Follow actor Jonas Cohen through the rehearsal process and performances of The Diary of Anne Frank at Flat Rock Playhouse.
Monday, September 26th.
(Holocaust survivor Lou Schneider, Flat Rock Playhouse Artistic Director Lisa K. Bryant, Rabbi Rachael Jackson and the cast of The Diary of Anne Frank.)
8 Things I’ve Learned during The Diary of Anne Frank at Flat Rock Playhouse
The Diary of Anne Frank played its last performance at the Flat Rock Playhouse on Sunday September 25th. As those involved pack and prepare to head to our next adventure I wanted to share some final thoughts. Here’s at least some of the what I’ll take with me from this experience.
1) Sarah Paulson said it best, “the responsibility of playing a real person is an enormous one. You want to get it right not for you, but for them.” – Actress Sarah Paulson won an Emmy Award for her role as Marcia Clark in The OJ Simpson: American Crime Story. She very eloquently stated exactly what I’ve been feeling since we started this project. These are real people. These are important events. How on earth, do you do it justice and give it the respect it deserves without trivializing or making it too big to play? The answer…you figure out who they are/were, what they wanted, and what was most important to them. They’re human too.
2) “Hate a little less” – Holocaust survivor Lou Schneider generously donated his time to come and speak to our cast and share his story of being a Jew in hiding during World War II. His story was harrowing, filled with narrow escapes, fortuitous turns of events, and completely heart-rending. The cast wept as he spoke. But what was most impactful was the mantra he said he’s developed from years of sharing his story, “hate a little less.” Because, as he said, “if you hate just a little bit less you have won the ‘war.’ I’m not asking you to love your neighbor, I’m simply saying hate a little bit less.”
3) Costume Changes for 8 people on stage at all times isn’t as easy as it looks. – At the meet and greet, costume designer Rebecca Conway wowed the attendees with a display of costume sleight of hand. She set up a fully costumed dress form. Then, as though she were pulling a rabbit out of a hat, she peeled off hidden layer after hidden layer to reveal some 4-5 different outfits all on one mannequin! It took some practice, but as those who saw the show can tell you, 8 people never leave the stage and yet make full costume changes right before the audiences’ eyes.
4) “With one emotion heightened, so is the other” – It’s been said that what keeps people going is the very human ability to find humor even when things are at their worst. So it’s not surprising that in the face of great sorrow we still manage to find great joy. Our audiences have found great humor in a chamber pot that makes its entrance in a hatbox, the ongoing struggle between Anne and Mr. Dussel over their shared room, and Peter’s story about his first kiss. Then there’s this from Anne Frank’s own diary: “Prospectus and guide to the secret annex – Beautiful quiet surroundings free from woodland in the heart of Amsterdam. No private neighbors. Furnished and unfurnished apartments and rooms available at all times with or without meals. Rent: free. Cuisine: fat free. Free time is canceled indefinitely. Outside the house, that is. Language use: it is imperative to speak softly at all times. All the languages of the civilized world are allowed. So, no German. Gymnastics: daily. Strong drinks: only on doctor’s orders.” It’s our ability to find humor that sustains us and keeps us going.
5) Children will listen – we’ve done 2 high school matinee performances. Not surprisingly these student audiences can get a tad unruly. At the end of our first matinee however, our friends Lou Schneider and Rabbi Rachel Jackson sat down for a post-show talkback. Cast member Barbara Bradshaw pointed out that all of the questions from the students were for Lou with none of the usual pat questions for the cast. “That proved to me that they had been engaged, interested, and made aware.” Lindsay Moss our stage manager shared this with us, “I wanted to let you know that upon the student’s departure, I heard many of them talking about what they heard and saw; I truly believe you made an impact. Your efforts and your time have not gone unnoticed and are greatly GREATLY appreciated.”
