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Anne Frank: Theater of a Real Girl

Anne Frank: Theater of a Real Girl

My favorite 14 year-old, Jules, has loved “The Diary of Anne Frank” since the first time she read it. When I asked her why this book is a favorite, she answered without hesitation. “It was Anne’s real thoughts in her journal, not someone telling a story knowing what was going to happen in the end,” she told me. And while those in the annex were living under extremely difficult circumstances, their situation did not keep Anne from acting like what she was – a teenager. “She was in love with a boy. She had pictures of movie stars on her wall. She had arguments with her mother and sister. She was a normal girl,” Jules explained.

And perhaps it is this universality – this quality of Anne’s that allows us to relate to her experiences – that is a primary reason why the stage play, adapted from the book, is perpetually popular with theater goers of all ages.

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Mainstage Center for the Arts will present “The Diary of Anne Frank” on February 11, 12, 13, 18, 19 and 20, at the recently renovated Dennis Flyer Theatre at Camden County College in Blackwood. Friday and Saturday shows begin at 8:00 PM; Sunday matinees are at 2:00 PM. Tickets are $13 - $21, and can be ordered online or by phone at 856-227-3091. Group rates are available.

Director Joe Caliva, of Cherry Hill, first became interested in the Holocaust in high school, but didn’t read “The Diary of Anne Frank” until later. Like Jules and thousands of others, Caliva was deeply affected by Anne’s story. “Her account,” he said, “drove home the humanity element. We get to watch this little girl grow up.” And her story is one that has relevance, even now. It is clear that, despite the compelling evidence of the effects of racism and hatred, people still have much to learn. “We have become somewhat numb,” Caliva says, “which makes it even more important for new generations to hear Anne’s message.”

For this production, Caliva chose to use Wendy Kesselman’s 1997 adaptation, rather than the version that was written in 1956. In Caliva’s opinion, the newer version – which expands the story to include survivor accounts and additional diary entries not included in the original – presents a truer picture of life at the time. “The adaptation puts back some of the authentic Jewish traditions, such as prayers and the Hanukkah celebration.” Caliva also cites historical inaccuracies in the original play, which are corrected in the ’97 version.

“In directing this play, I had three goals: to make sure that the cast interacted in a way that the audience could relate to, to get across how the story affected me, and to be sensitive to the Jewish traditions and practices” Caliva said.

Authenticity is also very important to Set Director Claire Bretschneider. A 2009 Boston University grad, who studied Set Design and has been involved with Mainstage since her pre-teen days, Bretschneider is equally committed to presenting an accurate portrayal of Anne’s story.

After reading through the script, she went on to do her own research into the time period and the architecture. “Joe (Caliva) found a couple of old photos,” Bretschneider says, “and that was our jumping off point.” The pair studied a few previous productions of the play and added their own ideas to create the set design. “We used certain props that make the audience realize it’s a Jewish home,” Bretschneider explains, “and, without making it too cluttered, I added things that suggested that it was a cramped space.”

The entire play takes place in a small attic, with the windows covered over and very little light. And, though the overall tone of the story is somber, it is not without its joyful moments. Bretschneider kept this in mind. “I didn’t want the set to be too gloomy,” she says. “I tried to strike a balance between dark and bright.”

In addition to the public shows, Mainstage will present special matinee performances for middle and high school age students. Before they see the show, the students will use the study guides they received to familiarize themselves with the story. At the performance, they will not only see the play but also have a chance to meet members of the cast and talk with the director.

Caliva is eager to see this story come to life on stage, but is especially excited about the student performances. “I really want to bring this message to young people, who perhaps don’t realize how a situation like this could happen. We talk a lot about the destructive effects of bullying. But bullying begins with rumors being spread and lies being repeated over and over until they become reality.” Caliva believes that telling Anne’s story to students, from the perspective of someone their age, could put into context what might otherwise seem like a remote historical event.

Caliva has – in his words – “worn every hat” when it comes to theatre. But directing this show is particularly meaningful for him. In 2002, Caliva put together a short film for Voorhees Theatre Company in conjunction with their production of “The Diary of Anne Frank”. “I did a lot of research for that project, and learned about Anne’s life, both before the family went into hiding, and after," Caliva says. "It’s a very personal story for me”.

"The Diary of Anne Frank" will be showing at Mainstage Center for the Arts in Blackwood from February 11th through February 20th.

Posted by Shen Shellenberger, JerseyArts.com's Blogger-at-Large.

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