The Diary of Anne Frank, first published in its original Dutch edition in 1947—70 years ago-- documents the lives of two Jewish families living hidden in a secret attic in Amsterdam, Holland between 1942 and 1944, as described through the words of a 13- to 15-year-old girl. She wrote about the group’s day-to-day survival under constant threat of capture—and worse. Her writings, intelligent, witty and candid, deal with her relationships with her fellow fugitives; her first love; her ideals and aspirations; her reflections on good and evil; and her hopes for a future that never came. They were arrested by the Gestapo in the late summer of 1944; Anne died in a concentration camp in February or March of 1945 at the age of 15.
Anne’s diary was published in English five years after the original Dutch version, in 1952. Three years later Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett adapted Anne’s writings into a Pulitzer Prize-winning play. In 1997 Wendy Kesselman published her own new adaptation of the play, based on newly-found writings of Anne Frank as well as survivor accounts. That version of The Diary of Anne Frank will open the 2017-2018 Missouri State University Theatre and Dance season, with performances in Craig Hall Balcony Theatre September 21-October 4. Directing the production is MSU Per-Course faculty member and Guest Director, Justin Baldwin from Chicago.
He and I talked about what might have been had Anne Frank survived, because her writing, her wisdom, were utterly remarkable for a teenager. “It’s heartbreaking—it’s ridiculous,” says Baldwin. “What a 13- to 15-year-old girl was able to write, and the thoughts she was able to put down, it’s absolutely beyond extraordinary.” And he’s a big fan of Wendy Kesselman’s adaptation of the Goodrich/Hackett play. “The 1950s version, to me—this is my personal opinion—was a little bit more focused on history, and a little bit more focused on the group as a whole. What I think Wendy Kesselman has done, in an absolutely beautiful way, is that she’s created a story about a little girl.” In other words, the focus is more strongly on Anne Frank herself than in the original play. “We’re seeing a story about Anne Frank rather than a story about the Holocaust as a whole—a much, much more personal journey. We’re really focusing our production, and focusing in on, the story of Anne.”
Adding to the effect is the staging in the small space of the Craig Hall Balcony Theatre. “My set designer Robert Little has designed an absolutely gorgeous set. It fills the space and gives us an absolutely beautiful amount of obstacles and hurdles” for the actors to “dance around and use. But what’s so lovely about what he’s done is, he’s opened it so the audience is not only sitting in their seats, but they’re sitting in the Annex with us. You’re going to smell it, breathe it, feel it, the whole time.”
The story of Anne’s struggles during the Holocaust, says Justin Baldwin, tends to get diminished or “dumbed down” somewhat when, as most of us did, one first encounters it as a junior-high or high school reading assignment. “I know when I read it in 8th grade or freshman year of high school, I did not take it in, in any form or fashion.” He just didn’t connect with it at the time—“not at all, not one bit. Now, when I was brought in by Missouri State to direct it, I obviously re-read it... and as a 31-year-old it hits you a little bit differently than when you’re trying to read it when you’re 15”—and it’s a required school assignment! “And I think it’s an absolutely vital piece of literature. And what Kesselman has done with the play is insane—it’s absolutely gorgeous.”
Baldwin is equally enthusiastic about his cast and crew for this production. “I’ve got a fantastic group of artists.” His Anne Frank is not a young teenager, but rather college-age. But she absolutely nailed the audition. “Elisabeth earned her part 100 percent. She absolutely blew me away. This wasn’t a moment where a director gave a part to somebody... Elisabeth showed up and took it. I’m working with a group of the most highly intelligent collegiate actors you could ever ask for in the world. My design team, from props to set to lighting design, are working in the most devoted manner. I’m trying not to curse, because I’m so passionate about the work that they do! They’re doing absolutely phenomenal work—I couldn’t be more excited, more proud. I’m so excited about this show, because Kesselman has allowed us to do a play that is not a ‘museum piece’. This ain’t your mama’s Anne Frank!”
Performances in Balcony Theatre will be Thursday-Saturday Sept. 21-23, Tuesday-Saturday the 26th through the 30th, and Tuesday and Wednesday October 3 and 4, all at 7:30pm; and there are Sunday matinees September 24 and October 1st at 2:30pm. As an added attraction, following each of the Sunday matinees, starting around 4:30pm on those days, the production’s sponsor, Ekklesia/United Ministries in Higher Education, will present symposiums about the show and its message. The Sunday-afternoon symposiums are open to anyone free of charge—no ticket required. Says Justin Baldwin, “’symposium’ is a really beautiful word for ‘awesome talkback!’ I’ll be there; we’re going to have some absolutely wonderful local Jewish and Holocaust scholars to speak about The Diary of Anne Frank from historical perspectives, personal perspectives. And I’ll be able to sit there and talk to you about my take on Anne Frank from a storyteller perspective. It’s going to be really relaxed and really awesome—an opportunity to come in and check out, and talk to us about why we do what we do. We’ll take a little break after the show, let my actors take about 10 minutes, and then we’ll hang out and talk. Come see the show, first of all—that way we can then talk about it. If you’re at the Balcony Theatre when the doors open for the symposium—ticket or no ticket—you’re absolutely welcome to come in.”
To actually see the performances, tickets are of course required: $14 adults, $12 students and seniors, or $8 in advance with MSU ID. Remember there is NO late seating in the Balcony Theatre.