6) Responsibility – World War II has left an indelible imprint on our world and our social consciousness. Even 71 years later there’s plenty of anger, resentment, and guilt between nations. So it’s not unusual to hear the descendants of Germans to say, “I wasn’t there! That wasn’t me. How long should I have to pay for what happened before I was even born?” I think that’s an extremely important question – probably because it’s so damn uncomfortable. One might just as easily ask how long should we in America apologize for slavery? How long should we apologize for decimating Native Americans and their culture? How long should we make restitution for having placed Japanese-Americans in internment camps? At long last, when we will stop shaming people for their sexuality, demonizing an entire group for the actions of a few, using fear to win elections and convincing people that the only way they’ll be safe is by ostracizing, rounding up, making undesirables register, deporting them, or blaming them for a nation’s ills? People will disagree but I remain convinced that what’s important is to know your history. We don’t have to constantly apologize for it, but if we are to understand our present and future we have to acknowledge our past. If we don’t, we our doomed to repeat those mistakes. If anything this play has taught me that regardless of whether we were there it’s important for us to own who we were as a people and who we are and who we are becoming. Without a doubt that is the responsibility we owe to the generations before and the generations to come.
7) Gratitude – Passover is a Jewish holiday that commemorates the exodus from Egypt and Jews being freed from 400 years of slavery. During the Passover Seder there is a custom that in each and every generation a person is obligated to see themselves as though they left Egypt. The idea is to attempt to evoke a feeling of gratitude. If we can begin to understand what it was truly like for our ancestors, then we can feel a sense of gratitude for having been delivered from slavery even thousands of years later. It’s important that we exercise gratitude for the things we have. We tell this story of the Diary of Anne Frank not to tell sad stories but to celebrate what’s good and what’s valuable and what we all have in each of us that we should be grateful for. If we’re grateful for our life and for the lives of others maybe we’ll be less likely to hurt each other. Maybe we’ll be more likely to help each other.
8) Miracles – When you consider how many people have to come together to make it happen, it’s a miracle that shows like The Diary of Anne Frank can be produced. That said, I want to extend a big thank you to the many actors, the crew, the administration, the supporters and donors, and the artistic staff at Flat Rock Playhouse for making this happen. Special thanks to Christy and Dane in the marketing and development department for allowing me this space to blog. An equally big thank you to those who filled out the audience survey, chose this play, and took a chance to come see it. What a brave choice to make! I’ll leave you with this…Our house manager Mary shared with me that people of varying ages, ethnicities, backgrounds, and persuasions all came to see this show including a Vietnamese woman who came in somewhat skeptically. At the conclusion of that day’s performance though, this person hugged Mary 5 times, cried, and thanked her. “I was in Vietnam days before the occupation. This was very meaningful to me!” The Diary of Anne Frank may have been difficult for some to watch, but those who came were impacted deeply and profoundly and left the better for it. As our house manager Mary told me, “people need to see this. It’s not easy, but it would do their hearts a world of good. It certainly did for me.” For me too, Mary, for me too.
Monday, September 19th.
(Preston Dyar and Danielle Carlacci in The Diary of Anne Frank at Flat Rock Playhouse.)
PAGE TO STAGE. PART THREE.
Scene 3 – Anne & Mr. Dussel.
Alfred Dussel has just arrived to join the others in hiding in the Annex. He has had to leave his business and the woman he loves behind. He is still in somewhat of a daze when he first enters the room. In fact, Preston Dyar who plays the role had an excellent image. He says it’s as though he’s just been in a car accident and he’s still trying to get his bearings from being ripped away from his life in Amsterdam and thrust into hiding with 7 other people. The others are eager for news about the outside world, but Mr. Dussel has only bad news for them. Hundreds of Jews are being rounded up every day and deported. It’s been arranged that Anne will share her room with Mr. Dussel. In this scene she shows him the space he’ll be living in for the first time.
Angie – Director
Danielle – Anne Frank
Preston – Mr. Dussel
Anne – (coming into her room with Mr. Dussel) Well, here we are.
Mr. Dussel – Ah. (Looking around.) It isn’t very big, is it?
Anne – I’ve never shared a room with a man before. I hope I’ll be a suitable companion. I know you’ll miss the woman you live with terribly.
Mr. Dussel – Charlotte and I have never been apart. It all happened so quickly, I couldn’t tell her where I was going. I didn’t know myself.
Anne – You weren’t supposed to. None of our friends knew – It would have been too dangerous. Not just for us. For them and…for Charlotte.
Mr Dussel – You’re a very bright young lady. I hope you’ll bear with me.
Anne – I hope you’ll bear with me! I seem to irritate everyone around here. What’s she like – your Charlotte?
