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The process: The Diary of Anne Frank from the dog-eared page to Triad Stage

by Brian Clarey

It’s a party.

They’re sitting in clusters at the tall tables in the lobby of Triad Stage in long, loose skirts and jeans. They’re drinking coffee and juice, eating pastries, perhaps 30 people, many of them meeting face to face for the very first time, actors and crew who make up the team that will bring to life the story of a young girl in hiding, a city under siege, families in crisis.

It’s good to start with a party’… have a little fun’… keep things light and loose. The roller coaster is still clicking up the track to its apogee. Things will get crazy around here soon enough.

They jostle and nosh and eventually make their way into the performance space, a tiny box canyon bordered by seating units and risers and the notorious three-quarter thrust stage, catwalks traversing the span overhead.

It’s a hot Tuesday on Elm Street but Preston Lane stays cool in a faded Hawaiian shirt, big shorts and flip-flops. He’s seated at the focal point of a bank of long tables pushed into a square, surrounded by actors and crew and a few peripheral players up in the theater seats, and when the murmurs die down he stands and addresses his team.

“I’m Preston, the artistic director.”

“Louder,” someone shouts.

“I’m Preston, the artistic director,” he intones in a caricatured thespian accent, adding a hand flourish to the words.

They laugh.

It should be a good year for Preston and the theater he and fellow Yale alumnus Richard Whittington first started in the fall of ’99. In the relatively short time the place has been running it’s made an indelible mark in the city’s culture and this season, its sixth, it should continue to reap the benefits of the accolades that have been piled upon it: “One of the best regional theaters in America” (New York Drama League); Professional Theater of the Year (NC Theater Conference); National Endowment for the Arts grant honoree.

This is the first year operating under its new name, Triad Stage at the Pyrle Theater – taken from longtime Triad arts patron Pyrle Gibson who died earlier this year – and the slate is full of classics like Noises Off and the original work Beautiful Star: An Applachian Nativity, written by Lane and musical collaborator Laurelyn Dossett.

But this first production, The Diary of Anne Frank, will set the tone for the year. Part of the One City, One Book event, it spearheads a movement that will see the city inundated with lectures, films, discussions, performances and forums. Perhaps 3,000 college students will read the book this fall. But this run will provide the backbone of the festival.

One by one the people in the theater introduce themselves: five student actors and the six Actors Equity Association performers in from New York, lighting people, sound technicians, carpenters, costumers, friends and employees of the theater, interns, designers, associates, directors and one lone journalist. It’s the first day of a journey that will last from this morning until opening night a month away and then until the play closes on Sept. 24.

It’s up to Preston Lane to take the first few steps.

“And here we go,” he says. “The Diary of Anne Frank is almost every American’s introduction to the Holocaust.”

On the table in front of him he’s got a stack of books on the Nazi invasion and genocide during World War II with slips of paper marking important pages. The tables make a square, and on the floor in the middle are a dozen or so sketches of costume ideas – period dresses, cardigans and boxy overcoats, mostly. Hats. He’ll get to them later.

“Anne Frank is a strange journey for me,” he says. “I never thought I would direct it. I was in a production in high school; I was Mr. van Daan. I was brilliant,” he says with that cultured thespian patois.

He says the director locked the cast in a closet so they would see what it was like to be confined to a small space like the characters in the play.

Preston has done his homework this go-round as well, including visits to the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam and rigorous study of the history of the play and that fantastic piece of outsider art on which it was based.

“This story needs to be told,” he says. “We can’t let people forget that this, the most awful crime of the 20th Century, was allowed to happen. What prevents this is empathy, and what theater does is stretch that empathic muscle – to feel what it’s like to be somebody else.

“There’s a room in the Anne Frank House,” he continues, “where they showed productions of the play all day on a screen. To me they all looked the same; you couldn’t tell when one ended and another began. The idea is to reinvent the story, not to make it weird and avant-garde. And to not allow this play to gloss over what happened.”

They go around the table after that.

