This week, for TW Talks Tuesday, Romi Kupfer sits down with us to talk about her work developing Singing Swallows, opening up about how this vital work came into being, the challenges she has faced teaching young people about the Holocaust and the importance of telling these stories.
I am a theatre maker that has been making work since 2013 alongside my University studies in performance. I’m really passionate about creating meaningful art and collaborating and devising new Australian work. A big part of my process is championing access and inclusion both from an artistic perspective but also from an audience perspective.
What inspired you to create this work?
I created Singing Swallows in 2016 as part of my Honours Inquiry at Monash University. I always knew I wanted to create a performance about the Holocaust since a young age there was always something that i knew i had to do. I guess as a a Jewish theatre maker I feel a massive sense of responsibility to continue telling these stories and make sure there there passed onto generations. A big factor was always the question of how are the next generation going to know about the Holocaust in the same meaningful and connected way that I’ve been able to know about the holocaust. So I’ve had the privilege of being able to speak to my grandfather and other peoples grandparents and other surveys about their experiences, one on one in intimate settings and in larger settings but many many many times over my life. Of course you know in the future that’s not going to be a possibility. So how to we still retain that emotional and personal connection of that storytelling experience without the storytellers themselves. So that’s why I created Singing Swallows to see how I could challenge that idea.
What are we gonna do, how are we gonna tell these stories and how are we gonna engage young people in these stories without traumatising them. As we know the Holocaust is a very traumatic and difficult subject and especially when it is such a personal thing and if you like myself have had family members live through it, or close friends and their families lived through it, it’s quite difficult and confronting to realise the enormity of what actually happened. So that’s why I created Singing Swallows a Holocaust performance for young audiences aged 9 and up.
Tell us about the history of the show’s development
So in 2016 I set out to create the show Sining Swallows with my corporative team – John, Justin and Tammy and we developed it alongside myself writing a thesis and we devised the show. I interviewed four Holocaust survivors – Henry Corn, Amy and Sasha Goldberg and my grandfather Raymond Kupfer. I took the text from those interviews and used that in the show which is then recorded by young Jewish children in primary school. Basically it developed into this headphone experience for the audience because I was really conscious of how I tell a story that is a story of my people, a story of my community, but its not my story – I haven’t lived through it I haven’t experienced it.
So in terms of looking at representation and ethics around that I decided and interesting way to interrogate that and explore it was using these voice recordings of young children telling these stories and the actors on stage not actually speaking. They’re picking up set pieces, moving things around, performing based on what is happening in the story that you are hearing in your headphones. Since 2016 we have taken it to multiple schools where we’ve performed the show. Ive also run a Q&A discussion afterwards with the kids to talk about the Holocaust and performance and to see what their thoughts were on it. We’ve performed for kids in grade 3 up until year 11. So quite a broad age gap which has been really interesting having these post show discussions and hearing what the know and didn’t know and to hear what context they’re bringing to the table. Its been really great and its a really exciting step to have the first public premiere at Theatre Works. Looking forward to when that is going to actually be possible instead of April this year.
Has it been challenging to frame the events of the Holocaust in a way children can understand?
The Holocaust is clearly a very difficult topic, especially a challenging one for young people. Singing Swallows is appropriate for people ages 9 and above. That’s not to say though that some parents and families might chose not to let their children who are that young be exposed to The Holocaust. There are also families who are super keen and know those kids are already reading Anne Franks Journal and those sorts of books at home and at school.
It’s a really challenging topic and for me its very close to home, its very personal, its part of my families history and my communities history and so for me it’s important that we are able to have these conversations with young people at any point, rather than just waiting until they reach 16 years old and then bang – giving them all the facts.
It’s important for us to connect with the survivors of the stories and that’s a really big thing for me is that we can learn all the facts and statistics and numbers and watch the films and look at the horrific imagery but at the end of the day, each person is a person with a life and a family and hobbies and holidays and likes and dislikes and sibling rivalries – you know life!
That’s whats important for me to pass on, that the people who this happened to were people. Living their life normally like we all do. In order to carry on these stories and experiences we need to remember that and not just regard this event as some historical event that happened a long long time ago and all these numbers and statistics that we have to remember. Its more personal than that, its more emotional than that.
What has been a highlight of rehearsing Singing Swallows?
We didn’t really get into rehearsals unfortunately, we did start but then due to the current situation in the world we were unable to continue them. Whats really exciting about the season at Theatre Works and this current production is that we have two new actors who will be performing on stage. That’s Flora and Sol Feldman and they are both young people. So this is a really exciting new step for the show as we haven’t had any young people perform in it before. I think this will add a really interesting new dimension to it and also play towards the intergenerational storytelling that happens throughout the show.
What are you most excited for audiences to experience?
Growing up in the Jewish community at a Jewish school the Holocaust was a really big part of my life. Having annual commemorations, watching the videos, reading the books, talking about it and hearing about it from other peoples grandparents – it was really around. Im really looking forward to sharing this bit of whats a big part of our community, especially in Melbourne, with other people who live in Melbourne who might not be so aware of it. At the end of the day this show is about tolerance and acceptance and diversity and loving others but also loving yourself. Its about being proud to be who you are and supporting others to be proud of who they are. I hope that whoever comes and sees the show feels inspired by that.
Any final messages?
I was very excited that this show was going to have its first public premiere at Theatre Works and still excited that it will! I hope you’ll come and see it and bring your children, other family members, young people in your family and your friends – come and experience this with us. It’s a real privilege to hear Holocaust stories and a real privilege to tell them. So I hope to see you in the theatre soon.