Mr. Dussel – Charming. Beautiful. You would her. She’s not Jewish, you know.
Anne – Oh I know. Meep told us. That’s my bed. And that’s Margot’s, where you’ll be sleeping. I know it’s small and dark in here, but if you peek through the blackout curtain you’ll see the most beautiful chestnut tree in the world I can’t wait till it’s in blossom, though I hope the war will be over by then and we’ll all be home.
After running through this part of the scene…
Angie – Why does she say, “what’s she like? Your Charlotte?” That’s a new beat.
Danielle – I think he looks terrified.
Preston – When she tells me she seems to irritate everyone around here I immediately think, “uh ok…why???”
Danielle – I want him to feel comfortable and so that he has something to talk about. I think she’s also very romantic. Anne has no boyfriend or boys around. She wants to hear about that too, especially women in love. That’s really interesting to her at this point. Obviously movie stars but at this point love is more and more fascinating.
Angie – I think it’s gonna be easier to bring up that issue if you don’t take on Mr. Dussel’s sense of gloom about the situation he finds himself in. Try making your objective to bolster him if even a little bit. I’d also say that I think Anne is excited that she’s the one who gets to do this. It’s a big responsibility and you get to integrate him. You show him the stuff you love – the chestnut tree, the cat, the bright spots. I love that you’re finding places to pick up on where he is. Don’t go too far into that. It’s making the scene slower. He’ll be slower but I want you to keep your energy up. And ironically for Dussel, that’s draining.
Preston – There’s an oddness for me in this scene. I come here and discover that not only am I in cramped quarters, but I’m sharing a room with a 13 year old girl! Plus historically he had a child close in age that he sent him out on the kindertransport to survive so it was a labor of love. SO there’s obviously something paternal about him but…not right now.
Angie – Right right. Even from that first moment Anne when you say, “well here we are!” You’re excited. You’ve had time to adjust. Your world has already gotten so small. You’re used to it. His hasn’t yet, and that’s where he’s coming from. Let’s take it again.
Friday, September 16th.
From Jonas Cohen: “Several cast members were interviewed about their experience doing The Diary of Anne Frank at the Flat Rock Playhouse this season. These very brief videos are filled with such heart and such joy that I couldn’t possibly say enough good things about why you should watch them. This story has impacted us all so deeply and so positively and so tremendously. I can’t fathom a better group of people to respectfully bring this story to life with such humor and grace and aplomb as they do. My heart is full and I hope you’ll take the time to watch each of these videos. They’re that good.”
Check out our Meet the Cast videos by clicking HERE.
PAGE TO STAGE. PART TWO.
SCENE 2 – The Franks and the van Daan’s have now been living side by side for close to 4 months. Conditions are cramped and nerves are beginning to fray. Mr. Kraler and Miep arrive in the Annex to ask the families if they’re willing to take on yet another person seeking refuge.
Angie – Director
Billy – Mr. Kraler
Maria – Miep
Sarah – Margot
Peter – It’s Miep.
Mrs van Daan – Miep! Our darling Miep!
Mr. van Daan – At last.
Mr. Frank – Does everyone have their list?
Mrs. van Daan – I have. (All seven of them line up, lists in hand, as Miep appears, her arms full of groceries)
Mrs. Frank – Miep never fails us, does she darling? Now you’ll get your library book.
Anne – (Pulling away, running to Miep, sniggering her clothes, her face.) Oh, that air! What’s it like, Miep – outside?
Mr. Frank – How are you, Mr. Kraler?
Anne – (To Miep) Where did you go today? Who did you see? Did anyone interesting come into the office?
Mr. van Daan – When Miep comes the sun begins to shine!
Margot – We missed you yesterday, Mr. Kraler.
Anne – Tell us, Miep. We want to know everything.
Mrs. Frank – Won’t you stay for supper?
Miep – Thank you, but there’s something we need to talk over with you. Something that has to be decided immediately.
Mrs. van Daan – What? What is it, Mr. Kraler?
Mr. Kraler – Every time we come, we try to bring a bit of good news. Up here you can’t realize how bad things have become outside, (He looks at Miep).
