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Thursday, September 30, 2010

Insider Arts: Musings on Anne Frank’s Audience

By Ina B. Chadwick

If you are headed to the Westport Country Playhouse at any time in the near future, not just for the stellar new production of “The Diary of Anne Frank,” but for any production, I advise you to sit far away from me, if you know me by sight.

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Why? I am an eavesdropper, especially in our town’s homey, pretty fabulous looking theater. I am always a writer and reporter, trying to listen in on “everyman’s” thoughts to take the pulse of the Zeitgeist, you might say.

I like to write down people’s comments, just like that! Just as I heard them. Don’t worry, you may be shamed but you won’t be named.

I am not in the theater to critique the show, but rather to incorporate relevant social opinion as it pertains to the arts in this era—a snapshot of how as a town we relate to art, to culture, to each other. Your dialogues make me think. Make me react.

I have overheard praise of canned, lighthearted revivals done by deft directors with innovative sets, and with highly professional actors. I have heard the comments on great scoring and triumphant performances for musicals, and, whether I like the play in its totality, I could agree.

I, however, am a big fan of hard-hitting plays that make me think or make me cry. I like to ponder. I like to see the good in everything.  Even a bad play has a reason for being and I try to figure out what went right or wrong, but more than anything I try to see why it got into the Playhouse mix.

The man who sat behind me on preview opening night for “The Diary of Anne Frank” was a most non-felicitous fellow who certainly deserves to have his opinion heard. I was appalled at his pre-curtain judgment that the Playhouse was making a mistake to “to dwell on these subjects from so long ago—to include such a downer in the season.”

Wow. That was a shallow arrow in my heart, and from someone who had probably just had a lovely dinner in Fairfield County and who wanted to continue the evening in complete harmony with his own sense of himself. 

He was unaware, and skeptical, when I informed him that the Westport Arts Center and the Westport Country Playhouse were conjoined in a thematic exploration of “Memory.” 

I didn’t get a chance to tell him that a Holocaust survivor’s daughter, the visionary artistic curator at WAC who put together a remarkable exhibition with a good deal of Holocaust art, Helen Klisser During, is one of the most upbeat people that I know and her demeanor belies the gravity of her ancestor’s lives. “Not dwell on these subjects?”

I informed him, whether he wanted to hear it or not, that I was very lucky because, as far as I know, I had no relatives exterminated in Germany, or trapped in Holland before being sent to the camps. My relatives came here around 1898, all of them.

But my luck doesn’t prevent me from reflecting on horrifying events. Doesn’t introspection guard us from vanity? From arrogance? Didn’t denial or the lack of desire to know about these things create the worst sort of horror for the Jews in those countries that were not so lucky as we were?

“The Diary of Anne Frank” is indeed a play that leaves you with a somber thought. But it is a play about the amazing ways humanity “hopes” despite human unimaginable suffering. It is about everything we need to dwell on forever. 

Anne Frank was on a real life journey into womanhood while in hiding from the Nazis. She told herself the truth with humor and pathos. She was one of the rare beings who survive to inspire others despite her physical death during the liberation of the camps. “Not dwell on these subjects?”

At the end of the first act, during the black out, there was an overwhelming, reverent silence. “Deathly still” would be an accurate term. No one was running to the bathroom as they did in “Happy Days.”  No one was gleefully checking out the orchestra pit as they did for “I Do I Do!”

The woman sitting in front of me sighed when the lights came up, “I couldn’t applaud,” she said. “I didn’t want to interrupt what was happening almost in real life and in my heart.” Anne Frank lives today because we should dwell on atrocities. They happen over and over, and it’s artists who are left to tell the tale.

We must dwell on things that make that man sad, or make him uncomfortable, or better yet, remove him from his privileged reality. We shall applaud the existence of hope instead of avoiding what makes us despair. We shall certainly applaud the selection of this play, because it’s life affirming.

If we don’t pay attention to Anne Frank’s memoir, or to “Memory” as it has been captured visually in the exhibit at WAC, if we are only willing to watch rousing musicals or hear Noel Coward’s flippant scripts, we will be consigned to our own narcissism.

That’s a place where all art will be the same. Where art will no longer have a purpose. A smiley face will do just fine above the mantle, and the dialogue we hear everyday will only be, “Have a nice day!”

