Leah Kahn once wrote an entire play about two Romans and a Trojan horse. Let her give you a quick critique about that one:
“It didn’t go anywhere,” said the Oregon State University student.
So she went back to the drawing board. “One night, I was trying to think of play ideas, and I thought, what if the two sides of my family, the Jewish side and the Italian side, had met when they immigrated to the U.S.? And I thought, that sounds great.”
Now, “Ellis Island,” the play Kahn wrote about a fictional meeting between two of her real relatives, is being staged for a four-day run at OSU’s Lab Theatre starting Thursday, Feb. 10. Another OSU student, Hannah Schwartz, is directing. Admission to the show is free, but reservations are suggested. (See the sidebar at the end of this story for other details.)
The show is set in 1906 on Ellis Island, where 12 million immigrants arriving at the Port of New York and the Port of New Jersey were processed from 1892 to 1954. In the play, Kahn imagines a meeting between her two great-great grandmothers: Fecha (played by Savannah Taggard) is fleeing religious persecution in Russia. Mandolina (Maia Barnabey) is leaving a poverty-stricken Italy. While waiting on Ellis Island, the two must battle prejudice and language barriers, but find that “they can still be friends because the power of friendship and community is stronger than what divides us,” Kahn said.
Kahn wrote the first 15-page version of “Ellis Island” for a playwrighting class at OSU. Elizabeth Helman, the coordinator of the OSU Theatre program, liked the short play and encouraged Kahn to take a shot at making it longer.
“She just expanded on the story in a really thoughtful way and made it a full thing,” Helman said. “All the pieces were there. She just needed room to let it marinate and expand on it.”
The play went through additional rounds of editing and rewriting – Helman joked about the “pushy little notes” she would send Kahn – before the two were satisfied. “I added a few more characters and added more conflict,” Kahn said. She particularly labored over the additional dialogue to make sure it was propelling the play. “You can have your characters talk, but if they’re not talking about anything important, if it’s not really moving the plot forward, what’s the point?”
OSU’s Lab Theatre often features works that are directed and designed by students. Helman wants to expand that to include works by student playwrights, and “Ellis Island” is a step toward that goal. “I think this could be an even more substantial opportunity for two students to collaborate on something for winter term,” she said.
Kahn’s primary collaborator on “Ellis Island” is director Schwartz, an OSU student who’s watched the play develop from its first draft. Working with Kahn has been a pleasure, Schwartz said, and it helps that the two have acted together in other OSU productions and collaborated on other projects as well.
“I want to respect Leah’s vision and be true to what she wrote and imagined,” Schwartz said. But she also wants to dig deeper into the characters and themes in the play – “some of the stuff that you don’t really see just from the lines on a page.” Kahn has been supportive of those efforts, Schwartz said: “It’s a very open line of communication.”
The immigration theme at the heart of “Ellis Island” still is timely today. Kahn hopes the play leaves audience members thinking about commonalities rather than differences.
“We’re more alike than we are different,” she said. “Immigrants are just trying to find a better life. … We’re all trying to do and become something better than ourselves. We’re all just people trying to do our best.”
If You Go
What: “Ellis Island,” a production of the Oregon State University Theatre Department.
When: 7:30 p.m., Thursday through Saturday, Feb. 10-12 and 2 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 13.
Where: Lab Theatre, Withycombe Hall, 2921 SW Campus Way in Corvallis.
How much: Free, but reservations are required. Click here to make a reservation or contact the OSU Theatre Box Office at 541-737-2784. Note that Thursday’s show is sold out.
Of note: OSU’s COVID protocols are in the place for the performances: OSU students and employees who have complied with OSU policies to either show proof of or attest to being fully vaccinated, or who are in compliance with periodic testing may show their OSU ID for entrance to this event. All other guests must show proof of vaccination or a negative test from within the prior three days for admittance. Masks are required indoors.
Also note this: Late arrivals will not be seated, and there’s a reason for this: The door into the Lab Theatre opens right onto the stage. Also, remember that ushers will need a little extra time to check on vaccination status of attendees, so it’s a good idea to arrive 15 or so minutes early.