Miep – There’s a dentist. Alfred Dussel. He’s Jewish. He’s been living with a Christian woman, but today he asked if I knew of a hiding place for him. He’s desperate for a safe address. (Quiet) I promised I would let him know. (Silence)
Mr. Frank – (Stepping forward) Of course, Miep. Absolutely. Dussel. I believe we know him.
Anne – It’s great news, Miep!
After running through the scene…
Angie – There’s this moment where Mr. Kraler starts the story, but then pauses and looks to Miep to continue. Why does that happen?
Billy – I suppose it ’s because it’s difficult for us to ask this.
Angie – That’s a great point. Remember also we’ve established that Mr Kraler always brings good news. It’s kind of his job. It might be easier for Miep to bring this up with them because from what we see she sees them more often than Kraler. Plus, she’s the one that had the discussion with Mr. Dussel about whether or not she knew of a suitable hiding place.
Billy – I think when I look to Miep that’s me saying, ‘Help me. How do we ask this?’ I think it’s more personal for Miep since I’m not here all the time. I’m very nervous about all of this.
Angie – Yes, and it’s important for these 7 people to understand that you wouldn’t have come to them if things weren’t dire, but at the same time what choice is there?
Billy – Have we ever done this before where the 2 of us come up together other than the first day? It’s always been one of us. So something must be up. We’ve decided we have to ask this of all of you but the how is difficult. I’m sure we’ve exhausted every other possibility.
Maria – from my research that was what Miep and her husband did. They were part of the Dutch resistance. They found hiding places and hid lots of people. It seems clear that what probably happened is Mr. Dussel came to me and there just were no other hiding places available. This is what we have.
Angie – I think it might work even better if it’s a little more seamless. Sort of an agreed upon, “I’ll say this part and you say that part.” That might keep the tension going that you’re talking about. Let’s try it again.
Monday, September 12th.
(Danielle Carlacci, Raissa Dorff and Sarah Stephens in The Diary of Anne Frank at Flat Rock Playhouse.)
The last 2 days have been a maelstrom as the disparate departments of costumes, lights, sound, props, actors and director all work to put their respective pieces together and find a cohesive whole. In an effort to give you a sense of the rehearsal process of tried to keep a journal of things. I’ve tried to keep up with the little tidbits here and there and jot them down as they happened. Here’s a few things.
PAGE TO STAGE. PART ONE.
In a scene about halfway through the first act, Anne Frank has been talking about her fondest wish to be either a movie star, a writer, or a dancer in Paris. She gets carried away, and accidentally spills milk on Mrs. van Daan’s only prize possession – a fur coat given to her by her father. A terrible argument ensues, and after being scolded, a mopey Anne retreats to her room where her mother Edith and her sister Margot desperately try to set her straight.
Angie – Director
Danielle – Anne Frank
Raissa – Edith Frank (Anne’s mother)
Mrs Frank – (Pulling Anne into her room, Margot behind them) Anne, you can’t behave like that.
Anne – It was an accident. Anyone can have an accident.
Mrs. Frank – I’m not just talking about the coat. I know we’re all living under great stress, but you don’t hear Margot getting into arguments with the van Daans, do you?
Anne – Margo’s perfect. She never gets into an argument with anyone.
Margot – I’m not perfect.
Mrs. Frank – She’s courteous. She keeps her distance and they respect her for it. Try to be more like Margot.
Anne – And have them walk over me too? No thanks.
Margot – They don’t walk over me!
Anne – Oh yes they do. All over you.
Mrs. Frank – I’m not afraid they’re going to walk over you, Anne. I’m afraid you’ll walk all over them. I don’t know what happens to you. If I had ever talked to my mother the way you talk to me –
Anne – “Yes Mother, no Mother, anything you say, Mother.” People aren’t like that anymore. I can’t do everything for you.
Mrs. Frank – Margot doesn’t do everything –
Anne – Margot, Margot! That’s all I ever hear.
Margot – Oh Anne, don’t be so dramatic!
Anne – Everything she does is right, and everything I do is wrong. If I talk, I’m a show-off, if I answer I’m rude, I’m selfish if I eat too much, I’m stupid ,I’m cowardly, I’m a complete disappointment! I’ll never live up to your expectations. I’ll never be Margot! (she exits)
Mrs Frank – I don’t know how we can go on living like this.
