Each year, Michael Tobin sends an email to people who attend plays at Footlights Theatre asking what they want to see. People usually ask for comedies and dramas by famous playwrights – Neil Simon, Arthur Miller, etc.
This year, some of the responses surprised the theater’s artistic director. “I was getting emails that said, ‘How about something about the Holocaust.’ I had people say, ‘I am so afraid the Holocaust will be forgotten,’ ” he said.
In response, Footlights is staging a new play about the Jewish genocide of World War II, “Appell: The Other Side of the Fence.” It opens Thursday and runs through March 24. It’s an account of Holocaust survivors who tell their stories from the other side of the fence, as prisoners.
After Tobin announced the play and the theater started promoting it, he received more feedback that surprised him. To date, Tobin has received five hate calls, or phone calls from people expressing anger over the theater’s decision to produce a play about the Holocaust, including one woman who derided the theater for “doing a show about those people.”
When Tobin pressed her about what she meant, she responded with a hateful anti-Semitic slur.
“It got vile,” he said.
A man told him, “I’m not coming to your theater if you’re doing those kinds of plays.”
“Are they threatening? No. Do I hear hate in their voice? Yes. Do I worry about it – sure, especially in this turbulent time. You just never know what could happen. Will it stop us from doing the show? No. This is the reason we must do the show,” Tobin said.
He shouldn’t be surprised, given the climate in the country right now. A new report from the Anti-Defamation League suggests that anti-Semitic incidents were up nearly 60 percent in 2017 from the previous year, the largest single-year increase since the league began tracking such information 40 years ago.
Tobin chose a world premiere by an unknown playwright over another version of “The Diary of Anne Frank” because he wanted to stage something that hadn’t been presented before. New York playwright Anne Drakopolous makes her debut with this production.
Tobin describes it as “hauntingly beautiful and beautifully honest.” Drakopolous adapted the play from personal accounts, poems, stories and memories of Holocaust survivors. She and Tobin tailored those stories to fit the cast of 17 actors, who play men, women and children – and one Nazi SS guard.
It’s about 80 minutes without an intermission. The play includes multimedia elements, and the set features a fence that separates the audience from the stage, enhancing the feeling that the characters are being held as prisoners.
“The play is about remembrance. About survival. About sacrifice,” Drakopolous wrote in an email. “The play is about the most horrific time in our history. What Hitler and his followers did to millions of men, women and children must never be forgotten. Ever.”
The survivors tell stories of hope and courage that are inspirational and moving.
“Appell: The Other Side of the Fence” includes at least two actors making their Footlights debut, Bob Porzio and Ann Foskett Miller.
Porzio plays a Nazi guard. When Tobin offered him the role, Porzio almost passed. He wasn’t sure he wanted to play a guard at a Holocaust prison. “It’s like nothing I’ve ever played before,” he said. “It’s not been easy. It’s a tough, tough role, but it’s an important role. I have to be as horrific as I possibly can be. My job is to make the audience really hate me.”
He also has to present himself as conflicted. His character was indoctrinated into Nazism, and he isn’t a prison guard by choice. It’s a job he is assigned to do. He has sympathy for the prisoners he treats so badly, Porzio said. As an actor, he has to find a way to stir a range of sharp feelings.
Miller has had a long career in theater statewide but hasn’t acted since relocating to the Portland area from Damariscotta three years ago. “This was the first time since I moved to the area that I felt this is something worth working on and putting my time into,” she said. She was born in England in 1938, and her father served in World War II. She was aware of the oppression and extermination of Jewish people as a young girl, and those memories motivated her to audition for this play. “I have strong feelings about keeping those memories alive,” she said. “We must never forget what happened. This piece is not easy to tell, but it’s very meaningful.”
Drakopolous wrote the play because she is “horrified” by the hatred and bigotry she sees in America today. She also is horrified that Footlights has received hate calls about her play. “That is why it must be seen, or in Michael’s words, ‘experienced.’ I want people to leave the theater with a feeling of passion for people and the world around them, and hope for the future – that this will not and cannot ever happen again – with a feeling of sadness, pain and horror that this happened,” she wrote.
WHERE: Footlights Theatre, 190 Route 1, Falmouth
WHEN: Opens Friday, runs through March 24; 7 p.m. Thursdays, 7:30 p.m. Fridays, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturdays.
TICKETS: $18 adults, $15 seniors, $10 ages 17 and younger; pay what you can on Thursdays and on Friday, March 9.
INFO: 747-5434, thefootlightsinfalmouth.com