For the past two years, young actors from the region have been filling auditoriums and moving audiences to tears over more than 50 performances of “I Never Saw Another Butterfly,” a play based on the book of the same name featuring artwork and poems from children who were imprisoned at Terezin concentration camp.
Next week, they will bring their show to its source. Thirty actors, along with family members and staff of the Wolf Performing Arts Center, are flying to the Czech Republic over the weekend to perform the show in the camp.
While there, the students will have a seder with peers from Prague and even meet the survivor who compiled the book.
At a send-off performance at Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El in Wynnewood on Wednesday, the directors reminisced about how their Butterfly Project had metamorphasized over the years. The actors, ranging in age from 10 to 19, rehearsed in a church basement, wrestling with the emotional story of Raja Engländerová, the author of the book that was later adapted into a play by Celeste Raspanti.
As demand for the production grew, executive director Bobbi Wolf held more auditions so she could create multiple casts. The troop performed at various recreation centers, synagogues, schools and the National Museum of American Jewish History. Last year, they even appeared at the Kimmel Center during the Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts.
While all this was happening, director Tim Popp had discovered a youth theater in Prague and emailed to see if the group might be interested in collaborating someday. They decided to pursue a trip and began fundraising. The actors and board members collectively raised more than $60,000.
To mentally prepare for their visit to Terezin, the children had discussions, read articles, watched documentaries and heard from a parent who spoke about his experiences visiting the camp, Popp said.
During their week abroad, the group will learn about the history and culture of Prague through visits to the Church of St. Nicholas-Mala Strana, the Franz Kafka Museum, the Lobkowicz Palace and the Prague Shakespeare Company. Engländerová, the author of the book that inspired their play, and her grandchildren will even join the group for a Passover seder.
The troop was able to get in touch with Engländerová through playwright Raspanti, a nun living in Minneapolis who has flown to Philadelphia twice to see the children perform.
On their last day in Europe, they will tour Terezin, tracing Engländerová’s story at the place the Nazis called a “model Jewish settlement.” Engländerová is one of only 100 survivors out of the 15,000 children who passed through Terezin at that time.
After touring the camp, the actors will perform “I Never Saw Another Butterfly” in Terezin’s attic theatre — the very space that Engländerová depicts throughout her narration in the play. They’ll perform alongside 30 actors from the Prague Youth Theatre who will recite the poems in Czech.
One of the actors who plays Engländerová, 17-year-old Jessica Calderon of Havertown, said the thought of going is “surreal.” Calderon said she doesn’t know what to expect when she gets there, but will just “let the show take it where it takes you.”
Wolf said that being there will be “the culmination of a dream where you can feel the history and memory within it.”
“These children can share their voices and honor the voices of those who were there.”