Margot – You know Anne. In a few minutes she’ll be laughing and joking again.
Mrs. Frank – No room, no privacy – for any of us. (Referring to the van Daan’s) Uch…those people! The way they behave. And your father chooses to shut his eyes to these things. I can’t even remember how life used to be.
After running through the scene…
Angie (to Raissa) – So going into this scene, Edith is wondering why Anne won’t behave. Like any parent she wonders, ‘where did I go wrong?’ She’s probably thinking, “what’s wrong with Anne? When I was her age this would never have been a conversation between me and my parents.”
Raissa – Yes. I think I’m feeling like I have no control. I can’t control Mr and Mrs. van Daan or my husband. But at the very least I should be able to have some measure of control over my own daughters! At one point, I tell Anne, “I’m not worried they’re going to walk all over you I’m worried you’re going to walk over them!” Is that true? Am I concerned with how she’s treating the van Daan’s?
Angie -I think you’re telling Anne that she needs to behave better. You’re telling her she needs to at least be physically aware of her surroundings. They’re all cramped into this space. It’s dangerous for Anne to not adjust to her surroundings. She can no longer do what she probably did at home – take up too much space, because there is none. What you’re telling her is that that’s the opposite of the way Margot behaves. When Anne leaves and you’re left alone with Margot think about this: This is not a good conversation to be having with your daughter. In fact, maybe you don’t directly engage her about it. Don’t put quite so much of a burden on her. See if that gives you anything.
Raissa – Yes. And yet I have to talk to somebody. I have to unburden myself. I need to connect more. Your father chooses to shut his eyes…
Angie – What might help is that you know your husband Otto isn’t blind. He’s consciously choosing not to see, which is enraging. You know Raissa, we never see a conversation like this between Otto and you. Instead you unburden yourself with your daughter Margo and later with Miep.
Danielle – when I say “I’m a complete disappointment”…I’m having trouble with where that’s coming from. Is that something that her mother has told her? I don’t think anyone would call her stupid or cowardly. In my opinion her dad is always telling her how good she is. In her mind she’s making it bigger than it is. She knows she’s not living up to other people’s expectations.
Raissa – I would imagine there have been other situations where this tension has happened.
Angie – a lot of this is not just Anne’s imaginings. It’s the van Daan’s constantly piling stuff on her. I think “I’m a complete disappointment” is hyperbole. From your point of view, your mom’s expectations aren’t realistic. Which is why you tell her, “I’m never gonna be her. You can’t expect that.” But the van Daan’s unload on you too. The other thing is you want someone to reassure you and tell you you’re none of the things they’re accusing you of. It’s a bad situation of course, but Anne’s angry and it’s hurtful. “Anne don’t be so dramatic,” has been a constant refrain for her. Let’s take it again.
(Keep checking back for more installments of Page to Stage…)
Thursday, September 8th.
(Jonas Cohen and Danielle Carlacci as Otto and Anne Frank in the Flat Rock Playhouse production of The Diary of Anne Frank.)
“That coat was the last thing. A whole world gone. You took the last memory of my father away.” – Mrs. van Daan, Act 2 The Diary of Anne Frank
Once in a while my mom would get teary eyed and reminisce and lament the past. “The one thing you can depend on is change,” she’d say. “I miss so much that’s gone now.” She’d talk about history, and the world, and the country, and most importantly, family.
Some of what was past was good. Some not. But in either case it was irretrievable. You couldn’t go back.
Call it a symptom of being a momma’s boy (that just sounds pejorative somehow) call it sentimentality, call it a limited view, but that same feeling permeates me from time to time as well.
Let me get a bit more personal for a moment.
When my father died in 2001, my mother was left with the task of what to keep, what to give away, and what to let go of. Can you imagine? Imagine going through a loved one’s things after their death and having to determine what to keep and what to discard. How could you throw anything away? Yet, how can you possibly keep it all? That’s the choice. She kept his clothes until they lost their familiar scent. She gave my sister and I things she thought we’d want. “I wanted to keep more,” she said. “But eventually, at some point, you and your sister, or someone would have to throw it away. You just can’t keep everything. But how do you get rid of any of this? It’s a person’s life!”
