Fulbright spotlight: Skloot sharing Holocaust theatre expertise in UK

Robert Skloot describes himself as “a believer that the arts must play a role in the discussions of issues of serious social importance.”

Skloot, who has taught and directed plays at the University of Wisconsin–Madison since 1968, is among the few scholars who specialize in theatre and the Holocaust.

Robert Skloot
Robert Skloot

“The arts create different ways of knowing and feeling, often emotion-filled and directed at the heart as well as the head,” he says. “The worlds created by theatre artists, and by choreographers, poets and filmmakers, report back to audiences the historical experience of victims, perpetrators and bystanders through the emotions as well as rationally. When they do that, their impact of their work is likely to be greater and more lasting.”

Skloot retired in 2008, but the professor emeritus of Theatre and Drama and Jewish Studies continues to share his unique expertise, near and far.

This summer, supported by the Fulbright Specialist Program, Skloot will be contributing to a pair of academic conferences in the United Kingdom – Trauma & Memory: the Holocaust in Contemporary Culture (University of Portsmouth, July 11-13) and The Future of Holocaust Studies (University of Southampton, July 29-31). Participants will include established and up-and-coming scholars from around the world, as well as teachers and students.

The conferences will feature readings and discussions of If The Whole Body Dies, Skloot’s one-act play about Raphael Lemkin, a Polish-Jewish lawyer whose obsession with stopping “genocide” – a word Lemkin coined – led to the ratification of the U.N. Treaty Against Genocide in 1951.

[To learn more, read: “If the Whole Body Dies”: The little play that keeps on giving]

Skloot’s role also includes lecturing on the theatrical contributions and challenges to understanding and responding to the Holocaust today and into the future.

And he is collaborating with Matt Fletcher of Southampton Solent University (SSU) and James Jordan of the University of Southampton to lead a week-long workshop to introduce SSU students to the complexities and responsibilities inherent in theatre performance that deals with the Holocaust.

In presenting the Holocaust through drama, Skloot explains, “Two specific dangers to avoid are the temptation toward sentimentality and the superficial use of the Holocaust to articulate other, often political themes. Nonetheless, I also believe that the historical Holocaust can shed light on earlier and later genocides, and move us to consider such matters as the place of violence and destruction in the world … as well as the place of goodness.”

He also points to “the matter of the Holocaust (or genocide) ‘fatigue’, when audiences decline the invitation to engage with these stories of catastrophe because they require too much attention and will make them ‘feel badly.’”

Skloot says that plays – often disregarded or rejected by people who want only “the facts” – can add powerful perspectives that the facts often disguise or overlook.

“The emotional territory that we connect to is able to provoke feelings of empathy both for the characters and among members of the audiences, however briefly,” he explains. “As contemporary writers, scientists and educators have told us, fostering empathy is a crucial and necessary way to improve the world we live in. The plays deepen our possibilities of being more human, though they may unsettle us and disturb us, too.”

This isn’t the first time that Skloot has received Fulbright support to teach and direct abroad. He has previously served as a Fulbright professor in Israel, Austria, Chile and the Netherlands.

“This award is another layer of my Fulbright cake that I have enjoyed, together with my family, throughout my academic career,” he says. “I have often remarked to students and colleagues that two ways to ‘enlarge’ your world and to be more fulfilled in life is to have contact with the arts and to travel internationally. Now, five years after my retirement from the UW, I’m still able to do both. How wonderful is that!”

— by Kerry G. Hill