WestportNow.com ImageEditor’s note: Ina B. Chadwick produces and directs community storytelling and writing programs in partnership with not-for-profit organizations, local theaters, senior centers and arts organizations.


Posted 09/30/10 at 09:00 AM  Permalink


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I am glad I wasn’t sitting near you - and particularly glad I am not the man who did.  I don’t feel a particular audience member’s reaction to a play should be held up to public scrutiny and generalizing disapproval.  Each audience member’s experience is a private one and should be shared publicly only with the knowledge of the person.

Posted by mary ruggiero on September 30, 2010 at 12:14 PM | #

Hopefully the play left him moved and reflecting on what he experienced that night.  After all, there must have been a reason that he came in the first place.

I agree that is important to review times of evil as well as times of good.  Otherwise, we neglect the lessons of history, and we all know what happens with lessons of history that are not learned.

Thanks are due to all who help perpetuate the memory of Anne Frank and her sadly short journey through life—as well as the stolen years of too many others who like her were persecuted during that terrible period of human history.

Posted by Judy Starr on September 30, 2010 at 01:38 PM | #

Sorry, but I disagree.  The play is history and history is never old, especially for those who have not experienced it.

When I was about 5 years old in Berlin, Germany
I was with a group of children playing in the street. A neighbor spat in my face, called me a Jew witch and told me to get away.  No one stood up for me. It was my initiation into torment and is as clear as yesterday in my brain.

By setting that man straight Ina Chadwick spoke for all those who had these experiences and worse.
And by making it public it shows that there are
people who just don’t get it.  have no understanding of what being victims of that era was like and don’t want to know.

The current exhibit at the Arts Center does please me ;-)  When my husband and I were looking for venue to exhibit some beautiful and amazing artwork done by senior art students from the Jewish High School in Berlin after I did a workshop with them there, the Arts Center powers that be felt it was not appropriate.  The paintings were exhibited at Earthplace for a month and was a huge success.
Janet Beasley

Posted by Janet Beasley on September 30, 2010 at 01:59 PM | #

You’re a brave woman, Janet.  God bless you.  None of us can ever know what you experienced unless we were there.  B/c of that, we need to hear the history again, lest we ever forget what you went through or those like Anne Frank who didn’t survive.

I’ll never forget reading her memoir as a little girl in school.  It was on our reading list.  I was so amazed by her dignity, maturity and courage, that I forgot how youthful she really was.

Sad the Arts Center wouldn’t display the art.  Sorry I missed the exhibit at Earthplace.

I think individuals such as that man, don’t quite know how to deal w/ that kind of suffering, but want to attend the play to know, to try and comprehend the incomprehensible.

Posted by Jean Marie Wiesen on October 01, 2010 at 03:53 PM | #

Ms. Beasley,
I don’t think we are at all in disagreement here, do you?
Judy Starr

Posted by Judy Starr on October 01, 2010 at 04:07 PM | #

Ms. Starr,
My disagreement was with the first posting and by the
time I was done typing mine and submitting it, yours was already posted.  I had hoped that there would be no confusion.
Janet Beasley

Posted by Janet Beasley on October 02, 2010 at 02:04 PM | #

Dear Janet,

Thank you for your comments about our current Memory exhibition at the Westport Arts Center (WAC). The current leadership team was not in place when you were looking for a venue to show artwork by Berlin high school students.  I don’t know the rationale for the past decision, but can assure you that regardless of the outcome, you would have a positive experience today. 

We welcome ideas and suggestions from individuals in the community.  While we might not be able to organize a dedicated exhibition devoted to each concept, we work hard to find ways to include these “gems” as part of our exhibition programming.  Whether it’s a talk at our Friday WAC Art Cafe or during our Wednesday Artist brown bag lunches, we open our doors to artists and art appreciators of all ages to enhance understanding and dialogue about the arts. 

So please stop by and introduce yourself to our new Director of Visual Arts, Helen Klisser During…or even better, come to the gallery on a Friday morning during the Memory exhibition and share your Berlin experience with us over coffee and home-baked muffins.  I think you’ll receive a very warm welcome!

Posted by Nancy J. Heller on October 04, 2010 at 08:58 PM | #

Ms. Beasley, thanks.  Just wanted to be sure.  Also, thank you for your work in keeping alive the memory of that terrible time.  It is so important for everyone to know and remember what happened.  It would be too easy to forget, which we never should.

Posted by Judy Starr on October 05, 2010 at 12:37 AM | #