This play we’ve been rehearsing is a memory play. It’s the memory of one girl who is gone now as are virtually all of the people she wrote about. There are less than a handful of survivors from her circle of friends and family and although there are a number of holocaust survivors in the world their numbers wane with the passage of time. We can’t truly know what it was like for those 8 people in the annex no more than we can truly know what our forebears thought and felt on a daily basis. We won’t know what made them laugh and smile and cry and worry. Their essence is lost to us.
What we can do, and what I hope to God we do, is tell stories because my goodness that is what theater is. That’s what human beings are. Storytellers. Everyday and every moment of our lives. It’s our essence and it is to be cherished and honored. It’s how we pass on to those around us what’s important, what they should take away. It’s how we get to shape and impress and influence and change and express and give hope to.
Perhaps it is a function of fate that Anne dreamt of being a great writer or an actor. As she wrote in her diary, she wanted to make certain that she would not have “lived in vain like most people. I want to be useful or bring enjoyment to all people, even those I’ve never met. I want to go on living even after my death!” Living in the “Achter Huis” (Dutch for behind house or Annex) she found her life’s purpose and her father made sure her wish was carried out by choosing to publish large portions of her diary.
In this play as in life, Otto goes back to the house after the war is over. He is the only one of the 8 to survive the Nazis’ Final Solution. He recovers the diary and remarks, “all that remains.” Think of the keepsakes you have of your family, your friends, your loved ones. The photos, the gifts, the tchotchkes as we say in Yiddish. They have a meaning and a value. They are items passed on. They may be items representative of a life that was lived and is now lost. So when that thing is gone, without stories to tell, in essence so is the person to whom it belonged. Anne teaches us many things and her father made sure that all of those lessons would go on. He chose to do that thing I hope we all continue to do – tell the story.
What I want the readers to know, what I want the audiences to know, what I want the students who will attend our matinees to know, what I want anyone new to this story to know is that the story we’re telling isn’t made up. It’s real. It happened. I’m not here to pound the drum of “we must never forget.” Although undoubtedly that will hopefully be a takeaway for many. Why we should never forget though rests in that line of Mrs. van Daan’s. The story is “the last thing,” and in it lies, “a whole world.”
Sunday, August 28th.
(Pictured in the photo are The Diary of Anne Frank cast members Peter Thomasson an Jonas Cohen at Temple Agudas Israel.)
In the weeks before I left my home in New York City to participate in Flat Rock Playhouse’s Diary of Anne Frank one question seemed to be on all my friends’ minds:
“Aren’t you excited?”
With a half-hearted shrug and an attempt at a smile came the only reply I could muster, “I guess.” Then, in response to the quizzical looks I’d say, “Just lots to do to get ready before I go. Clean the apartment, pack, you know…”
The truth was embarrassing. I haven’t been excited, or eager, or enthused. Instead I’ve felt strangely dispassionate. At the very least I should have felt grateful, no? After all, I’m getting the opportunity that not enough actors get: to work.
Still, I decided to push ahead. I did my homework. I read biographies, I watched interviews and documentaries. I read the Diary and bought the newer “definitive edition.” I watched film versions of the story and visited the Anne Frank museum in New York. I laid the groundwork. “Built the canoe” as my friend Bob would say.
For these last 5 days the cast, consisting of Billy Munoz (Mr. Kraler), Sarah Stevens (Margot Frank), Danielle Carlucci (Anne Frank), Raissa Dorff (Edith Frank), Peter Thomasson (Mr. van Daan), Barbara Bradshaw (Mrs. van Daan), Preston Dyar (Mr. Dussel), John Dewey (Peter van Daan), Maria Buchanan (Miep Gies), and myself (Otto Frank) have started the process of trying to figure out which end is up. By today’s standards, a cast of 10 in a non-musical play is a lot. More challenging still, the script and the story demand that most of us are on stage at all times. Set designer Dennis Maulden has crafted a purposely claustrophobic replica of the “Secret Annex” where 8 people hid for the better part of 2 years in Nazi-occupied Amsterdam, Holland.
