Drama and dialog: Westport Playhouse turns Anne Frank into a community-wide conversation

By Cindy Mindell

WESTPORT – The Westport Country Playhouse is opening its 2010-11 season with Wendy Kesselman’s 1981 adaptation of “The Diary of Anne Frank” in September. But the theater has already launched a collaboration with a community arts school in Bridgeport. The project is only the first of many designed to engage the whole of Fairfield County, creating a community-wide conversation about the work.

“In deciding to stage ‘The Diary of Anne Frank,’ we wanted to give the production back to our community, and look at all angles of the story and what it means,” says Michael Ross, managing director of the Playhouse. “It’s a work of art, it’s about a young girl finding her way, it’s the story of her Jewish heritage, it’s the story of the Holocaust, it’s about Anne Frank as an artist. It’s a living, breathing story. As we began to plan our programming, we asked, ‘How do young people react to the story? What do they find in it that is relevant to them?'”
The same questions were being raised by Westport resident Harold Levine, chairman emeritus of Bridgeport’s Neighborhood Studios of Fairfield County. Founded 30 years ago as Music and Arts Center for Humanity (MACH), the non-profit organization provides arts enrichment to school-age children throughout Fairfield County, with in-school, after-school, and weekend programs, as well as summer camps. Last fall, Levine approached Sandra DeFeo, president of the Playhouse, and the two discussed how their institutions could work together. Levine suggested that a group of Neighborhood Studio students read “The Diary of Anne Frank” and create an art project based on their impressions. After visiting MACH with fellow Playhouse directors, Ross says that he “fell in love” with the school, a place where he saw faculty members not only teaching art, but also helping each student forge a path into adulthood.
The Neighborhood Studios Anne Frank Committee was created and board chair Joan Rosenbaum appointed Laurie Gross as chairman. Gross served on the MACH board five years ago and is director of community relations and Israel advocacy at UJA/Federation of Eastern Fairfield County. Neighborhood Studios volunteer faculty member Steffi Friedman, a Holocaust survivor, provided the 12 high-school and college-age students in her sculpture class with copies of “The Diary of Anne Frank.” She told her own story of fleeing Berlin with her family and hiding out in Amsterdam from 1938 to 1939, just a block away from where the Franks were living in the Secret Annex.
After discussing the book, Friedman and the students created sketches of the Franks’ hiding place and the adjacent buildings. They are now filling a seven-by-five-foot plywood model of the house with clay sculptures of the people and objects Anne described in her diary. The piece will be displayed in the Playhouse lobby during the run of the production, and the students who created it will be part of a panel presentation following a family matinee performance on Oct. 23. The panel will be moderated by Dr. John Ramos, superintendent of the Bridgeport schools. On Sept. 30, a pre-performance reception benefiting Neighborhood Studios will feature the school’s jazz ensemble playing music of the ’30s.
Ross says that the Playhouse is on a “listening tour,” meeting with many organizations throughout the county to design impactful programming related to the play. He and associate artistic director David Kennedy are exploring ideas with the Anti-Defamation League and local Jewish day schools, as well as several area rabbis. There are other community conversations and panel discussions in the works – on genocide, on activism. “In our outreach, we’re always discussing with our partners, ‘What kind of impact do you want, what kinds of conversations do you want coming from these productions?'” Ross says. “The more people who come together to experience something, the easier it becomes to talk about meaningful topics.”
For information on “The Diary of Anne Frank” at The Westport Playhouse visit www.westportplayhouse.org or call (888) 927-7529
For information on Neighborhood Studios benefit reception on Sept. 30 at the Westport Country Playhouse visit www.musicandartscenter.org or call (203) 366-3300

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