In January 2020, when her Facebook feed was full of beautiful tributes and memorials in honor of the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, Jenni Samuelson was introduced to the play “If All the Sky Were Paper,” a compelling compilation of recovered American wartime letters curated and converted into monologues by historian and New York Times best-selling author, Andrew Carroll.
Samuelson, a continuing Lecturer in the Global Arts Studies Program at UC Merced, had been asking for recommendations for a play for her undergraduate students enrolled in “Advanced Performative Storytelling”.
She wanted something with a global theme that was mostly monologue driven and required little to no set design.
With these specifications in mind, Artistic Director of Playhouse Merced, Alyse Neubert, recommended If All the Sky Were Paper.
As soon as Samuelson began reading the script, she knew it was just the play she was looking for.
“It is one of the most captivating pieces of theater I have ever read,” she explained.
If All the Sky Were Paper is based on Carroll’s book Behind the Lines: Powerful and Revealing American and Foreign War Letters — and One Man’s Search to Find Them, which covers his 11-month quest around the globe — visiting 40 countries on six continents — in search of letters written during various times of war.
There was only one problem: the play was not yet available for licensing. Undeterred, Samuelson emailed Carroll directly to pitch the production. Within 30 minutes she received a “yes” under the condition that Carroll be allowed to visit during the rehearsal process to interact with the student performers and to attend the shows.
Samuelson couldn’t have been more thrilled and amazed when Carroll not only gave his permission but also insisted on participating in the production.
In a whirlwind, Samuelson began planning and collaborating with colleagues and community members. Then, the pandemic hit. During Week 1 of rehearsals, everything shut down. For a while, it looked like the Merced community would never experience If All the Sky Were Paper. However, as the pandemic continued, so did Samuelson and her team’s enthusiasm for moving forward with not only producing this important and timely play, but also building community engagement around it.
Now, with years of planning, If All the Sky Were Paper has transformed into a much larger project and opportunity for the Merced community. No only that, the visit would mark Carroll’s first speaking engagement and first production of the play in nearly three years.
In addition to attending the two performances by UC Merced students, Carroll will also deliver a free talk titled “LINES OF FIRE: The Search for the Greatest War Correspondences Ever Written.” This will be followed by a private reception that will give student veterans from both Merced College and UC Merced a chance to share their own stories with Carroll.
Inspired by Carroll’s collection of over 100,000 war-time letters, UC Merced has partnered with local artist Sue Thompson to create a special art exhibit consisting of war letters, emails, and photographs curated from Merced County community members. This powerful exhibit of local war-time history will be on display during the May 6 – 8 events mentioned above.
Although for many UC Merced student performers If All the Sky Were Paper marks their debut into live theater, it is obvious how committed these young performers are to the gravity of this production. When asked why people should attend If All the Sky Were Paper, Computer Science Engineering major Sofia Figueroa, explained, “All too often, war is shown to us solely through media coverage, memorials, and replicas. In stark contrast, Mr. Carroll’s work highlights the urgent need to remember the human beings who actually fought them.”
Human Biological Sciences major Celeste Mann shared a similar sentiment when asked why producing this play is important, especially in light of current events, “We usually only follow along with wars through the media, and we don’t take the time to think and realize that people are actually affected by all of this. There are people and communities that are suffering that we don’t get to see in the media. I think this play sheds light on the sides of war that we should see and should be aware of.”
Echo Valencia, a Global Arts Studies Program and Psychology major shared a more personal connection with If All the Sky Were Paper, “Coming from a military family, the importance of understanding the pain that war inflicts on all people is very important to me. I feel reading these letters and diving into the stories of the people we represent can carry more weight than just glimpsing the statistics of deaths overseas. … In my experience, war seems far away. This play allows my peers and I to bring to the front the voices of war and the truth that lies within them.”
Like Valencia, Samuelson’s connection with Carroll’s work also relates to family history. Unlike Valencia’s military family, Samuelson’s grandparents were instead the survivors of war. Her grandparents were a young married couple living in Poland when the Nazi’s invaded in 1941. They, along with a group of 80 other Jewish people, escaped to the forest where they hid underground for years. By the time they were liberated, they were two of only eight survivors. Although Samuelson does not have any family letters from this time, she cherishes a recording her father took of her grandfather recounting this harrowing wartime family history. Only a month before being introduced to If All the Sky Were Paper, Samuelson rediscovered these tapes after not having heard her grandfather speak his wartime truth for over two decades.
Like Samuelson’s grandfather’s recording, If All the Sky Were Paper preserves the expressions of those who have been touched by war. It ensures that these diverse voices will continue to be heard. Of this experience, Samuelson shares, “What I have realized while studying and directing Carroll’s work is how important it is to preserve these personal, historical treasures. They speak to our shared humanity and not only connect us to the past, but also to each other in the present. I am so grateful to be able to be a part of this work … with these students … at this time … in this community.”
These performances will take place at Multicultural Arts Center in Merced on Friday, May 6 at 7:30 p.m., and Sunday, May 8 at 2 p.m. Mr. Carroll will be available for Q&A directly following each performance. For more information regarding ticketing and accommodations for “If All the Sky Were Paper”, please visit https://www.eventbrite.com/e/if-all-the-sky-were-paper-tickets-293750434457
Carroll will also deliver a talk titled “LINES OF FIRE: The Search for the Greatest War Correspondences Ever Written” on Saturday May 7 at 2 p.m. This talk is a collaborative partnership between UC Merced, Merced College, and Merced Sunrise Rotary. It is a FREE talk and is open to all members of the community. Directly following the talk Saturday, student veterans from Mendocino College and UC Merced are invited to attend a private reception with Carroll beginning at 4 p.m.