Experimental Holocaust drama by teen playwright staged in Philly

Members of Found Theater Company rehearse a new play by a young playwright

Members of Found Theater Company rehearse a new play by a young playwright

This weekend, a new play debuts in Philadelphia that relates the Holocaust of World War II to political events today. The abstract, experimental play was written by a 14-year-old girl.

Shannon DiStefano wrote “First They Came For” last year as an eighth-grader. Now a freshman at Central High School, she said the play is loosely based on the life of Pastor Martin Niemöller, who famously wrote that he said nothing when Nazis first came for Socialists, because he was not a Socialist.

Then the Nazis came for Unionists, but he was not a Unionist.

Then they came for Jews.

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“Then they came for me — and there was nobody left to speak for me,” he wrote.

Shannon said the play was heavily inspired by the Elie Wiesel’s Holocaust novel “Night.” Anne Frank also appears as an onstage character, along with God, whom the stage directions dictate must be performed by a black woman.

shannon distefanoYoung playwright Shannon DiStefano wrote ”First They Came for…” loosely based on the life of Martin Niemöller who wrote the poem of that name. (Peter Crimmins/WHYY)

Shannon composed the play through Philadelphia Young Playwrights, an after-school writing program for teenagers around the city. Every year, it creates more than 750 scripts for plays, one-acts, and monologues. Many of them are given staged readings, but only a few are selected for a full production run with a theater company.

“We were really impressed that she really bit off a lot with her first piece,” said Jay Gilman, the organization’s assistant director of productions. “It’s a really ambitious piece. She’s trying really interesting things, and she’s taking risks.”

The script for “First They Came For” is not a typical teen script. Rather than leaning on dialogue between people in a drawing room, the script is mostly stage directions describing bodies, projections, and sound. The play is expressionistic more than literal, episodic more than conversational.

“The impact is not gained unless you see actors doing the work with projections, sound, and costumes enmeshed,” said Gilman. “She’s writing for a three-dimensional, 21st-century theater space.”

To realize the script, Gilman approached Found Theater, a longtime Fringe Festival favorite that normally devises original material from an organic, ensemble-based process. Company member Phoebe Schaub was impressed by Shannon’s play not just for its political urgency, but for its qualities as an abstract, performance-art piece.

“If it’s a kitchen-sink drama where people are just arguing, it’s not a great fit for Found.  We do really physical work, a lot of music, we’re ensemble-driven,” said Schaub. “We read it, and said, ‘Yeah, this is awesome.’ I can’t believe this was written by an eighth-grader.”

The 45-minute play blends the atrocities of World War II with modern life. For example, after a scene with Nazi soldiers, the actors become obsessed with their cell phones. Shannon said she wants the audience to consider the Holocaust as if it were happening now.

“First They Came For” runs at the Asian Arts Initiative in Philadelphia’s Chinatown.

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