Say the word “firefly” and pinpoints of light, winking and blinking across fields on a warm summer evening quite likely appear in your mind’s eye. The vision creates a literal happy buzz.
Something quite different forces itself into our subconscious when mention is made of the Holocaust – impressions of cruel, inhuman atrocities and death come into view.
It’s the juxtaposition of those polar opposite images that makes the CMU University Theatre’s “The Fireflies” riveting and, at the same time, absolutely uplifting.
The original script penned by Lauren McConnell, CMU Communication and Dramatic Arts assistant professor, is adapted from Brouci (Firefly), a classic Czech children’s book written by Jan Karafiát in 1876.
Karafiát, a Protestant pastor, could not have imagined his book”Firefly” about the misadventures of a little firefly boy would someday become a musical play that provided a ray of light during World War II for young performers and audiences who were at Theresienstadt, site of a Jewish concentration camp located in what today is the Czech Republic.
That play was performed during World War II. McConnell took it further with her modern-day work.
Speaking with some of those death camp survivors who recalled memories of “The Fireflies” from productions in 1943 and ‘45 was both emotionally draining – and rewarding – for McConnell during her years of work on the project, which became a new “The Fireflies.” She began the process in 2010.
“It’s impossible to describe how it feels to walk into a room of survivors – many had vivid recollections about the show,” McConnell says, citing the importance of those memories in reconstructing what very nearly was a lost work of theater and art. “Although the original script was lost, their story is not lost – that’s gratifying.”
Area residents can participate in that gratifying experience during upcoming performances of “The Fireflies” at Bush Theatre on the CMU campus. Show times are 7:30 p.m., Wednesday through Saturday, April 3-6, with a 2 p.m. matinee, Sunday, April 7.
Vera Meisels of Tel Aviv, Israel, is one the Theresienstadt survivors whose memories helped resurrect “The Fireflies,” and who has an intimate connection with the CMU production. The Jewish poet and artist is the narrator in the renewed version, helping connect the new show to its historical past and inform the audience about its origin.
“I first learned about Vera through a poem and short story she had written about her experience with ‘The Fireflies’ while she was a young child at the camp,” McConnell says. “When I was able to contact her, she had very specific memories and was willing to work on the project of reconstructing the play for a new audience. It’s been amazing working with her and the other survivors, and we’re very honored to have Vera here at CMU for this production.”
Meisels and McConnell will participate in “talk back” sessions at the conclusion of each performance, allowing the audience to ask questions.
“We’re also planning a special presentation Sunday evening (April 7) where Vera will read some of her poetry and short stories and talk in-depth about her life experiences,” McConnell says, noting the setting on campus for the event has not been determined.
In addition to interviews with survivors, McConnell was able to locate archival evidence about the original show, includingsynopses, ticket stubs, posters, set renderings, diary accounts and oral history documentation. As a result of her intense research, the brand-new script contains scenes, characters and many of the songs and music that were in the original production created by Kamila Rosenbaumová. The dancer and choreographer had initially staged a dance performance with narration from “The Fireflies” at her studio in Prague, prior to being transported to Terezín.
Lovely Czech and Slovak folk songs and melodies were featured prominently in the initial show and in the camp productions where children played the primary roles. Dr. Jose Luis Maurtua, orchestra director for the CMU School of Music, has incorporated those songs in addition to his original compositions, which reflect the style and enhance the mood of the reborn show.
“Lauren and Jose are at the heart of this project, and have done a fantastic job – it’s truly a wonderful collaboration,” says “Fireflies” director Nancy Eddy, CMU communication and dramatic arts assistant professor .
Like McConnell, Maurtua says he has “put a lot of love” into “The Fireflies.”
“I’ve tried to keep true to the spirit of the story and enliven the message, which is very powerful. Something as delicate and innocent as children’s songs brought hope to the people and youth in the camp, and was uplifting.”
As was true in the original production, all the songs involve dance to a greater or lesser degree. New scenes added by McConnell also incorporate music, some of which was composed by Maurtua.
“I’m delighted with the music that Jose has composed and with his treatment of the original Czech and Slovak songs and dances,” McConnell says, giving equal praise to the CMU cast and crew. “We’re all thrilled with the talented students who are involved in this production – great dancers and wonderful vocalists.”
The production has been a learning experience for the cast, too, the playwright says.
“This has been a way for them to gain a better historical understanding of the time period and the people. The students have embraced this project and are bringing their own artistic abilities to the show.”
Some of that artistry is especially evident in the use of one song that had a special meaning for its original audience – the Czech national anthem.
“The anthem was used as part of the overture in the original show, and in our production Jose has incorporated the melody in various ways,” McConnell says, citing the emotional significance the song had for the occupants of Terezín. “Survivors I spoke with had distinct memories of the music and the show as a happy time – it gave them hope that the war would end.”
That was the case, as McConnell discovered during her research.
“The show ran for 13 performances in March and April of 1945, and the camp was liberated shortly thereafter,” she says, adding that drawings and art work that were used in “The Fireflies” also survived. “The creative projects were based on the idea of fireflies and were used in the original show. “We have some of those images and are projecting them on screens as part of the set design.”
Both McConnell and Maurtua believe the CMU production is just the beginning of “The Fireflies” revival.
“The message is so powerful and has such significance for audiences of our day – war, suffering, internment camps are still with us,” Maurtua says. “This is a message that needs to be restated and not forgotten.”
McConnell says bringing the message to new audiences is important to the survivors she spoke with, too.
“They were pleased that someone was taking an interest in their story,” she says. “Hopefully, this show will make people think about what they can do and how they might be able to make a difference in the world today.”
Tickets for “The Fireflies” are $8 for adults, $6 students and senior citizens, available by calling (989) 774-3045; at Ticket Central in the CMU Events Center; or order online www.cmich.edu/ticketcentral
Rebecca Hochhuth, front, rehearses for ‘The Fireflies’ a play based on a children’s book by Jan Karafiat in Bush Theatre at Central Michigan University Monday, March 25, 2013. (Sun photo by KEN KADWELL/@KenKadwell).