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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:

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