When I was twelve, I played Anne Frank in a local theatre production up in the mountains of North Jersey. It was in one of those performance spaces that makes you miss the community theatre scene–a sturdy, 19th-century chapel in the center of town, with original wooden pews, a lady bug infestation, and the smell of books and old coffee.
The timing of this show was a major comfort for me and my family, it was just over two years since we had moved from Plainfield, a town that had become so dangerous that we purposely “disappeared” with as little a trace as possible. These were the days before the internet, and so all you needed to do was select being “unlisted” in the White Pages, and bam, you were off the grid. Studying Anne brought such solace to me in a time when I felt that I had also up and left my friends without a mailing address. The door simply closed on that old life. Unlike Anne though, I started a new one. I was welcomed by a chance to play in the woods, to ride my bike until the sun went down, to meet new friends, and through that, work with new theatre companies.
I had a pretty lucky theatre ‘career’ as a kid, I probably worked more then than I have as an adult so far. But up until that point, I hadn’t dealt with a role with such a massive line-load as Anne. I also spend 99% of the show on stage, only stepping behind a flat to change during the second act; and of course, I did not come in the final scene, when Otto Frank returns without his family.
But my primary focus was on my lines, of the logistics of staying on stage that long, of the ins and outs of imitating and embodying a historical figure I had already looked up to for years. You can learn a lot about someone’s energy and enthusiasm for life through their writing voice, and perhaps this is why we’re all so drawn to this girl. I studied the way she viewed the crumbling world around her, how she always maintained empathy and a belief in others’ goodness, even when she got angry and frustrated and panicked. I connected with the fact that she had terrifying nightmares that woke her up mid-scream (at least this is how its depicted in the show). I grew up with nightmares, and still either sleep walk or wake up gasping for breath from time to time. But most of all, I remember obsessively retraining myself on how to hold my pen–sometimes the two front fingers connected to the pencil, my thumb on the other side, and sometimes the pencil between the fore and middle finger, something that took a good deal of practice. I still catch myself doing these from time to time.
And so I learned to sit like her, to speak in a rhythm I believed she would have used, and to sink into the small world of the annex; as in real life, I played with the ladybugs and stared out the church window at a similar chestnut tree she describes in her diary. In the end, as with all roles, I am still me, and so we slowly became one, walking and talking in tandem. In the early days of living in a new town, she was a friend.