Institute News

USC Playwriting Class Draws Inspiration From Archive

Playwrights are informed by a variety of sources– their own imaginations, the life events of their friends and family, the things they see in their own daily goings-on. And now, a whole other resource is available to a small group of them: USC Shoah Foundation’s Visual History Archive.

The Institute last semester solicited proposals from USC faculty who intended to integrate the Archive and its corresponding education website, IWitness, into their classrooms. One of the winning proposals came from Associate Professor of Playwriting Paula Cizmar, whose background in documentary theater motivated her unique submission and the classroom experience she was able to foster with the help of the Institute and the Center for Excellence in Teaching.

“I wanted to challenge my students to develop characters and create a fictional story based on the testimonies of survivors and witnesses of genocide in the Visual History Archive,” Cizmar said. “It occurred to me that this would be a really interesting way for me to acquaint my students with a documentary theater technique, and with a new strategy for creating characters.”

Throughout the semester, USC Shoah Foundation staff provided Cizmar and her students with Institute resources and VHA tutorials. The Diversity and Inclusion Through Testimony (DITT) initiative also put Cizmar in touch with staff at the Center for Excellence in Teaching, who helped her develop a syllabus.

The Institute funded the grant program to advance USC’s use of the more than 55,000 testimonies of survivors and witnesses of genocide (including the Armenian Genocide, Holocaust, Nanjing Massacre, Cambodian Genocide, Guatemalan Genocide and Genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda) held within the VHA. Using the VHA and IWitness, USC Shoah Foundation has provided educators in more than 80 countries with the resources to foster empathy and growth in their students.

Cizmar’s proposal focused on using the VHA to this same end. Using VHA filters, the students were able to select specific testimonies to learn from, off of which they wrote their scripts.

“They were very theatrical about them,” Cizmar said. “They didn’t just take verbatim testimony and string it together in a documentary form. They actually listened to these testimonies, took them to heart and then created characters either living through the events or telling younger relatives about what happened to them.”

One student listened to the testimonies of those imprisoned at an internment camp In “Cake for Winter,” the two characters dream of the food they would eat  if they were elsewhere. Another student wrote about people stranded in the middle of the ocean attempting to escape the genocide in the Congo; “Passion Fruit” takes place at the height of the Rwandan Genocide.

Cizmar says the students were deeply affected by the testimonies that would inform their writing. Undergraduates in particular, she says, were stunned by the intimate relationship they could have with Holocaust survivors’ stories, and by the number of genocides that had occurred after the Holocaust.

“I think everybody understood the seriousness of these stories and understood the sheer breadth of the collection of testimonies, too,” Cizmar said. “The Visual History Archive is not only an astounding resource – it’s also a very sobering reminder of how humans can be so incredibly inhumane, but also how humans can be so incredibly strong and survive.”

Cizmar herself – a veteran playwright whose latest major work “SEVEN” (starring Meryl Streep)  told the true stories of seven women who fought for the wellbeing of women, families and children around the world – was also affected by the survivors’ stories, as well as her students’ plays.

“In times of real difficulty, we know that there really is truth to the fact that humans have a survival instinct, and are capable of forgiveness,” Cizmar said. “That really enhanced my own empathy as a writer.”

Students from the School of Dramatic Arts will read excerpts of the 10 plays at the Parkside Performance Cafe on April 27. The table reading begins at 3 p.m.