Letters from the front
Although World War I only lasted from 1914-1918, there were 37.5 million casualties. It was fought in some of the coldest, wettest, most uncomfortable conditions possible. Yet, on Christmas Eve, 1914, British and German troops stopped fighting to sing Christmas carols, exchange cigarettes and tell jokes with their enemies in the “no-man’s land” between the trenches. For that one night, they had peace. That night is the subject of Stille Night, an original play being performed by Nevada Shakespeare Company and the students of St. Albert the Great Catholic School.
The Christmas Truce was dramatized in a portion of the Broadway play Oh What A Lovely War! Now, another play is built around the Truce. Accounts of the Christmas Truce have been included in a book by Max Arthur titled Forgotten Voices of the Great War. Soldiers, wives, doctors, nurses and many others who lived during this time wrote letters telling of their experiences, and it’s these letters that will become part of Stille Night.
The play revolves around readings of these letters and a song titled “Christmas in the Trenches” by John McCutcheon, which also tells the story of the truce. And for most of the six performances, the show begins with a multimedia presentation featuring horrific images of wounded soldiers. While these images make a powerful statement about the implications of war, they aren’t suitable for kids. So for two performances, the NSC offers a family-friendly version. That’s where the St. Albert’s students come in.
Cameron Crain, who directs the plays and also teaches at St. Albert’s, thought it was a natural for his students.
“It’s educational, it’s a history play, it talks about Christmas, and about people coming together for peace and unity,” he says. “The students’ job is to give the audience an idea of what it was like for these families, these countries who are engaged in war.”
The students were asked to peruse Arthur’s book to find a letter that spoke to them, and Crain has encouraged them to become completely immersed in their characters.
“They’ve had lots of questions, and they’ve gone on the Internet to research things about the war,” says Crain. “The idea is for them to create their own letters.”
Through researching what kind of paper each character might use, how their handwriting might look, what kind of pen they’d use, they become their characters. Students also get hands-on experience in creating sets, lighting, ticket sales, costuming and working with adult, professional actors.
The students haven’t failed to note that today we find ourselves in another war. Things haven’t changed that much, says sixth-grader Nikki Flint, who plays a medical student in the emergency service corps. “I’m learning how people were really sad, and no one wanted them to go off to war. It shocked a lot of people,” she says.
Narrator Kathleen Go, a sixth grader, says she’s getting a sense of perspective.
“I learned more about how brutal the war was, from other people’s points of view—not just the Americans,” she says.
“It’s part of our history,” says eighth-grader William Perez, who plays an English soldier. “We should all know what happened back then because if we don’t know our past, what’s to become of us?”
And Zoey McKenna, a seventh grader, says she’s learning something else about performing: “You have to have a really loud voice so everyone can hear you.”