"Call Me Adam" chats with playwright Oscar Speace about his new play Janka, based upon a 60-page handwritten letter his mother wrote about the fate of her family in Nazi concentration camps during WWII. Janka plays at the June Havoc Theatre (312 West 36th Street, between 8th & 9th Avenue) in New York City through May 2. Click here for tickets!
1. Your new play Janka, is based on a 60-page handwritten letter by your mother, regarding the fate of her family in Nazi concentration camps. What made you want to take this letter and turn it into a play? What made now the right time to present Janka? Since I can remember I've always had an interest in history and especially my mother's Holocaust story. She rarely talked about it and when I told her I wanted to know what happened (I was in high school) she said she wrote a book once and no one was interested in her story. She told me the book was lost. I was crestfallen. She wrote a book and it was lost. After she died I wrote an outline for a screenplay that would be based on historical research blended with the few tidbits from the few "stories" Janka had talked about. It wasn't very much. I sent the outline to Aunt Betty (Janka's sister). Later we spoke on the phone and she told me she had my mother's book. She would send it to me. I immediately realized that this was the book she had told me about when I was in high school. I would finally know my mother's story. When it arrived I immediately discovered it was written in Hungarian, I would have to find a translator. This I did and spent the next nine months of Saturday morning sitting with the translator and helping her by typing into a laptop as she did the translation. It was very emotional for both of us. We quickly realized that this was a well thought out, beautifully written account of what happened to her family in the last year of the war. It was a sixty page letter written to Uncle Morris Festinger who lived in Cleveland, Ohio. He had immigrated during World War I in 1915.
This is the 70th anniversary of Janka's liberation from the slave labor camp (a subcamp of Dachau)...We have been touring JANKA since 2002. We have done over 105 performances, all as a staged reading. It seemed like the next step to bring it to New York and to do a full-blown production. A "World Premiere."
2. Growing up, you never knew of your mother's time spent in Nazi concentration camps until you found this 60-page letter after your mom's death. With finding this letter after your mom's death, what went through your mind when you found this letter, especially knowing you would not have the chance to ask her any questions? We knew that Mom was a Holocaust survivor, but like many survivors, she rarely spoke of it...and when she did it was very perfunctory. "I was in Auschwitz. I lost 63 members of my family. I was a slave laborer in Germany. They tied Gizi to a tree." Nothing was connected or explained. It wasn't very coherent. Hard to understand.
Finding the letter was a miracle. The process of translating it another miracle. Opening the envelope, pulling out the writing book, opening it and then discovering it's written in Hungarian, I couldn't understand a word until it's translated. I smack myself in the forehead. Of course it's written in Hungarian - her native tongue. Through a writing mentor, Academy Award winning screenwriter Pamela Wallace, I met with her neighbor Nora Szabo DeWitt, who was born in Hungary. We met on Saturdays, many Saturdays in 1998. In my mind, I wondered if this letter would tell the story of what happened. Simply, would it be good source material? Reading the first sentence, "Dear Uncle Morris, Our happiness was boundless, since our liberation, this is our first happy moment. After all, we are not so orphaned in this world; we also have somebody to whom we belong." I knew immediately this evocative material would enable me to tell her story.
Nora and I cried for an hour...when I came home for lunch and shared this with my wife Janice, who is playing the role at the June Havoc Theatre, another hour of crying continued.
3. What emotional challenges did you face and what did you find most interesting to write about during the writing of Janka? It's hard to discuss the creative process. The letter begins by discussing the political atmosphere in Transylvania starting in 1940. I decided not to start here but to start with the German SS marching into Sighet and moving the Jews into the ghetto.
Also, when Janice first met Janka before we were married, they had breakfast together in her home in Moorestown, NJ. I slept late that morning and missed what they talked about. I rarely sleep late and Janice rarely gets up early but this particular morning the opposite happened and Janice found herself face to face with Janka, who would become her mother-in-law. Janka spoke more about the Holocaust to Janice than she had ever spoken to my brother and me. I missed this. She opened up to a complete stranger. It dawned on me that the play could turn on the idea that it's easier to tell your story to a complete stranger than it is to your own flesh and blood.