Kelsey Hunt, the costume designer, says that the cast will rely upon a complicated system of garment layering not only for practicality – the set is so large it takes up the entire backstage area – but also for reasons of historical accuracy: The Frank family wore layers of clothes as they were going into hiding so the Germans wouldn’t see them carrying suitcases.

Sound designer David E. Smith says that he won’t be using old radio recordings from the era but will re-record them in English.

A diorama of the set sits on a corner of one table, a stark one-room scene surrounded by unfurled SS flags, red and black.

Lighting director John Wolf is not present today. “But if he were,” Preston says, “he’d say something really, really intelligent about lights.”

It’s decided that the lobby before the performance will evoke feelings of Amsterdam before the invasion, with tulips, Dutch music, food and wine.

They haven’t nailed down the ending yet.

With the broad strokes laid out, Preston settles into his chair and readies his script before him for the initial read-through. The room goes quiet again and Paige Berry, the young actor from UNCG who will be playing Anne, reads from the page.

ANNE: July sixth, 1942. A few days ago, Father began to talk about going into hiding.

Most everyone knows the tale of Anne Frank, the 13-year-old Jewish girl who hid in a secret annex with her parents and sister, the van Pels family and a dentist named Fritz Pfeffer in Amsterdam during German occupation.

They know it because her diary survived, rescued from the ruins of the city and published by her father, Otto, after he was liberated from Auschwitz, and it has been used as testament to the horrors during Hitler’s years in power, the suffering of millions captured in the voice of a little girl.

It’s required reading in most middle schools – the ones that don’t ban it because of a few frankly sexual passages – and has been adapted for stage and screen numerous times. There’s even an Anne Frank opera. At turns it’s been studied, spoofed, serialized, investigated, deconstructed, translated, contested, celebrated and revered.

And its transition to the stage was fraught with scandal.

A young Meyer Levin discovered the diary in the summer of 1950 in Paris. Electrified, Levin, who was in the early days of what would be a lifelong crusade to bring the terrors of the Holocaust to light, wrote a script that was later rejected by producer Kermit Bloomgarden and Otto Frank himself. Other literary luminaries of the time, including Lillian Hellman and Carson McCullers, were tapped to write a new script but their work never materialized. Finally the job went to a husband-and-wife team with a background in musical comedy, Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, known for penning the witty repartee between Nick and Nora Charles in the 1934 film The Thin Man.

The Diary of Anne Frank opened on Broadway Oct. 5, 1955 and went on to win a Pulitzer, a Tony and the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award.

Levin, meanwhile, entered into a legal feud with Otto Frank alleging breach of contract, fraud and plagiarism. It got ugly, and Levin would later turn the experience into a book, The Obsession.

“The history of the play is torture,” Preston Lane says. “Otto Frank was terrified the van Pels family [changed to “van Daan’ in the play] would sue for defamation. When the play was done in Germany apparently it was an amazing experience. When it was over [the German audience] didn’t say a word. They didn’t applaud. They sobbed.”

This version, Preston Lane’s version, is based on the Goodrich and Hackett script and adapted by Wendy Kesselman. It is more or less true to the original work and includes passages from the diary itself, delivered by Anne in monologue under the hot lights.

It will not take any outlandish liberties with the story but it will bear a stamp of gloom that many productions have been criticized for lacking. And it will pay close attention to historical and cultural details. It will be dramatic but real; it will have a poignant message, sophisticated blocking, a set that transcends the space. The lighting and sound will be so vital as to be veritable characters in the telling of the tale. The actors will shine, the seats will fill and the reviewers will wriggle as they think up the words to describe this masterpiece. It will be another Preston Lane triumph!

At least that’s the plan. There’s a lot of work to do before then.

The Shop, Triad Stage’s warehouse/factory on Swing Road, shares a building with the 3rd District Greensboro Police station. It’s as big as a Wal-Mart, with alcoves to the rear and sides for costume making, carpentry and props. The big room is a history of Triad Stage told in forgotten scenery: the cross from Brother Wolf, a big red rocking chair from Honk, a tiled Dutch woodstove from Hedda Gabler filled with naked baby dolls.

