Reaching us in ways only the arts can

9th January 2004 at 00:00
The horrors of the Holocaust are hard to understand but role play and the visual arts can help. Brian Hayward reports on a special schools project.

While all around theatres have been filled with the fun of pantomime, TAG Theatre Company seems to have been trying almost too hard to live up to its reputation for being different by touring a schools project on the Holocaust. However, this time the idea was not the company's but East Renfrewshire's.

The local authority has been chosen to lead the Scottish contributions to National Holocaust Memorial Day. The annual UK commemorations will be held in Belfast this year on January 27. As the chosen theme for the day will be the arts, the authority began its preparations by commissioning TAG to send out two teams of drama and visual art specialists to work for a full day with every P7 and S1 class in its 24 primary and seven secondary schools last term.

By special request, TAG has also taken the project to Musselburgh Grammar in East Lothian, which is planning a school trip to Auschwitz this year.

The TAG teams took for their inspiration I Never Saw Another Butterfly, an anthology of poetry and drawings made by the children in Terezin concentration camp in 1942-44 (Shocken Books). Situated in the hills above Prague, Terezin was a show camp, the false face that deceived the Red Cross visit in 1944. The many artists and intellectuals in the ghetto somehow created a rich cultural life amid the fear, starvation and death. More than 30,000 people died at Terezin, a halt on the line to Auschwitz; almost 90,000 were taken on to their deaths in the east.

For the children, the fear and horror was aggravated by incomprehension. To help them, devoted teachers devised art therapy, pretending to the camp guards that it was arts education, scavenging waste paper and improvising art materials so that the children could express their feelings. A bundle of the documents survived the war and remain as an exhibition testifying to the courage and resilience of the youngsters and reminding us that art is a saving grace.

At Woodfarm High, a half-day (two-hour) session was given to the art workshop and the drama-based work, the two groups coming together at the end of the day for a summing-up.

The two drama workers, Karen Coleman and Angela Campbell, took on the roles of a demoralised young inmate, Helga, and a bullying camp guard. Helga, the pupils are later told, is a real person now in her 70s, one of the few to survive Terezin and Auschwitz.

The TAG workers' acting skills made a bridge between the Woodfarm High pupils and the barely believable horrors of camp life. They listened to the prisoner talking about her daily life, asked her questions and responded to her emotional state.

Helga talked about being allowed to take one precious, personal possession into the camp, in her case a paint box. Later, the class were asked to think of their own talismanic object and, in role as inmates, were commanded by the camp guard to discard it, to feel something of the loss and deprivation.

Throughout the session, the TAG workers put all the focus on the feelings and thoughts of the participants rather than any drama skills.

In the art session, specialist Katriona Ingles, recognising the oppressor's need to destroy the victim's sense of esteem and identity, encouraged the pupils to create their own icon. Taking the Hebrew letter that begins their name, they surrounded it with colours that reflected their feelings about the camp and filled the letter shape with symbols of their own individuality. They completed the work by gluing phrases they chose from poems in the anthology.

As the class left at the end of the day, some of the pupils gathered around the leaders. One lad announced: "I actually learned something at school today." A curious remark but maybe he was gesturing to the kind of learning that comes only through the arts.

TAG Theatre Company, tel 0141 552 4949

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