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BTEC Performing Arts devised piece: The Holocaust and Genocide – Will we ever learn?

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“Goose bumpy.”
“It had real impact and made me think, especially on the point raised about why discrimination and abuse still continue.”
“I thought (it) was unusually strong and managed to tell a distressing but pertinent story in a very fresh and effective way.”
“Your multi-talented students performed beautifully, and I really admire the way they could change so seemingly effortlessly between happy and sad.”
“I really like the comic way they dealt with seriously disturbing activities – it made you question whether it was ok to laugh.”
“All in all a really powerful piece of theatre.”

These were just some of the comments about this week’s Performing Arts BTEC students’ daytime performance on the theme of Genocide.

Wendy Frost, Course Team Leader, explains: “Our Performing Arts students have to prepare a devised performance for the end of the spring term, focusing on the work of playwright Bertolt Brecht. Brecht’s work usually had a very political stance, often referencing the political and social situations in Germany and during the War. This term we have been looking at Political Theatre and how theatre can be used to raise awareness and create change in society. It usually has some kind of message or thought-provoking theme.”

The students gained inspiration for their devised performance from the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust, Keystage Arts and Heritage and Splendid Productions.

Wendy says: “We were very lucky to be able to welcome Mike Levy to speak to our students. Mike not only works with local historical event and theatre company Keystage Arts and Heritage, but has also visited the College in the past as part of Holocaust Memorial Day.

“Mike delivered a fascinating, shocking and moving workshop on The Holocaust which was informative and stimulating. Initially the idea was for him to stay for an hour but he ended up staying for two hours! The content was so interesting that we kept asking questions and moving on to other areas. His talk was to be the stimulus for the beginning of the devised piece, with the subject matter opening up wider to include Genocide. We also discussed a longer term collaboration between us for the Holocaust Memorial Day annual event in Cambridge.”Several of our students had also attended the talk by Holocaust survivor Eva Clarke at the start of February, arranged by Equality Opportunities Co-ordinator Heidi Gjertsen as part of Holocaust Memorial Day. We also invited Splendid Productions to come in and run a workshop on Brecht and Epic Theatre for both the BTEC Level 3 Performing Arts and A Level Performance Studies students.”

The resulting performance was a chilling demonstration of how inhumanity can evolve from the most mundane situations – the piece included a discussion ‘The Final Solution’ by German officials on how to deal with the ‘Jewish’ question before moving on to ways to kill Jews without ‘upsetting the guards’ to ways that prisoners were greeted on arrival at concentration camps with a friendly invitation to shower – and how the German officials then calmly realised that the showers could be used for other purposes. At all times the German officials were promoted as being polite and considerate towards their unsuspecting victims.

The performance then moved on to the Khmer Rouge regime in Kampuchea (Cambodia) as a demonstration of the way that genocide continues – from Nazi Germany to Cambodia to Bosnia to Rwanda to Darfur.

There was also a sardonic scene which fused the Abba lyrics of ‘The Winner Takes it All’ with direct quotes from Holocaust Deniers.  This really highlighted the style of Brechtian theatre, harsh, funny and hard hitting, where the ridiculousness of a situation is presented to the audience in a comic yet unpleasant way.  The students were a Top of the Pops style group promoting their lyrics ‘The Jews They Take it All’ whilst encouraging the audience to sing along.  Real propaganda at its most powerful.

Staff and students from the College were unanimous in their praise. Wendy adds: “We were also delighted to be able to welcome one of the parents of a student who had been interviewed for a place on the BTEC course from September 2014.”

After the show, Mike Levy stayed behind and had an excellent feedback discussion with the group about how to improve the work and move forward, as well as commenting on what worked well.

Mike says: “I thought the students’ piece was unusually strong and managed to tell a distressing but pertinent story in a very fresh and effective way. I liked their use of light and shade, occasional black humour (very Brecht), some lovely physical work – I especially like the gas chamber frieze and the rapid fluency of the whole which never dragged. All in all a really powerful piece of theatre – well done to all concerned.”

“The idea now is for this group (and maybe some other students) to feature as part of the Holocaust Memorial Day in 2014 and perform at the Corn Exchange,” explains Wendy.

“We are very grateful to Mike Levy for the stimulating input he provided for our students. Not only were they able to devise a topical and relevant piece of political theatre, but also they realised how much we need to remember the events of the past to inform our future behaviour.”