In the play Janka asks the audience for advice. "Maybe you can help. I will tell you the story. And after you hear it you tell me if I should tell him. Do we have a deal? It's a deal!" This brings the audience right into the story.
4. What do you hope audiences come away with after seeing Janka? A better understanding of what happened in the Holocaust. What happened to the Jews of Transylvania and Sighet. We've had a number of survivors and children of survivors thank us for telling Janka's story. It has helped them speak about their experiences to their children and grandchildren.
5. What made you want Roust Theatre Company to produce Janka? There's a connection. Tracy Hostmyer, Janice and I are graduates from Fresno State. Our professor and mentor Jeanette Bryon taught in London when Tracy lived in London. We followed Tracy's career...and helped her by sending money so she could pursue her acting career. Tracy came to see the play very early on in 2002 in Los Angeles. It's come a long way since then. When she started Roust we contributed at the beginning.
Last summer we put a committee together to bring JANKA to New York. The Janka Project is also a nonprofit under the auspices of the Fresno Arts Council. Tracy called to tell us she would be in Fresno visiting her parents. We invited her to a meeting and after listening to the committee and explaining how Roust could produce the play, if her partner Director James Phillip Gates agreed, we proceeded to raise the money to bring JANKA to New York.
6. Janka is being directed by James Philip Gates and starring Janice Noga. Why did you choose James to direct this piece? What was it about Janice that made you go, she's going to play my mom? James is Tracy's partner. Can I say it was a package deal? We had a number of bi-coastal telephone calls with James. He's charming. We liked his ideas. He wanted me to get the directing credit. I told him I'm the playwright...you're the director. You'll be doing the work, you should get the credit. He agreed to direct. We heard he was thorough and tough, but also kind and compassionate. We both felt we would have a good experience with JANKA in New York.
Janice flew to New York in January and February to rehearse with James for five days each visit. Janice came two weeks before we opened last night to rehearse. It's a difficult play with a demanding director and limited time. We all have day jobs and the budget is small. But it's all come together beautifully.
7. What do you think your mom would think of you turning this part of her life into a play? She would definitely be proud of us and our accomplishment. I think she would be a little embarrassed because of the attention but deep inside she would be smiling.
After the letter was translated I wrote a documentary script and planned to do a documentary. We raised money and shot a demo on film. Tracy played Janka in this short film while Janice did the voice work. Raising money was very difficult. It was suggested that I write a one woman play based on the letter. It was a natural for her to do it since she knew Janka. It never occurred to me that my wife would be playing my mother. Now it sounds very Shakespearean. At first, it was Janice playing a role in this play...We started in Savannah, Georgia at Atlantic Armstrong University. We've done 105 performances around the world including Sighet, Romania, Janka's hometown. It also enabled us to raise money for what now has become the Janka Project. We operate as a non-profit under the auspices of the Fresno Arts Council.
9. What have you learned about yourself from being a playwright? It takes a lot of discipline and it's very difficult when you have a fulltime job. During all this time...I am a producer/director at ValleyPBS, a promotion director at ABC30 for five years, and a real estate videographer for five years...Time management is an understatement!
10. What's the best advice you've ever received? Keep your head down, swing smooth and release the club...Wait a minute, that's golf...Three things that everybody should follow.
1) Have a good attitude
2) Show up on time
3) Some talent helps
11. If you could have any super power, which one would you choose? Push a button and there'd be world peace!
Playwright Oscar Speace has produced a wide range of TV and radio programming for PBS and ABC-TV, having earned two Emmy certificates for his work at ABC30 in California's Central Valley. He earned an Emmy nomination for CONQUEST OF MY BROTHER about U.S. broken treaties with Native American Indians. His documentary JANKA: ONE MINUTE OF PERFECT HAPPINESS won a Telly Award. As well, he wrote and produced THE MAKING OF THE PARSLEY GARDEN on ABC-TV.