The next big installment lies on the floor, a wooden trapezoid with a hole erupting from the center, bending back the boards and splintering them at angles. Even broken down into three pieces it will be difficult to truck it across town to the theater.

In the brightly lit costume shop Kelsey Hunt fingers through a rack of clothing from the 1940s, obtained mainly through private donations and occasional thrift-store spending sprees.

“I went through and pulled everything we might could use,” she says. “We have tons of stuff, but a lot of it’s crap.”

Now she’s got a pink wrap-around dress and she swings it across a headless and limbless mannequin. She studies it a moment, adjusts the drape and considers it again.

“I’ll probably end up using it on Miep,” she says, “but I’ll have to size it and I’ll have to dye it. The color’s not somber enough.”

Colored clothes will be muted, blacks washed out to gray. White costume items will be soaked in tea to give them an artificial griminess.

At the other end of the table her assistant Michelle Merrick sews the hem on a shirtdress made to look like a concentration camp uniform.

“I went to the Exploris Museum in Raleigh and saw some original concentration camp uniforms and took some pictures,” she says.

For the striped outfits she’s taken a paint roller to a length of muslin, cut out patterns and mostly hand-sewn them together. After the garments are complete she’ll take some sandpaper and a wire brush to them.

“To make it more authentic,” she says and then laughs. “We make things and then destroy them.”

Her words are oddly prophetic: The concentration camp uniforms will never see time on the stage.

“What we do is magic,” says sound designer David E. Smith, who has been gone so long from his native Britain that he’s taken to drinking lattes in the afternoon instead of tea. “We keep how we do it hidden. It can only work against the magic. The audience should only be aware of the story itself.”

Smith, who is currently director of the theater sound design program at the NC School of the Arts, has a resume that includes a stint with the Royal National Theatre of Great Britain, mixing sound effects for Sir Ian McKellar’s turn as King Lear performed in post-Ceausescu Romania and a nomination for a Helen Hayes Award for sound design.

“I only do a couple shows a year,” he says. “I only work with directors who allow me to come into the process early on. A director of Preston’s caliber you would not normally find in a little town like this, you understand.

“I love that sound can be part of the narrative,” he continues, “much more closely linked to the story than the context of environment.”

For Diary Smith has taxed his imagination to define the role sound will play in the telling.

“I’ll use radio broadcasts, voice-overs, aspects of the outside world that impinge on the ethic: sirens, bombs. In addition we’ll look at all the opportunities for things that are not necessarily there,” he says. “It’s going to be fresh. We’re trying to look at it fresh so that it’s new and current. It’s still the same story but it is a bit jaded because everyone knows the story. If someone’s telling you something, you don’t listen when you know what they’re going to say.”

Before he finishes his latte he says that he’s already logged more than 200 sound cues for the production. It is three weeks before opening night.

A room three floors above the Elm Street sidewalk has well-trodden wooden floors, walls muffled for sound, a network of overhead lamps and the parameters of the downstairs stage outlined in red tape on the ground.

One wall wears the costume sketches. On another hangs black-and-white photos of the Franks taken during happier times.

Otto Frank, played by Howard Pinhasik of the Actors Equity Union, stands at the head of the table and speaks from the script.

MR. FRANK: Now. Everyone. A few things. Quickly! We have to get organized before eight. Anne! Sit down, please. First, about the noise. When the workmen are in the building – from eight to six – we must keep completely quiet. So no shoes, please. And move only when absolutely necessary.

“Wait a minute,” Preston interrupts from his station off to the side. “It feels like lines – like they’re coming out of nowhere. The people could react to what he’s saying’….”

It’s decided the people at the table should respond in whisper and pantomime to Otto’s speech, injecting more realism to the scene. It’s acting versus reacting.

“Let’s take it back to, ‘All right everybody, sit down.'” Preston says.

They try it again.

MR. FRANK: No trash can ever be thrown out – not even a potato peel. We’ll burn everything in the stove at night. We can’t go outside, of course. We can’t even look out a window. No coughing. If possible, no fevers. Remember – we can never call a doctor.

