Oak Bay High School, a public secondary school in Victoria, B.C., staged Fiddler on the Roof as its annual production last week, an idea that had come straight from the students themselves.
“Students let us know they enjoyed the music in the show and we thought it would be topical and enjoyable to stage this show,” said Steve Price, musical theatre teacher at the school.
Of the 90 students involved in the production, only two are Jewish. Price said that when the decision was first made to stage Fiddler and the school’s administration was consulted, they were determined to involve Victoria’s Jewish community in the production. “We thought it would make little sense to produce this piece without giving students the best background possible,” he said. As part of the preparations the school invited Rabbi Lynn Greenhough of Kolot Mayim Reform Temple to speak to the students last December.
“She laid out the historical relevance of the text and discussed the migration of Jews at the time, something the students had not previously understood. They’d heard about pogroms but didn’t understand the forced migration of the Jewish people or the numbers involved,” Price said. “She explained that hundreds of thousands of Jews were being forced to move on a regular basis after the first pogrom. Their communities were continually threatened and they never knew when their next move was going to be.”
Rabbi Greenhough also assisted students with their accents for the show, described the significance of different religious garments and explained the concept of the matchmaker. As a result of the historical context she provided, Price said students were able to “play their parts in a more realistic manner. Now they can understand what the play means, and its subtleties.”
Greenhough said she was deeply impressed by the sincerity of the students’ questions. “One of the young men asked, ‘How did you pray?’ I thought that was such a deep, thoughtful question, because he really wanted to bring that into his character in the play,” she recalled.
“I was impressed with how open the students were. All 90 students in the play – backstage, front stage – wanted to bring their very best selves to do justice to this story, especially in the context of what’s happening politically today, with incredible rises in numbers of anti-Semitic acts. I think the school chose Fiddler on the Roof quite deliberately and I give the school, the students and their teachers all the credit for not just treating this as a comedy or a play that everyone’s familiar with, but by committing to do it justice. I imagine that the students that participated in the play have been changed by their participation, and that’s a teacher’s dream.”
Mary Ann Watson, a parent of two boys at Oak Bay, said the school deserves a shout out “for not only staging Fiddler on the Roof for a public high school musical but for making it meaningful. Both my sons are working stage crew for this production. They are both very grateful to see Jewish content in a public school musical theatre production.”