History education forms the perfect backdrop for theatrical success
By Rodney Campbell
Nearly two decades ago, Florida State alumna Danielle Wirsansky sat in a darkened theater in London’s West End and watched Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Starlight Express” come to life on stage. The spectacle and excitement of that live performance captivated her imagination and spurred in her a life-long passion for the theater.
By the time she arrived at FSU as a teen, Wirsansky’s career goals had coalesced and it became obvious her profession of choice would align with the theatrical, but a question loomed: What path would take her there?
“I’ve wanted to be a storyteller ever since I was small,” Wirsansky said. “I enjoyed many different mediums, from theater to photography to fiction writing, so it was no big leap when I pursued dual bachelor’s degrees in theatre and English, along with a history minor. Pairing these highly rated programs granted me the opportunity to explore other forms of storytelling adjacent to each.”
Success in three acts
Wirsansky gained a head-start on her dream while serving as a casting assistant at the English National Theatre in Tel Aviv in 2015. Two years later, she was a producing apprentice at the Tony Award-winning Infinity Theatre Company in New York before founding White Mouse Theatre Productions at FSU. Wirsansky’s first post-graduation job was as associate managing director for a leading regional theater in Vermont.
By the time she earned her third FSU degree, a masters in modern European history in 2018, it was clear diversification was the right decision. While theatre was a logical choice, history gave her an appreciation of the past and English provided the opportunity to focus on creative writing.
“I studied such a broad array of subjects that I found a lot of different doors open to me career- wise,” she said. “But my dream was to work in the theatre industry.”
History takes the stage
Wirsansky often writes about the Holocaust and World War II, and has penned more than 20 plays set in that time period. She also has finished scripts and lyrics for two musicals on those subjects, and her work has been produced in the U.S. and internationally.
“I think it is incredibly useful to make parallels between the present and the past, to show how far or how little we have come, and to see how society can easily lead itself into the same traps time and again without ever learning its lesson,” she said. “It is also important to me to write pieces that feature strong women’s roles and stories.”
I think it is incredibly useful to make parallels between the present and the past, to show how far or how little we have come, and to see how society can easily lead itself into the same traps time and again without ever learning its lesson.”
— Danielle Wirsansky
Among Wirsansky’s biggest influences at FSU was her adviser, Nathan Stoltzfus, the Dorothy and Jonathan Rintels Professor of Holocaust Studies in the Department of History. The two worked together for more than eight years, and Wirsansky served as Stoltzfus’ undergraduate research assistant and teaching assistant.
Wirsansky, now living in Jacksonville, still teams with Stoltzfus to honor Holocaust rescuers as a research coordinator for the Rosenstrasse Foundation, a nonprofit that aims to educate the public about the Rosenstrasse Protest and its significance, honor the memory of the protesters involved, and create a platform for the descendants of the protestors to reunite. The protest, the only mass public demonstration by Germans in the Third Reich against the deportation of Jews, was entirely initiated and led by women.
“Danielle is a natural powerhouse, taking action and moving others into action for public service as she goes,” Stoltzfus said. “She has a formidable capacity for creativity in a whole range of form and a passion for Holocaust history.”
History in the making
When historians look back on 2020, they will see tough days for the performing arts as the coronavirus pandemic brought live performances to a halt. With public gatherings out of the question, theaters are shuttered and technical and creative teams face uncertain futures.
“Part of the beauty of theatre is having the audience inhabit the same space as the performers. To share that space, to feel the energy and tension is to be swept away,” Wirsansky said. “Many theaters are closing permanently as a result of the pandemic, so it is important we do what we can to support them.”
Wirsansky has stayed busy during the shutdown: She finished writing a full-length play and is turning her research on women spies during World War II into a book.
“She is both historian and artist, and I think most people would say you have to choose between those two careers,” said associate professor of history Jennifer Koslow, who taught Wirsansky and oversaw her capstone project. “She has done an amazing job blending the two paths.”