Department of Theatre

USM Department of Theatre Groundbreaking Premiere Spurs Community Engagement and Education

March 27, 2014

GORHAM, Maine – National and local organizations are showing support for the University of Southern Maine (USM) Department of Theatre’s upcoming production of a Holocaust operetta, which will be presented next month on the USM Gorham campus.

Recognizing the importance of the English-language world premiere of “In the Underworld,” written by a French woman while she was imprisoned in a German concentration camp, a number of Holocaust, cultural and academic organizations are sponsoring the musical production, as well as presenting programs discussing its significance.

According to the USM organizers, the public is invited to participate in the educational programs that will complement “In the Underworld,” written by French ethnographer Germaine Tillion while she was imprisoned in Ravensbrück, a World War II concentration camp for women.

The operetta will have its English-language world premiere April 18-27 at Russell Hall, USM Gorham campus.

“We are very pleased about and grateful for the response that this unprecedented operetta has garnered both in and outside of Maine,” said Lynn Kuzma, dean of the USM College of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences. “The community partnerships and interdepartmental participation accompanying this production are wonderful examples of how the arts at USM can engage and enlighten the public. This kind of outreach is an important part of our mission.”

Meghan Brodie, director of the operetta and USM assistant professor of theatre, affirmed that the production has provided numerous opportunities for public outreach.

“I am honored and humbled to be working on a project that has been a catalyst for so much community involvement and education,” the director said. “The Holocaust is not an abstraction, and there is no way a couple of pages in a textbook can adequately convey the horrors of this period in history.

“This production has touched and changed the lives of nearly everyone working on it, and I hope audiences find the operetta to be equally transformative,” Brodie continued. 

Germaine Tillion was released in 1945 from Ravensbrück, along with some of her fellow prisoners, one of whom smuggled the script out of the camp and later returned it to the French woman. Tillion feared that audiences would not understand the operetta and the purpose of the sardonic comedy of the piece. Consequently, she kept it a drawer in her Paris home for decades.  It was not produced until 2007 when it received its French-language premiere at Théatrè du Châtelet in France.

Tillion died in 2008 at age 100, and it was announced recently that her remains would be interred in the Panthéon in Paris next year. She and a fellow female Resistance fighter will be only the third and fourth women ever inducted into the Panthéon.

The USM Department of Theatre commissioned the English-language translation of the original script from Annie Bortnick and Karl Bortnick, a French-fluent couple who are longtime active members of the arts and culture community of Philadelphia, Pa. The Bortniks will participate in a post-show discussion about their translation process after the Saturday, April 19 performance.

French composer Christophe Maudot arranged and composed the music for the original French production, the same music used for the USM production. Maudot will travel from France to participate in the April 19 post-show discussion.

The Remember the Women Institute of New York is one of several co-sponsors of the operetta performances. The institute’s mission is to conduct and encourage research and cultural activities that contribute to including women in history, with emphasis on women in the context of the World War II Holocaust and its aftermath, according to Rochelle G. Saidel, founder and executive director.

“Tillion clearly is a woman who deserves to be integrated into history,” Saidel pointed out. “She is very well known in France, and it is time for the U.S. to know more about her.”

Saidel also stressed that it is important to remember the horrors and tragedy of Ravensbrück.

“It was the biggest concentration camp for women during World War II; it was a horrible place,” she said. “For the women there, part of their survival was being able to raise each others spirits through culture and humor. All of Tillion’s writing had to be done in secret, because having a pencil and paper was cause for severe punishment.”

The Holocaust and Human Rights Center of Maine (HHRC), located at the Michael Klahr Center, University of Maine at Augusta, also is a co-sponsor of the production. David Greenham, HHRC program director, agreed that many people in the U.S. are not aware of Tillion and her work, and it is important to preserve her memory. 

The groundbreaking premiere of “In the Underworld” aligns with the HHRC’s mission of informing and engaging the public about the Holocaust, genocide and broader human rights issues, he said.

“Any time that a population is marginalized as in the case of the Holocaust, the stories take a while to work their way out,” Greenham said recently. “Once stories come to light, it’s a matter of finding different ways to share them. We’re very excited that professor Brodie and the students are bringing this story to life through the performing arts, and are delighted to be a partner in the project.”

The USM Women and Gender Studies program, which also is a co-sponsor, will present a special event exploring the context of the operetta: 

  • “Remembering the Holocaust: Readings and Community Discussion,” 7 p.m., Thursday, March 27 on the 7th floor of the Glickman Family Library on the USM Portland campus

Generous support for the production has been provided by the Dimmer-Bergstrom Fund, which was donated to USM by Elizabeth W. Bergstrom and John P. Dimmer, Jr., and gave support to Dr. Christine Holden, USM associate professor emerita of history, for Ravensbrück-related research and projects.  

Holden will participate in a post-show discussion after the Thursday, April 24, performance, along with Dr. Insa Eschebach, director of the Ravenbrück Memorial of Germany. 

The USM History and Political Science Department is co-sponsoring both the special event and the theatre production.

Post-Show Discussion Schedule 

  • 7:30 p.m., Saturday, April 19 performance: Post-Show Discussion with Christophe Maudot, composer and arranger; Annie and Karl Bortnick, script translators; Meghan Brodie, director; and the “In the Underworld” cast; Russell Hall, USM Gorham campus.
  • 10 a.m., Tuesday, April 22 performance (high school matinee; reservations required): Post-Show Discussion with Meghan Brodie, director, and the “In the Underworld” cast; Russell Hall, USM Gorham campus.
  • 7:30 p.m., Thursday, April 24 performance: Post-Show Discussion with Dr. Insa Eschebach, director of the Ravenbrück Memorial of Germany; Dr. Christine Holden, USM associate professor emerita of history; Meghan Brodie, director; and the “In the Underworld” cast; Russell Hall, USM Gorham campus.

“In the Underworld” will be staged April 18-27 at Russell Hall on the USM Gorham campus. For ticket reservations, call the USM Theatre Box Office at (207) 780-5151 or go to

A special high school matinee will be presented at 10 a.m., Tuesday, April 22. Reduced ticket pricing is available and reservations are required. High schools should contact the USM Theatre Box Office for more information and reservations.

For more information about the USM Women and Gender Studies program, go to

For more information about the USM History and Political Science Department go to and

For more information about the Holocaust and Human Rights Center of Maine, go to

For more information about the Remember the Women Institute, go to