Becky Gordon considers her acting in the upcoming “Korczak’s Children” as a lesson on acting in real life.
“The story of Janusz Korczak during the Holocaust needs to be retold,” she said. “We have the opportunity to live through it onstage, and to learn from the past so it will not be repeated.”
The 17-year-old Gordon, together with 21 other young actors ages 8 to 19, are in the cast of American Conservatory Theater’s Young Conservatory production of “Korczak’s Children,” which runs July 22 to Aug. 6 at the Hastings Studio Theater in San Francisco.
“Korczak’s Children” recounts the true story of Polish Jewish pediatrician, children’s author and educator Janusz Korczak (born Henryk Goldszmit), who sheltered close to 200 children in an orphanage inside the Warsaw Ghetto. Despite numerous chances for the doctor to save his own life, he courageously refused to do so and remained with the children to the end. In August 1942, he and his devoted staff were deported together with the orphans to Treblinka.
In the play, the children perform a play-within-a-play called “The Post Office,” written by the Indian playwright Rabindranth Tagore. Korczak actually did have the orphans perform this play, about a very sick boy who cannot go outside and who is convinced that the king is on his way to bring him a letter.
Written by Jeffrey Hatcher, “Korczak’s Children” is being directed by Domenique Lozano, a resident artist at ACT who also directed the play’s West Coast premiere at ACT in 2003.
“It seemed like the right time to revive it,” commented Craig Slaight, director of the Young Conservatory. “It’s an ageless story, and a good one to bring back. It was a powerful production then, and I am positive it will be again this time.”
Gordon plays the teenage Eva, one of the two lead roles among the young actors. Her love interest, Marcel, is played by 15-year-old Peter Scattini of Burlingame.
Gordon, who lives in San Mateo, is relatively new to ACT. She took a couple of classes there during the past school year, and “Korczak’s Children” is her first production.
Scattini, on the other hand, is in his fifth summer with ACT. He and Gordon appreciate being part of the Young Conservatory program because of the chance it affords them to work with professionals.
“It really has a professional feel,” Scattini said.
“They don’t brush the kids aside,” Gordon added of the director and the three adult actors in the play from ACT’s Master of Fine Arts program. “They spend a lot of time with you.”
Both young actors were struck by the play’s heavy topic.
“I’ve never done anything this serious before,” Scattini
said. “This is the first time I’m in a play about the Holocaust, about genocide. There’s no happy ending in this one.”
Gordon, whose father is Jewish (though she is being raised Catholic), has found the story to be very personal and the rehearsals emotionally intense. “I’m living the experience in the ghetto vicariously through Eva,” she said. “I know that had I been living at that time and in that place, that would have been me.”
Lozano finds that today’s youth “are very sophisticated. They have studied the Holocaust.” Still, she works on developing the young actors’ sense of the play and of their characters by bringing in related historical material, what she calls “visual food.”
Meredith Charlson, a 17-year-old from San Mateo, has been assisting Lozano as the production’s dramaturge. Charlson does research about the world of the play and brings in her findings to share with the cast, such as lesser-known stories about what happened in the orphanage that she has found in Joseph Hyam’s 1969 book, “A Field of Buttercups.”
The material shared with the younger children is, of course, different from that brought in for the older teens and adult actors.
“But you can’t sugarcoat it. Theater is about life experience recreated,” Slaight noted.
“Our goal is to launch new work that has serious and theatrically interesting roles for young children. We seek out plays like ‘Korczak’s Children’ that are literary and really raise the bar.”
“Korczak’s Children” runs July 22 to Aug. 6 at Hastings Studio Theater, 77 Geary St., Sixth Floor, S.F. Tickets: $10. Information: www.act-sf.org.