“I was just in awe of who Dr. Korczak was as a man and I was also ashamed I didn’t know who he was before then,” Spain said about the play’s namesake, based on a real-life orphanage director in the Nazi-
occupied Warsaw ghetto in Poland. “To not know this story was just sad for me, so I knew it was important to tell.”
With a cast of 34 actors, a majority of whom are children, Spain and the TheatreWorks of Northern Nevada will be opening this play of heartbreak and hope on Friday.
The play, which Spain describes as a “play within a play,” follows the trials of orphanage director Dr. Janusz Korczak, an educator and children’s rights advocate, during World War II. Said to have had more than 171 children under his care, Korczak stayed in the ghetto to watch after the children, even after several offers to flee the Nazi-controlled area.
In “Korczak’s Children,” Korczak allows the orphans to put on a play despite the strict rules in the ghetto, while talk of deportment, concentration camps and death buzz all around them.
“We just decided to admit that during rehearsals we would have to take (emotional) breaks,” Spain said, explaining much of the material is sensitive. “And all the while, Korczak keeps the children as innocent and protected as he can.”
In setting out to direct this play, Spain, who has worked in theater both acting and directing for the past 25 years, knew she had to create a completely different environment for audiences to enter.
“We’re creating a whole new world of the play,” Spain said, explaining that the entire play is set in the ghetto at the children’s orphanage. “It’s a challenge, but a lot of fun.”
One of those challenges, Spain admitted, naturally came from dealing with difficult subject matter and a very young cast, some as young as three.
“This play really resonates with the work I’ve done with kids,” said Spain, who has worked extensively with children’s theater. “And this journey (for the child actors) is so important. It will be life-changing for them.”
As part of their preparation, Spain invited an actual Holocaust survivor to come and speak to her cast to try to open dialog about the event, as well as get feedback from someone who actually lived through it.
“I come at this project really humbly,” Spain said. “He watched us rehearse and we asked him questions afterward. He was very appreciative and impressed.”
While much of the focus of the play is on Korczak’s character (played by Cecil Averett), Spain said the way the children interact with him is equally important.
“He’s the sun, we all revolve around him,” Spain said. “He is this huge presence on stage and he has such a loving spirit with the kids.”
Recalling her own trip to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., Spain said she knew this was a play that had to be put on.
“I remember allotting myself three hours for the Holocaust Museum,” Spain said, with a laugh. “I ended up staying six hours. The lessons that we can learn about humanity, both how sublime people can be in a time of trauma and also the fact that evil is among us, those lessons have stayed with me. His story (Korczak’s) deserves to be told.”
Her hopes for the play?
“I hope families come and see it together,” Spain said, “and then talk about it afterward. Part of our evolution as people is toward kindness, but there is so much work to do. These children’s faces remind us so that other children alive now should never have to suffer in the same way.”
The play will be held at the Masonic Temple located at 40 W. First St. in Reno and opens Friday at 7 p.m. It will run on Sunday, April 3 and April 4 at 7 p.m. Matinee performances on March 29 and April 5 begin at 2 p.m. Tickets are $5 for seniors and students and $7 for general admission.