In January 2009 Caryl Churchill penned the play Seven Jewish Children: A Play for Gaza in response to Israel’s Operation Cast Lead military strike upon Gaza. Cast Lead lasted 3 weeks, ending January 18th 2009 and was responsible for the deaths of some 1,400 Palestinians, including 300 children.
Controversially, SJC is a play that spans 70 years of Jewish history, alluding to events from the Holocaust to the present day Israel/Palestine conflict. Consisting of 7 scenes that deliberate upon what the children should be told and what we would have them know, the play is delivered in the form of a tense litany that repeats the lines “Tell her,” “Don’t tell her”. Churchill has said the play is ultimately about how we explain violence to children; a universal theme certainly, delivered in as little as 10 minutes.
Viewing it as a political event, Churchill has invited anyone to download and produce the play for free, the one proviso being that a collection is taken for the people of Gaza, with proceeds to go to Medical Aid for Palestine.
A number of productions have since been staged in various parts of the globe. Here in Montreal, in May of last year, Stéphane Jaques, of the theatre company La Tsé-Tsé Bis, directed a powerful interpretation, an excerpt of which is featured here.
Stéphane spoke with MS about the play and where it has taken him since.
MS: Stéphane, I was wondering how you came to direct Seven Jewish Children?
SJ: I was working at radio CKUT doing my chronicle. And at some point I was talking about the film Waltz with Bashir, which showed the victim becoming the oppressor, as so often happens in life. Then Gaza happened, the end of December. At the time, I said to my friend we have to do something. I was thinking that as an actor and a director I wanted to do something and I was really hoping that someone was writing about it. Then in April I found out about the play and met Fabienne of the advocacy group Independent Jewish Voices that wanted to produce it.
MS: Would you agree SJC is a great piece of guerrilla theatre, with a foot in the mainstream because it just so happens to have been written by a popular playwright?
SJ: Yes. It’s great that it did not take the usual 2 years to happen. I really liked Caryl Churchill’s spontaneity. And structurally, it’s so simple. It’s just sentences, spaced sentences, rather than numbered scenes. In French the play addresses a neutral gendesr and is even more open. The characters could be addressing the same child or seven different children. There might be one family, or seven different families. She left it so open. It’s very adaptable. In our production there were seven different children.
MS: What did you do with the play?
SJ: What I realized was that Churchill really describes this circle of the victim becoming the oppressor. I wanted to show that. I wanted to show the reality of the Holocaust and the reality of Gaza in January 2009. That it is the same hatred. Neither is better or worse. It is the same thing. It is hatred. Of course with the Holocaust there is a collective memory that we all have. So in theatre we can suggest a steam train leaving. And we can do this with sound, and lighting. In the play we used a band of light across their eyes to suggest cattle cars. For Gaza, at the end of the play, we do not have this collective memory to draw upon. So how can we show the end to be as strong as the beginning? There are some pictures…10 pictures, that gradually zero in on Gaza 2009, while the actors hold the same positions they held at the beginning of the play.
MS: What was your process of staging it? Was it a group process?
SJ: No. The first production we didn’t have time. We had a week. I had to find 7 actors and then we had three meetings of a couple of hours and that was it. So we kept it simple; but created this magic thing with the lights. And it is war so we showed guns. We only had a little time with the technicians, few props but great lighting and sound. The second production we had longer; a week in which to rehearse and involve two young DJs who came up with some very evocative ideas; a great sound design.
MS: How did the actors respond to the play?
SJ: I was thinking of having an opera singer that I knew but she did not want to be involved in something so political. But these actors were enthusiastic. And interestingly, they aged from 20 to 65, were from different generations then, but also from different schools of acting, yet together on the same stage, which is seldom seen in theatre.
MS: You have since been to Israel and Palestine on a solidarity tour. How did this experience affect you?
SJ: I was surprised by the ways in which the government brainwashes the people. It was very disturbing to see the way hatred is produced by the political/civil machine. I felt disgusted by this machine and what people do to each other because of it. I left feeling very aware that there are a lot of places in the world with similar machines.
MS: Did this in any way change your mind about the Montreal production of SJC?
SJ: For the play I had pushed the actors to express this feeling of hatred. I thought at the time maybe this is too much, that I’m pushing them too hard. Then I thought that this is theatre and its purpose is to make the audience question ideas. But then when I was actually there I realized I had been quite soft with the actors, in fact. It was really much bigger than that. The hatred was much greater. Even among the children.
In the play there is a rhythm, until the last three lines: Don’t tell her that.
Tell her we love her.
Don’t frighten her.
Churchill fractures the rhythm and when she does this she also fractures the hatred. But I was thinking after the tour that I would like to cut those last three lines because they generate such catharsis. The next time I would like to leave the end of the play in the hands of the audience. I would like to ask them, “So what do you think? Can we do something about this?” Because we have to shake the cage, you know. I don’t care very much for messages and message theatre and prefer to raise questions. And I like it when people come to me and say after a play, “I didn’t realize that point,” and it’s really good when I can say, “Really? Neither did I.”
Our production was twenty minutes long but I am developing an idea for making it much longer.
To read the play:
To see an excerpt from the play:
For an interview with Caryl Churchill about the play: