Teachers in many cities insisted that students see the story of Anne Frank on stage—generally with a whole host of characters—and more than one administrator in parochial and public schools in the United States insisted on censoring the well-known section where the girl in hiding describes her body parts. In short, millions of theatre-goers and film audiences were exposed to edited versions that presented more of a famous historical character than Anne Frank, the teenager.
Anne and Anna: The New Multi-Cultural and International Theatre In Between
Not so in Philadelphia, where Anna Watson, a young German actress who recently moved to the United States, performs Teenager: Anne Frank, a play that she has put together based on Anne Frank’s writing. This piece allows us to really see the adolescent come alive, complete with her ups and downs, including those scenes that Anne’s father had excised when the first edition of the diary was published in 1947, namely the confrontations between the teenager and her mother—scenes that countless young girls experience when they go through puberty.
I have seen theatrical versions of the life of Anne Frank edited, directed, and performed in many different ways but never like this production by the new multi-cultural and international Theatre InBetween . Richard Watson, the Jamaica-born producer and executive director of the fledgling company married Anna, his German high-school sweetheart of twelve years whom he met when she had a scholarship to study in the US for one year. The director, German TV, film, radio, and theatre actor Frank Brückner had also moved to the US recently and is married to Lise Raven, an award-winning writer and director, who teaches film at Drexel University. Anti-Semitism forced Lise’s mother, along with her sisters and parents, to flee Nazi Germany.
What distinguishes this production from other Anne Frank plays is the fact that we see a contemporary Anne, who takes us on a roller coaster of feelings, thoughts and adolescent experiences, all against the backdrop of the pitch-black Philadelphia skyline. The performance takes place on a roof of the thirteen-story Parkway House, built by the first female architect in Philadelphia, Elizabeth Fleisher, along with co-designer Gabriel Roth, “in homage to Art Deco and international styles.” The stunning view of the gleaming lights and the extravagant buildings of the city’s skyline from this historical Pennsylvania Avenue building—diagonally across from the famous Philadelphia Museum of Art—represents a future that was denied Anne: a human being, a teenage girl, German, Jewish, and, above all, a real Mensch.
This production is the most transparent one I have ever seen, both physically and dramatically. The Achterhuis, that secret Annex or hiding place on top of a building in Amsterdam, becomes an 8-foot-by-8-foot white cube made of PVC piping, a space filled with nothing but a little table, a tiny mirror, Anne’s handbag with photographs of her favorite actors and a little stuffed animal inside. It is so wholly modern in design that Anne becomes contemporary. She even wears a girlish pink cardigan with appliqué roses and an aquamarine tank-top underneath—the kind of clothing that teenagers these days are wearing all over America.
Young German Theatre Artists Search for Anne Frank in Philadelphia
Anna Watson, who has performed in Germany, Austria, and Hungary, had read The Diary of Anne Frank many times and decided some years ago to compile the best and the most relevant teenager portions of the diary and arrange them in a such a way that the audiences would have a chance to get deep inside the soul of this extraordinary teenager in occupied Holland. When Watson had performed her play in Vienna, it was still halfway between a period piece and a modern play.
After she had met Frank Brückner by chance at Philadelphia’s Tuscany Café, she decided to go one step further and remove any aspects of her prior performance that would make Anne Frank a museum piece, inaccessible for a young, contemporary audience. Rather than paying their respect to the extraordinary life of this remarkable girl in an historical, and thus confining, setting, both the young director and the actress from Germany decided to liberate Anne Frank and give her a place in our own time.
Watson told me that after she moved to Philadelphia, “I was busy being homesick one day, but then I decided to sign up for the Philadelphia Fringe Festival because I wanted to move forward and this society very much encourages individual initiative.” And so, she and first-time director Frank Brückner worked together for many months. Clearly, all the collaborative work paid off.
In this production, which showcases Brückner and Watson’s first foray into English-speaking theatre, both the actress and the director even toyed with the idea of having Anne Frank use a cell phone and record her diary on a voice recorder. However, they both decided that they wanted nothing to distract the audience from the joy and the turmoil in the life of the teenager who was locked up in a tiny space on top of the building at Amsterdam’s Prinsengracht 267, a history-heavy street where many years later, Richard Watson, the executive director of Theatre InBetween, lived in a building near the Anne Frank House as an exchange student at the University of Amsterdam.
Teenager: Anne Frank
The play begins with a long Pinteresque pause, which can be unnerving for newcomers to the theatre. On the other hand, it creates a tension in the viewers who recognize that they are being transported into a different world. Once Anne swings into action, she walks right up to that little mirror affixed to one of the pipes and, looking at herself, becomes aware of the changes she is undergoing. Full of anticipation and joy, she applies lipstick, wanting to be pretty for Peter, “the only boy I’m going to see for a long time.” This “mirror, mirror on the wall” scene, from the very beginning, engages the viewers and connects to the lives of countless adolescents who are experiencing the same excitement that, 66 years ago, Anne, the fourteen-year-old, did.
She continues contemplating her blossoming romance: “Isn’t it important for every girl, when she gets her first kiss?” No sooner has she presented her thoughts and her defiance when she asks, “Do you think Father and Mother would approve of a girl my age sitting on a divan and kissing a seventeen-and-a-half year old boy? I doubt they do.” Anne’s rebelliousness comes through powerfully, most likely making countless adolescents feel heard and understood when she ponders, “Why should we ask anyone’s permission?” She concludes, “Sharing our thoughts with each other requires a great deal of trust, but we’ll both be stronger because of it.” Anne, very aware of her physical development but also her intellectual and emotional strength, wrote, full of confidence, “Everyday I feel myself maturing.”
This production reminded me, in some ways, of Spring Awakening, with its emphasis on the transformation of adolescents into young adults. A Children’s Tragedy, as Wedekind’s play was subtitled, can also apply to the life of the historical Anne Frank, even though Teenager: Anne Frank exudes a joy rarely matched by other productions of Anne Frank.
Young Germans Liberating Anne Frank
When I heard the actress say, “I was born in Frankfurt am Main, Germany,” I thought that Anna Watson, and not Anne Frank, was talking about her own life. However, once she continued, “A few years later, my family emigrated to Amsterdam, Netherlands,” I knew that we were still following the life of one of the most talented young writers of her time, and, certainly, the most widely read young diarist of the twentieth-century: “Hitler invaded Holland in 1940. The Dutch surrendered, the Germans arrived, and the trouble started for the Jews.”
German is used sparingly but powerfully, for example when Anne juxtaposes the “German Wehrmacht Berichte and the English BBC.” Or, when she, in very vivid ways, imitates her mother with her voice taking on an ice-cold tone, a fourteen-year-old teenager rebelling against her mother: “Anne! Nein! But there’s not a soul in the building! That doesn’t matter. You can’t go down those stairs. Never?! . . . Nein! Not even then. It’s too dangerous.” Anne then lets loose a whole cavalcade of diatribes against her mother, walking around like a caged animal: “I can’t talk to her. I can’t look lovingly into those cold eyes. I can’t. Not ever! If she had even one quality an understanding mother is supposed to have, gentleness or friendliness or patience, or something, I’d keep trying to get closer to her—it’s becoming more and more impossible every day!” Then Anne’s indefatigable spirit comes through like a rainbow after a storm, “But no one can lock up my imagination.”
Anna Watson presented the mother with such a cold tone that I almost got frightened, especially with her sharp, staccato-like series of “Nein!” followed by commands of what was allowed and what was verboten. At the same time, the German actress also managed, within split seconds, to switch masterfully into the role of the young adolescent who couldn’t understand why it was important to live under self-imposed restrictions—this constant back-and-forth brought to life a scene with which many young people can easily identify.
After the outburst of feelings vis-à-vis her mother, Anne changes into a more pensive mood. Her energy level waxes and wanes in countless ways through gestures, facial expressions, body language, and a great variety of vocal tones, punctuated by reflective silences. In between those pauses, I saw a fellow human being, fighting against family customs and traditions, like wearing slippers and taking piano lessons: “Just think of the fight with Mother over my slippers. I’d rather die than wear slippers, I said. But I still had to put them on in the end.” One could hear chuckling in the audience.
Full of exuberance, the feisty teenager relishes her small victories: “So you see, as long as we’re here, I don’t ever have to wear slippers again. Isn’t that great?! . . . and piano lessons! No, now I don’t have to practice anymore! I’ll tell you, I’ll be living like a queen.” More laughter waved through the audience. However, little did Anne Frank know that not too long after that defiant and exuberant diary entry, she and the entire household would be betrayed and deported to Auschwitz and eventually carted off to Bergen-Belsen.
Unexpectedly foreshadowing Anne’s fate, Anna froze in her tracks when a helicopter flew over Philadelphia’s Parkway. She listened as if it had been a Luftwaffe plane flying over occupied Amsterdam. And then, spoken into the silence of the night, “It’s the silence that frightens me most. Every time I hear a creak in the house, or a step on the street, I’m sure they’re coming for us.”
Anne, brutally aware of her environment, reflected on the impact of politics on their lives from the perspective of a teenager: “Arguing so much about politics is just plain stupid! Let them laugh, swear, make bets, grumble and do whatever they want as long as they stew in their juice. But don’t let them argue, since that only makes things worse.” She even addresses the audience directly, asking them, “What is the point of the war?”
Clearly, Anne sets herself apart from the adults, not as a child, but as an adolescent with her own set of values, including criticism of the adults in her little world: “And so it goes from early in the morning to late at night: the funny part is that they never get tired of it.” Anne, getting a bit frustrated about this nonstop survival talk of the adults, criticizes the elders in typical Anne Frank fashion: “One broadcast, two at the most, should be enough to last the entire day. But no, those old nincompoops . . .” She stops and—like Gilda Radnor, the famous American comedienne of the early Saturday Night Live program—ends with “Never mind, I’ve already said it all.”
Clearly, Anne had not said it all: “Oh, why are people so crazy?” she asks, full of wonderment. And then shares her eternal optimism with us: “I look upon life in hiding as an interesting adventure, full of danger and romance, and every privation an amusing addition to my diary.”
“No One Knows Anne’s Better Side.”
Building up to a most moving final scene, Anna abruptly turns off her many joyful facial expressions and her lively movements and almost transforms into a walking pillar of salt when she stares into the void, her face eerily distorted, aware of what lies ahead of her. Walking forward slowly, as if to talk to the anti-Semitic officer, she affirms, “No one knows Anne’s better side.”
When the actress slowly leaves the cube, the audience is left with an awareness of the plight of teenager Anne Frank and perhaps the plight of countless teenagers around the world who suffer discrimination and persecution. On opening night, after a minute of silence, the audience broke out into a long, supportive applause and gave both Anna and Anne a standing ovation and with it the director and the stage designer.
Audience Responses to the Liberated Anne Frank
The responses from the audience were most enthusiastic, ranging from “Wow. Anne Frank no longer is a period piece but a thoroughly modern play” to “Hope in a hopeless situation” as Gregory Wolmart put it. Karen Fzesq was moved deeply by Anna’s “powerful silent scream” at the end of the play, and Chrissy Erickson wrote: “I realized that Anne’s voice is still alive, even though she died. Her voice lives on.”
The production brought out a wide range of thoughtful responses, including this international perspective: “This play reminded me of the lives of girls and young women in villages of Afghanistan where the Taliban or village elders are preventing girls from leaving the house” as Lise Raven observed: “Anne is less of an historical figure and more of an everyday girl.”
Maria Rodriguez, Assistant Professor of Film at the University of the Arts, added, “If it helps us to become more aware of the human rights abuses against girls and women worldwide, this play would, apart from anything else, already have achieved a great deal.”
Lesley Barth, who has performed with a Yale comedy group at the Annenberg Center recently, commented, “I was struck by the mixture of the extraordinary and the ordinary—how Anne is not only a symbol, but a real human being.”
Following the opening night’s performance, Randi Boyette of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), was impressed by what she had witnessed and shared with the director, the producer, and the actress that she would like to see this production performed in schools and synagogues. “In addition to a wonderful performance,” Boyette said, “Anna’s German accent lends authenticity to the role.”
When I asked the ADL representative what she thought about a young German director and a young German actress not only performing but interacting with audiences in American synagogues, she didn’t hesitate with her answer: “That’s a plus. Especially as this is such an extraordinary production.” However, she wanted to make sure that the play was short enough so that there would be enough time for Q&A sessions to allow young people to learn more about Anne Frank, the historical character, and Anne, the teenager.
The Anne and Anna Partnership on Philadelphia’s Parkway: A Great Success
This play, which marks the birthday of Theatre InBetween in the US as part of the 2009 Philadelphia Live Arts Festival and Philly Fringe, has added two additional dates and will run until September 20th. Teenager: Anne Frank could easily make it to the famous Edinburgh Fringe, the biggest arts festival in the world, next year—an event that could lead to many more performances here and abroad. I can visualize the headlines in the international press next summer: BREAKING NEWS: Anne Frank, Alive in Europe.