merely making funny jokes and singing songs for entertainment. It was all of that, but it also was clearly and intentionally directed at highlighting the absurdity and horror of their situation, while creating a scenario that transported them and their audiences into a more peaceful, happy situation, making it possible to place their experience in a larger context of a long life that had some troubling times.

How does writing music for this project inform you as a Jew?

 Craig: While I certainly have some knowledge about the holocaust, including family experiences of survivors and people lost, this project took my experience to an entirely new level. I have been totally engaged in how the creators and performers were responding to their situation. But learning about things intellectually is different from trying to enter the experience of their world through the creative work that they produced. We also had the opportunity to tour this show in the Czech Republic, where we performed in a Terezin attic much like where the show would have been originally performed, with one of the cabaret’s original writers, Pavel Stransky, in attendance and survivors from Terezin and heirs of other original writers. At that moment it felt like I was channeling these people, their world and their experience. It was exhilarating, eerie, and tremendously moving.

There are many intersections between my Jewish background and the work that I have done on this show. There is a long history of Jewish composers who were involved in developing the cabaret style over the years, and my work on the show is certainly informed by that history. One interesting connection for me goes back to my youth. I was learning classical music at Eastman School of Music as a very young child, and I was very interested in the music styles of the time: popular standards, rock, jazz. I took lessons from a teacher who excelled at popular music. This teacher – Werner Bernstein – was a Jewish medical doctor from Germany who escaped the holocaust and landed in Rochester, New York, but the USA didn’t recognize his medical credentials. So he gave up his medical career and played piano in various clubs around town and taught music. It was invaluable experience for me that has lasted throughout my own career, and was essential for me having the capabilities required to be involved in this project.

What, if anything, do you hope people will learn or understand better after seeing this play—whether they are Jewish or not?

Kira: My hope is that all audiences will be moved by the remarkable people who created the original cabaret; that they will embrace and understand the complexities and power of humor as a survival mechanism.  And that audiences will, in fact, “laugh with us.”!

Why We Laugh will be performed at Open Eye Theatre, 506 East 24th Street, Minneapolis, from September 12-27. Tickets available at www.brownpapertickets.com or by calling Open Eye at 612-874-6338. For more information about the show, go to www.fortunesfooltheatre.org.