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Thursday, August 20, 2015

Bearing Witness: The Diary of Anne Frank

My most difficult job this season as a live theatre audio describer has been The Diary Of Anne Frank. It's not that the production is visually complex, but the subject matter is a very dark demon to face. I was dreading it the first time around, but a wise friend pointed out: "The worst thing we can do in the face of evil is ignore it. The best of the human spirit, something of which we can and should always be proud, is found in witnessing. Subject evil to fierce, relentless scrutiny. Oblige it to be brazen or craven, but never let it slip by unremarked. Your work this evening is part of that continuum of witnessing. Take heart. Find joy in the good."

It is a remarkable production, and I wept during my descriptive performance. That is okay. That is authentic.

So as I head out to perform this amazing duty once again, here is an interview I did earlier in the year with Sara Farb, who plays Anne Frank at the Stratford Festival.

Sara Farb as Anne Frank

Q: What does it mean to you to be cast in this important role?

A: It’s a milestone for an actor of Jewish heritage. We have many survivors in our own family. In fact, I’ll be doing a Forum event with my grandmother, who herself was a young girl in a concentration camp. The wartime experiences with the Nazis were openly talked about as I grew up, so Anne Frank is part of my genetic fibre.

Q: So you were already very familiar with the book and the play?

A: I came to Anne’s diary early at elementary school: alongside the Torah, it was one of the main important texts for me growing up. This familiarity will be invaluable in doing the part.

As for the play, I’ve auditioned for the role in the past, and I saw a wonderful production at Young People’s Theatre in Toronto when I was very young. I admired the careful attention to details. Very finely drawn characters, like the portrayal of Mr. Dussel and his distaste for the cat – it had a great impact on me. I’m glad that a lot of more recent productions have been updated and are much more true to the diary itself, not watered down and sanitized. That sort of thing is a disservice to the legacy Anne left behind.

Q: What are you most looking forward to about working on the play? What are the biggest challenges for you?

A: It’s more of a joy than a daunting challenge. I’m aware of the extreme weight of history, but it is not foreign territory to me, so I feel confident that I can do it justice. I have two solid years in the Festival acting company behind me [Ms Farb is a graduate of the Birmingham Conservatory and has played the Shakespearean roles of Jessica and Cordelia] and that has certainly boosted my confidence. And there’s such a strong support network here – so many friends and mentors to count on.

I’m excited to work with the director, Jillian Keiley. She has an amazing brain and such a creative approach! It’s great to be a part of a production that will “dust it off” and transcend the usual expectations of what the play should look like. It will not be at all precious or twee.

Q: Do you feel that this story is still important to audiences of today?

A: We need this play here and now. We seem to endlessly cycle through a continuum of man’s ultimate cruelty and inhumanity to his fellow man. We’re fast approaching a time when the last survivors of the Holocaust will die off – so many now in their 80s and 90s – and it will be too late to make their struggles known first-hand. We need to be able to connect actual faces and individuals to these stories – make them real and meaningful.

It is a story of ordinary, flawed people, not saints and milksops. Thrown together, any bunch of different personalities will clash, even under better circumstances. Spend enough time with them, and even those you love the most will become your enemies, like Anne and her mom. Even icons of the perseverance of the human spirit can be selfish.

As a writer myself, I’ve found that specificity counts when telling a story: the more personal it is, the better understood by a wider audience. It gives us something to relate to – a universal understanding.

Please come and see this Stratford Festival production, if you are able:

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Meet Maria from the Stratford Festival's 'The Sound of Music'

Continuing with some of my retrospective articles from the Stratford Festival's SceneNotes e-magazine, I thought it might be fun to share this 'Meeting Maria' interview with the lovely and oh-so-talented Stephanie Rothenberg. We had a chance to chat back in the winter before rehearsals began. Since it opened, the production of this classic Rodgers and Hammerstein musical has earned rave reviews-- and well deserved, too! Stephanie is a shining star, as you can see and hear in the video above.

(I will be giving another live audio described performance of The Sound of Music again this week, so the show is at the front of my mind!)

Q: Since this will be your Stratford Festival debut, can you tell our readers a bit about your background?

A: I grew up in Nashville, Tennessee – though my parents both hail from the East Coast (Dad’s from New York and Mom’s from Pennsylvania) – and at the tender age of eight, I hit a fork in the road: should I continue with swimming lessons or theatre? I chose theatre and I’ve never looked back!

Being in the music mecca of Nashville, it seemed everyone’s basement contained a recording studio. I learned a lot about singing and started doing recordings with one of the city’s biggest kids’ music producers, working for companies like Disney and MTI. I was in a production of Grease at eight, and went “professional” with a dinner theatre production of Annie at eleven, then starred in The Diary of Anne Frank with Tennessee Repertory at fourteen.

Q: How did you get your big start as a leading lady on Broadway?

A: After high school, I applied to study Drama at the Tisch School of the Arts in New York. I left there in 2011 and went straight to the Broadway production of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying as an understudy.

The big moment came when I suddenly had to go on as Rosemary opposite Daniel Radcliffe – yes, Harry Potter himself! I only had a few hours to prepare for a sold-out performance. My dad managed to get a ticket, and it meant the world to me having him in the audience (along with notable patrons like Nathan Lane). Daniel was amazing and supportive, and he told me, “You’re not meant to just be understudying – you need to be doing this!”

I went on to take over the role of Rosemary opposite Nick Jonas, and no doubt once again made every teenage girl out there extremely jealous. It was the cherry on top of a really great cake. I had so many fantastic experiences doing that one show!

Q: What are you most looking forward to about being in Stratford next season?
A: It’s such a beautiful place! Growing up in Nashville, I was always surrounded by parks and outdoorsy spaces, and Stratford reminds me so much of that. I can’t wait to explore the town and dig into the local foodie scene, farmers’ markets and great restaurants – I love food and cooking.

Most of all, I am so honoured and thrilled to be on the Festival stage working with [director] Donna Feore and the amazing company. I saw Crazy for You this past season, and I was completely blown away by the energy and the palpable enjoyment between the cast and the audience. I can’t wait!

Q: Lastly, what are a few of your favourite things? Name five!

A: My choices are all so incredibly girly, but here we go!

One: In the winter, there’s nothing better than a luxurious bubble bath. And I mean a proper bath, with Mozart playing in the background, candles and a glass of wine while I lie back with a Travel and Leisure magazine. I love travel. In fact, I am visiting Austria over the holidays – it will be wonderful to get a first-hand look at the actual setting of The Sound of Music.

Two: I adore swimming and water, especially swimming in the ocean. I get a kick out of exploring gyms in New York – especially ones with rooftop pools.

Three: Cooking. I enjoy making meals for a crowd and throwing themed dinner parties. I just held a Mexican fiesta themed party with a bunch of friends, and it was great fun.

Four: Date night. I adore going out for a good ol’ fashioned dinner and a movie night with my guy. We go someplace fun for some food, like a neighbourhood Chinese joint, and then stroll through the Village to a great local movie house that screens old films, like Hitchcock classics.

Five: High tea. I love pulling out all of the stops and having a great formal spread with scones and cream with my best girlfriends.

The Sound of Music is on now -- and has been extended until November 1st!