Putting on a play is never an easy feat. The weeks leading up to the performance often involve hours of rehearsals, careful decisions about lighting, sound, and costumes, not to mention coping with stage fright. Just imagine embarking on this formidable process, but in a language that you’re still learning, and where your final performance is graded! And yet the students of one German course at Harvard are attempting just that. German 65’s production of “(R)evolution,” a German-language play by Yael Ronen and Dimitrij Schaad, is set to premiere with performances on May 2 and 3 at 7:30 pm in Sackler Room 113.
A major part of German 65: German Drama and Theater’s appeal is its instructor. In this course, Professor Lisa Parkes combines the roles of dedicated director and conscientious German instructor, offering a guiding hand during the rehearsal process, correcting students’ pronunciation, and even stepping in as an actor when necessary. Indeed, many students cite her reputation as one of the primary reasons for enrolling in German 65. “Last semester I took a class with Professor Parkes and I thought she was great at explaining German and making sure we understood everything,” Paula Leyes ’24 said.
All third-year German language courses have a unique theme, and Professor Parkes hoped to use this one to instill admiration for German literature through close study. For Parkes, however, reading German plays was not enough — she wanted students to delve deeper into the content in a way that engaged all aspects of language learning.
“Reading and discussing dramatic texts only take you so far; performing pushes you to read between the lines, engaging linguistic, interpersonal, creative, and interpretive skills,” Parkes said. Engagement is a crucial part of the course, and it was actually students who chose the play they wanted to perform from an array of dramas studied at the beginning of the semester. Ultimately, they settled on “(R)evolution,” a play inspired by the novel “21 Lessons for the 21st Century” by Yuval Noah Harari.
The rest of the production process has been just as collaborative. “Dr. Parkes wants us to be super involved. She’s always looking for our input. We’ve talked about ‘How do we want to do lighting?’ ‘How do we want to get the audience more involved?’ ‘How do we want to approach the presentation of these characters?’” Roderick P. Emley ’24 said.
Parkes’ students have widely different backgrounds in theater. While this production represents just another acting credit in a long list of experiences for some of the class’s performers, many students have never set foot on a stage before, making this theatrical experience all the more special. “Perhaps most remarkable is that some students began learning German here at Harvard just two years ago, and all are novice actors performing for the first time in German,” Parkes said.
For Rosanna K. Kataja ’24, the shared novelty of performing in German is an especially valuable part of the class. “Everybody is on the same level, everybody wants to learn, and nobody is a native speaker or anything. That’s what I like the most. Everyone is on the same level, supporting each other,” she said. This strong sense of camaraderie is clear: While a handful of students rehearse their scenes onstage with Parkes, the rest of the class sits in the adjacent room to run lines, discuss their characters, and occasionally crack a joke or two — all in German, of course.
Given the time-consuming nature of the class, it’s fortunate that the play itself is engaging. Set 20 years in the future, “(R)evolution” depicts a world that has become completely dependent on technology, and where genetic engineering to create “ideal human beings” is not just a theoretical concern, but a real decision facing all prospective parents. But despite the weighty topics, students describe the play as highly entertaining. “It’s sort of the best of both worlds. Funny but at the same time makes you think. To be honest, I think it’s very funny. So be ready to laugh and be ready to enjoy,” Leyes said.
What about those potential audience members who are not fluent in German? “Even if somebody came here and didn’t even speak German that much, they would still get something from it,” Kataja said. Even without knowing German, viewers will still leave the production impressed.