World War II stories continue to proliferate throughout art, theater and literature as the number of those who have survived the era continues to dwindle. The desire to capture as many moments from the era that changed the world forever has only increased as the lived experience of that time period grows more distant.
That’s one of the reasons WNCC theater professor Francesca Mintowt-Czyz was so captivated by the play “Night Witches,” written by local playwright from Morrill, Christy Fredrickson.
“We become quite distant and knowledge becomes quite distant because the experience isn’t immediate,” Mintowt-Czyz said. “…I’m fascinated with holes in history, and how we can fill the gap.”
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The play follows the Russian all-female 588th Night Bomber Regiment during World War II and explores the strength, determination and perseverance these women had in the face of much adversity not only in the war, but as women pilots in the 1940s.
Mintowt-Czyz first came across the play after seeing it performed as a One Act at Morrill High School. Mintowt-Czyz worked with Fredrickson in transforming the piece into a full-length performance for the WNCC program to perform this spring. Mintowt-Czyz used this opportunity to give her survey of theatrical design class a project to work toward. They were tasked with designing the set, and between Mintowt-Czyz and Fredrickson, they decided which set they would use for the performance.
Mintowt-Czyz also collaborated with other members of the WNCC community to make the play as realistic and authentic as possible. She worked with WNCC’s aviation maintenance program in Sidney to bring in a real plane for the set, and WNCC visual arts instructor Yelena Khanevskaya, who was born in Russia, worked with the cast to develop language skills and dialect.
“I have been truly inspired by their commitment to this piece and their respect for the history of it,” Mintowt-Czyz said. “Many of these women are playing real women, and have brought the characters to life in a really extraordinary way.”
It wasn’t long after they finished filming the performance that she found out Scottsbluff had its own local woman hero who joined the fight in WWII as a pilot. Jane Elizabeth Gardner Fliesbach, who graduated from Scottsbluff High School in 1937, joined the WASPs in 1943 and trained in Sweetwater, Texas, to become a pilot in WWII.
“They (WASPs) ferried planes that came out of the manufacturer, and then they ferried them to bases where the men could use them to teach other people how to fly,” daughter Jane Fliesbach, who is also a board member of the WNCC Foundation, said of her mother. “They didn’t think of themselves at all … as heroes. They loved to fly, most of them loved to fly, and they wanted to serve their country. But they really didn’t look at themselves that way at all.”
Mintowt-Czyz recognized this, and wanted to honor those women who have been heroic in the war effort, and yet don’t see themselves as such. She especially wanted to honor Gardner Fliesbach, the community’s local WWII local female pilot hero. So, she dedicated WNCC’s performance of “Night Witches” to her.
“She’d be embarrassed,” Fliesbach said, laughing when Mintowt-Czyz asked her for her blessing. “That’s wonderful. Thank you.”
For Mintowt-Czyz, the entire production has been about collaboration and showcasing female empowerment during a time when it was typically more suppressed. She said she also hopes that this play will provide a place to begin more conversation on WWII history, and the impacts of it that we still feel today.
“With theater, I believe the goal is to educate, enlighten or entertain. And I think that this piece in particular accomplishes all of those. And maybe, if we’re successful, it’ll start a dialogue about not only the women in the story, but also the women and specifically, your mother, Jane,” Mintowt-Czyz said, turning to Fliesbach, “who did something similar.”
“Night Witches” will premiere on WNCC’s YouTube and Facebook channels on Friday, Feb. 26, at 7 p.m.