February 17, 2011
Photo by Tony Firriolo
“We weren’t expecting such a sudden explosion of interest,” exclaimed Olivia Horn, marketing communications coordinator and box office manager for the Annie Russell Theatre. The highly anticipated world premier production of Letters to Sala, presented by the Rollins Department of Theatre and Dance in cooperation with Beacon Artist Agency and the Winter Park Institute (WPI), opened on Friday, February 11.
The result of the collaborative artistic vision of several visiting WPI scholars, Letters to Sala is based on the book Sala’s Gift by Ann Kirschner. The play, written by Arlene Hutton, the pseudonym for alumna Beth Lincks, is an emotionally charged drama that blends the experiences of a Jewish teenage girl surviving in Nazi work camps with the discovery by her present-day family of her past. Under the expert direction of Eric Nightengale, the cast of talented student actors achieved a performance that was both striking and touching.
The source material for both the play and the book is a collection of over 300 letters that were rescued and preserved by Sala Garncarz, Kirschner’s mother. “The letters can be thought of as pieces of a jigsaw puzzle,” Kirschner commented during a presentation titled Whose Story Is It? A Collision of Public and Private, which preceded the performance on Saturday, February 12. “When you put them together and stand back, you see the life of a courageous young woman. All the letters were written to one teenage girl (Sala). This allowed the complete story to be told through the eyes of a person with whom the student actors can identify.”
During a talkback following the matinee performance on Sunday, February 13, both Kirschner and Hutton shared insight into the details of the story. Kirschner explained how the story has now been passed through many people to get to the Annie Russell stage, moving from her mother to translators, to an exhibition of the letters in the New York Public Library, to Arlene Hutton and, finally, to the play. “It is important for us to take on the roles of story tellers and see history through our own lens,” Kirschner commented. “Doing so allows us to inspire other people to connect with their history while their elders are still alive.”
Hutton then elaborated that the play keeps the characters alive even though many have long since died. “The physical piece of paper is the only evidence that many of the individuals in the story ever existed. The cast has become the storytellers of the next generation. It’s only when you tell the story yourself do you take ownership of it.”
Hutton commented on how she experienced a challenge of balancing historical accuracy with artistic liberties. “Sometimes you have to sacrifice details in order to tell a good story.” Explaining that she never thought of the cast as students or actors, Hutton, along with Nightengale, involved the students in the production and treated them as collaborators. They were empowered to add their own nuances to the roles. “About one quarter of the play was written here at Rollins during the rehearsal process,” Hutton revealed.
Alexa Gordon (Class of 2013) as Young Sala, Shayla Alamino (Class of 2012) as Ann and Shannon Singley (Class of 2011) as Old Sala achieved standout performances in their roles. The students were faced with a complicated challenge of making the characters their own while trying to stay to true to the real people upon whom the characters are based. Alamino worked closely with Kirschner in the weeks preceding the opening in order to more accurately develop her character. During the talk back, Kirshner commented, “It was a real out-of-body experience watching a character named after you act out your own life on stage.”
The stylistic production of Letters to Sala is a complete sensory experience. A simple yet utilitarian set designed by Nicole Bianco (Class of 2012) juxtaposes the past and the present on opposite sides of the stage and is complimented by the rich lighting design of Kevin Griffin, resident lighting designer and production manager. Often, two scenes are going on at once on stage, which keeps the action flowing throughout the entirety of the performance. In addition, projections from Annie Russell’s state-of-the-art lighting system identify new settings as the plot moves through time.
Do not miss this opportunity to experience the groundbreaking production of Letters to Sala. In addition, the traveling exhibit of Sala’s actual letters is on display in the Olin Library, courtesy of the New York Public Library. For more information on upcoming Winter Park Institute events, please visit www.rollins.edu/wpi/events-calendar.
For Rollins Department of Theatre and Dance box office information, please visit www.rollins.edu/annierussell/box_office/single.html or call 407-646-2145
By Justin Braun (Class of 2011MBA)
Office of Public Relations & Community Affairs
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