Why We Laugh: A Terezín Cabaret

based on an original cabaret by

Felix Porges, Vítězslav Horpatzky, Pavel Weisskopf and Pavel Stránský

by Kira Obolensky

Director Hayley Finn, composer/music director Craig Harris, translator and dramaturg Lisa Peschel

Featuring Julie Kurtz, Elise Langer, Ryan Lindberg and Skyler Nowinski

Felix Porges and Elly Bernstein-Porges, original cabaret artists.
Felix Porges and Elly Bernstein-Porges, original cabaret artists.

In the World War II Jewish Ghetto at Terezín (in German, Theresienstadt), four young Czech Jews created an escape from the ghetto while never leaving its walls. By setting their cabaret, “Laugh with Us,” in postwar Prague–a Prague identical to the one they remembered from the late 1930s–the performers simultaneously returned to the world they missed and expressed their hopes for a postwar future.

They also engaged with the ghetto itself: by “looking back” with humor upon their time in Terezín, they converted the most terrifying events of their present into a source of laughter rather than fear.

“Why We Laugh” combines scenes and songs from the original cabaret with new scenes that reflect upon a scholar’s attempts to imagine how that original cabaret might have been performed. As the characters in the cabaret look to the future, and a contemporary scholar looks to the past, each confronts the other with difficult questions–why did the Terezín prisoners laugh, and what does that laughter mean to us today, knowing what we know about their history?

Performance of Why We Laugh in the Czech Republic
Performance of Why We Laugh in the Czech Republic

In June of 2011, Step in Time Theater took “Why We Laugh” to the Czech Republic. In Terezin the group performed on June 15, 2011 at The Rafael Schächter Institute for the Arts and Humanities. The show was produced in a barrack attic in Terezin, with Terezin survivors, family members of some of the original cabaret creators, and the only remaining cabaret writer, Pavel Stransky, in the audience.

In Prague the group performed at The Nine Gates Festival of Czech-German-Jewish Culture on June 18, 2011.

Craig Harris talks with Pavel Stransky, the only surviving original writer of the cabaret.
Craig Harris talks with Pavel Stransky, the only surviving original writer of the cabaret.

During Harris’ conversation with Pavel Stransky, Pavel indicated that initially he had not remembered writing the original cabaret in Terezin. The holocaust experience “was like a vacuum cleaner in his mind – erasing everything.” Since then he has been remembering more of his involvement in theater in Terezin.

Even in his 90s Pavel was giving tours of Terezin to people visiting the city to learn about the history, and about the rich cultural life that the prisoners created to help them to live through the terrible conditions there.

This is a video showcase about Why We Laugh:

Film maker Richard Krevolin created a documentary film about this play and the tour, and exploring theater during the holocaust – Making Light in Terezin. I created the music score for the film, which premiered at the 2012 Minneapolis-Saint Paul International Film Festival, and is currently available on iTunes and at Amazon.com. For more information about the film, and to view a film trailer and video excerpts please visit https://www.imdb.com/title/tt2210514/.

Why We Laugh – a Terezin Cabaret was produced by Fortune’s Fool Theatre in September 2015 at Open Eye Figure Theater in Minneapolis, MN. The full touring company was brought back together to perform the show.