Pinhasik stops.

“I’m sorry,” he says. “It’s just’… they’re talking.”

“Okay, okay,” Preston says. “I’ve gotta say, it was an idea. It was a bad idea’…. The reason I had it is because I thought something was missing.”

They debate the minutiae of the scene.

“At the mention of rats I think the women should react,” Preston says.

Donna Davis, the Equity actor playing Mrs. van Daan, says, “Should we jump on the chair and raise our skirts?”

“I don’t want to get all Amsterdam naturalist on your ass,” Preston says, “but those rats are big. They’re canal rats.”

Again they ride the scene out, up to the moment when Anne and Peter van Daan remove the yellow stars from their clothes with a pocketknife, at which point Jon Douglas, the student actor from UNCG who plays Peter, accidentally slices his finger open with the blade.

“Okay,” Preston says. “We’re ready for our ten at this point.”

Up in the fourth-floor breezeway that connects the Triad Stage building to the adjacent parking garage, Preston lights a cigarette.

“That’s the plan,” he says. “Try out a thousand things and sort of perfect everything, make everything as real as possible. I often work in stylized sets but it’s still very realistic acting.”

He exhales a cloud of fumes.

“It’s definitely eight hours a day. Even when you leave rehearsal you’re still thinking about it all the time.”

Another stream of smoke.

“I’ve been living with this play almost a year now.”

Then it’s back to work.

They’re gathered around the table in the rehearsal hall, the artistic team and their various assistants and henchmen, and Brian Fuller, production manager, is talking about cake – specifically the spice cake the characters share in the New Year’s Eve scene.

It should stand out as a luxury – it was wartime in occupied territory, after all, and cake-making ingredients were as dear as diamonds – but it should also reflect the deprivation with which the people lived each day, how little it would take to make them happy.

“We could get a fresh cake and let it get stale,” Fuller says.

Someone offers to bake a cake each night.

“It feels to me,” Preston says, “that if we do it, the cake wants to be slightly bigger than an E-Z Bake Oven cake. It should be a single layer. It wants to look like they have no sugar, no flour. You take eight slices – it’s that small,” he makes a shape with his fingers, “so that they’re all really excited about a piece of cake this big. It should be like a peace symbol.”

It’s settled.

Other items on the agenda: a hand-carved menorah, powdered milk, vitriolic speeches, Plan B, stuffed vs. imaginary cats, fog machines, the procurement of fluid for fog machines, Nazi flags, the perfect tablecloth, whittling and the chemical formula for the aroma of strawberries.

Two more weeks.

It’s Wednesday. The curtain rises tomorrow, ready or not. They have already groped their way through a couple previews – Sunday’s was the worst, stage manager Catherine Hagner says, her hair still wet from a quick afternoon shower.

“Pretty much everything went wrong. Except the actors – they were fine.”

The stage is set with two giant planks that suggest cramped quarters, the erupted hole in the center of the floor piece; the sound and light guys take their positions in corners of the risers; Hagner sits at her table looking down on the action.

It’s time to iron out the remaining kinks in the performance, synchronize the sound and light cues and fine-tune the more subtle passages in the script.

“Alright,” Preston says. “Let’s get started, because we have so much to do and no time to do it.”

They work through the scene where Anne and Peter remove the yellow stars from their clothing (it needs to be faster, but at least no blood this time) and then the waltz scene (cut the second spin). They add life to the scene where Anne imitates Mrs. van Daan. They re-block Anne during the quarrel about the cigarettes, fix Miep and Mr. Kraler’s entrance, resolve a problem with cigarettes falling through the mesh shopping bag and try to infuse some comedy into the scene with Anne and Mr. Dussel, the dentist, in their tiny bedroom.

MR. DUSSEL: Ah (looking around). It isn’t very big.

Preston says, “When she touches you, can it drive you downstage instead of offstage?”

“No,” says Buzz Bovshow, the Equity actor playing Mr. Dussel, still in character. “It couldn’t.”

And they re-tool Anne’s nightmare, making it “not so after-schooly.