Our indefatigable director Angie Flynn-McIver has guided our group through the entire play with such grace that we can already lay claim to having come up with workable solutions as to which of the 8 of us goes where and when. Costume Designer Rebecca Conway has begun work on our historically accurate wardrobe. Our props coordinator and assistant stage manager Natalie Carney has been assembling all the pieces that will make this world more complete. Our stage manager Lindsey Moss keeps it all running smoothly. Our marketing department led by Dane Whitlock and Development Director Ashley Pirsig have created a show poster and a publicity video teaser: click here to watch
The cast has been officially introduced at the “meet and greet” to Flat Rock Playhouse’s volunteers, stage crew, administration, and board members. Last night, some of the cast attended a Friday night Shabbat (Sabbath) service at the Jewish synagogue Agudas Israel led by Rabbi Rachael Jackson. Rabbi Rachael also serves as our advisor to deepen our understanding of the elements of Judaism that may be new or unfamiliar for us.
It’s been a lot. Yet I still found myself feeling strangely and frustratingly dispassionate about the whole thing!
In the past, I’ve been granted the opportunity to play roles that spoke to me personally. They were always something that made me think about something in my own life. They gave me an opportunity to exorcise that. There have also been plenty of roles that I was excited about – big and small. This play, though? Not so much. For the life of me I haven’t been able to figure out why.
I called my friend Bob whose own recent experience at the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam had been profound. He asked the right question right off the bat, “are you overwhelmed?”
I paused. I had no idea how to answer.
Then it all seemed to tumble out. “You know what? I’m scared!” I confessed. “I’m terrified as to the actual depths and level of vulnerability this story really requires. This is a person’s diary. It is as absolutely personal and private as it can get. The situation they’re in is unimaginable and the medium through which it’s told is so very private.”
“How do I play this person? How do you dare to accurately capture what these people thought, and felt, and endured? How on earth do you attempt to embody and capture this story? The fear of being caught and killed. The fear of losing your wife. The fear of losing your children. The reality of living day to day indoors in cramped quarters with 8 people never being allowed to go outside regardless if it’s too hot or too cold. This goes on for months, years. It’s so epic, so huge…”
“Let’s be honest,” he said. “Looking towards the story you have to tell every night one can see how it would not be as appealing as doing say The Importance of Being Earnest or Million Dollar Quartet. Or just about any other play I can think of. There’s a heap ton of shows where we the audience know the outcome and the ending. And there’s even more shows where we know things are going to turn out better. These are people fighting for their lives. It is on a scale that exists somewhere that resists being accessed. It’s not at all surprising that you’re having mixed feelings about telling it and about your ability to tell it.”
Despite my conversation with Bob, despite the research, the trips to the museum, the videos and documentaries, the biographies and interviews I have continued to feel like I was running with an empty emotional gas tank. Not such a great thing for an actor. Then today something finally shifted.
We spent the day staging the second act. As we neared the end of the play and its inevitable conclusion I found myself getting more and more anxious.
“You know what?” I told the director, “I’m keeping this play over here.” I held the script up and quite literally as far away from my heart as I could. “Because,” I continued, “I just have to. I can’t explain it.”
It was an apt description. I’ve been keeping this script at a distance since the beginning, and now I think I see why. It seemed bigger than my ability to play it. Bob was right. I was feeling overwhelmed. I’ve been feeling dispassionate because I’m trying to play the grand scope and importance of this play instead of focusing on what the story is really about. From Otto Frank’s perspective it’s about a father who does everything he can to protect his family.
The Franks and the van Daans didn’t know they’d last almost two years – they didn’t know they’d last a week – and they certainly didn’t know that everything they did and said was going to be recorded for the world to witness. They felt no “importance” other than the struggle to survive without killing each other in that little attic.
This play appeals to us in part because it is a reaffirming message of peace and human resilience. On a simpler and equally important level though, it is also about the joy and love of family. That’s something I can definitely be excited about.
Tuesday, August 23rd.
“Ik ben niet van steen” – Dutch expression which literally means, “I am not made of bricks.” But is perhaps more accurately translated as, “I have a heart.”
When my friend Bob heard I was participating in Flat Rock Playhouse’s production of The Diary of Anne Frank the timing couldn’t have been more fortuitous. Bob had recently taken his umpteenth trip to Amsterdam where the actual events depicted in the play took place. He made it his mission to help me. Before I knew it my inbox was flooded with pictures, videos, and captions with what were clearly VERY deeply felt sentiments.
I was grateful for the material because as an actor it was going to help me put my research and preparation into focus and give things context. It was a coincidence that he was there just as I was starting work on this play. When he came back I wondered what took him to Amsterdam so frequently.
“The Dutch have continually been voted among the happiest people on earth. Did you know that?” he asked. I didn’t. “Yes,” he continued. “I went there again because I wanted to go somewhere where there is universal acceptance, and love, and kindness. We need that right now. I went because I wanted to be in a place where who you are doesn’t matter. It’s accepted. In fact, it’s a law on the books. If someone were to open a window and harass me based on race, religion, sexual preference as I walked by on the street I could have the police pursue and arrest that person.”
Believe it or not, it’s true. It is a point of national pride in The Netherlands that they don’t flaunt their differences because, after all, aren’t we all the same?
“Ik ben niet van steen”
Yet, as Bob told me, within that sense of national pride there is also an abiding sense of shame. Shame that during World War II the Nazis were able to overtake the Dutch and impose a way of life and a way of thinking that led to the deportation and deaths of countless Jews and other “undesirables.” The pride remains but it is dampened by the shame of letting that happen.
“It’s amazing,” he said, “the city of Amsterdam stands like this brick tower of freedom and tolerance and acceptance. It sits on the shore of the North Sea which is this angry, unforgiving, dramatic, and sensual ocean.” Yet it was in that tower along with her family that Anne Frank, the world’s most beloved diarist, became a prisoner for over 2 years.
“Ik ben niet van steen”
Who was Anne Frank?
Anne Frank was a Jewish teenage girl who, during World War II in The Netherlands, went into hiding with her father Otto, her mother Edith, and her older sister Margot in order to avoid being sent to a Nazi death camp. During their time in hiding, Anne kept a diary that traced her experiences, the difficulties and small joys of the situation, and her awakening from girlhood to young adulthood.
The family Frank lived in what Anne would refer to as “the Secret Annex,” an attic and adjoining rooms in a concealed area directly above the offices where her father worked. Joining them were her father’s business partner Hermann van Pels, his wife Auguste, and their teenage son Peter as well as Fritz Pfeffer, a family acquaintance. They were eventually discovered and all 8 of them were sent to concentration camps.
Otto Frank, the only survivor of the family, returned to Amsterdam after the war to find that Anne’s diary had been saved by Miep Gies, one of the 4 people who had helped keep the family hidden. Otto read the diary and eventually made the decision to publish it as a means of honoring his daughter, keeping her legacy alive, and in an effort to promote tolerance and understanding. It has since become one of the most widely read books of all time and has been translated into 60 languages and sold over 30 million copies. It has been made into movies and plays. This summer Flat Rock will present their production.
Someone’s personal diary turned into a play? Well, yes.
“I have to believe,” Bob said, “that this diary was meant to be revealed to the world. It is a kind of totem of so many of the things that we all experience: budding sexuality, curiosity, hating our parents. All of those things that she in her simplicity was writing about.”
You might say Anne’s story is every young person’s story.
“If you read the diary without the knowledge of where she was a lot of it would just be the diary of a young girl which is what it is. But when you understand where it was being written, it amplifies it and makes it grand opera. It’s very insightful, and at times embarrassingly personal to read her thoughts.”
The building and the Secret Annex still stand. Roughly 600,000 people visit it every year. Bob told me that people leave that space, standing in the street and convulsed in tears.
Although I haven’t been there myself it seems the walls of Anne’s room are still covered with the pictures of movie stars she cut out of the few magazines they were able to acquire. That was her little area where she would dream about and think about happier times. Through that horrible experience that’s what the world remembers. “She has been an emissary of light to the world and her father is responsible for the world seeing it,” Bob said. “He could’ve taken that diary and burned it, but I think he realized it’s incredible potential for healing.”
I think this will be a show to remember. I’m looking forward to being a part of it.
“Wednesday April 5, 1944
My dearest Kitty, I don’t want to have lived in vain like most people. I want to be useful or bring enjoyment to people, even those I’ve never met. I want to go on living even after my death. And that’s why I’m grateful to God for having given me this gift which I can use to develop and to express all that’s inside me. Yours, Anne M. Frank”