“Not that there’s anything wrong with after-school specials,” Preston says.

Opening night, and Catherine Hagan is making a cake in the microwave.

She’ll coordinate the show for its entire run, though rehearsals for the next one start in two weeks. For a period she’ll be rehearsing The Old Settler all day and working Diary all night.

You really have to love it, she says, to put out this kind of energy.

“And I do,” she says. “There’s an old saying in theater: ‘If you can do something else, do it.'”

She pulls out the cake and lets it settle before it makes its entrance.

The actors roll in one at a time, plucking grapes from the fruit basket, listening to period music through earphones, slapping around in flip-flops.

Suzanne Grodner, who plays Mrs. Frank, has made a flourless chocolate cake for the team. She’s played Broadway and off-Broadway, been in dozens of regional theater productions and has even appeared in a soap opera (“As the World Turns”) and prime-time shows like “Ed” and the “Law & Order” franchise.

Howard Pinhasik, whose career includes turns in stage performances of Little Shop of Horrors, Oedipus, A Christmas Carol and My Fair Lady, calmly pulls a Diet Coke from the drink machine. Tonight he’ll play Otto Frank, and his salt-and-pepper hair is clipped close.

In her dressing room Paige Berry, the star of the show, has put on the simple kilt and button-down blouse that will form the basis of her costume for the first act. Much has been made of her resemblance to the precocious teenage diarist. They have similar eyes and the same coloring. Berry, who is 21 years old, has the slight frame of a teenager and when she sweeps her bangs across her forehead and secures them with a barrette the resemblance is uncanny.

“I remember when I first read the diary,” the actor says, “I remember sort of wanting to look like her. Not only is she a 13-year-old, but she’s a very unique child. I think she’s much more outgoing than I have ever been. She has this need to figure people out, to figure out her environment. I think of her having this intense gaze. She had this amazing talent for writing. She would’ve followed her dreams, everything that was in her heart.”

Now Berry is putting on her makeup with Ambien Mitchell, the actor who plays Miep.

“I think costumes help so much,” Mitchell says. “The forties-style makeup that I would never do on myself, the hair, the costumes help me get ready to do the show.”

Kelsey Hunt, the costume designer, steams the men’s clothes and then the women’s and affixes gold stars on them with a spray epoxy.

Alone in the rehearsal hall Jon Douglas, Peter van Daan, listens to music and flips through a book of old photos of the people who hid in the annex.

Ronald V. Long Jr., who has a small but significant role, is a student at Penn-Griffin Middle School. He is one of Preston’s favorite actors and the two have worked together in three Triad Stage productions before this. Long has also appeared in a political commercial for Gov. Mike Easley and a Goodyear tire spot with NASCAR driver Matt Kenseth. Before he changes into his costume he downs a hot dog the size of his forearm, slathered with chili and slaw.

Catherine Hagner runs through the suite of rooms, her hair in curlers, looking to plug leaks as they open.

Preston Lane is nowhere to be found.

“I think at this point the best thing he can do is stay away,” Hunt says.

The lobby is full and smells like food. A klezmer band wails in the corner and tulips are everywhere, in pots and vases, arranged in clusters on the floor and the ends of the bar. The crowd filters into the auditorium in fits and eventually the seats are full. After a few words by Preston Lane, who has materialized in a crisp new suit and fresh haircut, and his partner Richard Whittington, the lights dim.

Showtime.

A young boy wearing a backpack walks cautiously down the aisle. He meanders onstage where chairs are stacked in a cluster and a table is covered by a tarp. He pulls a radio from underneath the cover and turns it on.

Lights flash in the skylight, thunder booms and a voice gives an angry speech in a German accent over the sounds of marching, chanting, trains screeching on the rails. He puts the radio down and SS flags drop from the ceiling with a bang.

The stage goes dark and then the Franks make their entrance. A spotlight trains on a young girl, wide-eyed and vulnerable. She regards the room and then she tells her story.

To comment on this story, e-mail Brian Clarey at editor@yesweekly.com.

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