Go Deeper

From the Rooftop: Teenager: Anne Frank

Posted July 29th, 2009

Teenager: Anne Frank will be Anna Watson’s stage debut in Philadelphia, in the United States, and in the English language. Ever since Anna first heard of Philly Fringe, she was thinking about it as a possibility for Teenager: Anne Frank.

“I didn’t have the guts, I was busy with being homesick, and not knowing how to express myself in this weird language,” says Anna. “I was trying to figure out how to do theater here. Either I go auditioning, or do it as Americans do: do it up my own way. Maybe it’s a chance for more people to see me. Nobody remembers an audition.”

But this isn’t the first time she’s lived here. A German native, she spent one year as an exchange student at Julia R. Masterman high school, where she met Richard Watson. They met at a Masterman picnic, where Anna says she got a hit the ball the first time she stepped to the plate and played baseball. While she was doing that, Richard says, he admired her from afar: “I got a friend who was taking pictures to show me how to work his camera so I could take pictures of her for the yearbook.”

Anna and Richard dated, and after a hiatus, reconnected, married, and Anna relocated to Philadelphia in 2008. And one circle, at least, is complete: the rooftop of their building, spitting distance from where they first met, will host the first U.S. production of Teenager: Anne Frank.

Anna trained at the Pygmalion theater school in Vienna, Austria, where the equivalent of her thesis project was Teenager: Anne Frank. A one-woman show that focuses on the emotional and physical struggles of adolescence, Anna says the play doesn’t so much reinterpret the story and mythological stature of Anne Frank, but rather fleshes out Frank’s physical experience as a human.

“We’re not telling the Holocaust story; we’re looking for parallels between Anne Frank and human beings. Through this connection we can bring the audience to feel something, just remembering being a teenager and not being able to stomp, or scream, because you could die if they found you.”

After the jump: stumbling upon a director, and the rooftop set of Teenager: Anne Frank.

“Imagine Mom and Dad are stupid, but you cannot do this,” Anna says, stomping her foot. “[Anne Frank] can’t talk to girlfriends. I had to talk to them, about my boobs, masturbation, how does this all work?”

Director Frank Brückner, another native of Germany now living in Philadelphia, has played a significant role in shaping the English-language version show.

“I like his approach, which is the basics: human, teenager, German, Jewish. But it will be obvious that there’s danger outside, that this is not safe,” Anna says.

Frank and Anna had never met before stumbling upon one another in Rittenhouse Square. Anna had been checking out the Ethical Society as a possible site for Teenager: Anne Frank, and afterwards was in a café, reading a German newspaper. Frank spotted her, they struck up a conversation, and suddenly, a collaboration as Theatre Inbetween.

“He brings great ideas to visualize the adaptations from German to English. We stuck to the original diary text that I chose to perform before, but the way Frank leads me, it’s very non-dramatic. We don’t want to show sadness; we want to keep it as close to us as we are all the time. No blinking lights, no sound affects.”

When they were working on the ideas for the piece, Frank said something about scaffolding, with Anne Frank inside. And with that, they decided they could do the play just about anywhere.

“We decided we needed room, a wide view for contrast, and we want the audience to have a similar view to Anne Frank. In the real story, Anne had a big tree in front of her annex, and got lots of strength out of it. It let her dream and wish for things. This view,” Anna says, gesturing to the Philadelphia skyline, “is probably the same thing but set today. Maybe I [as Anna] want to have a view from the biggest building.”

The idea for scaffolding in particular was ditched, but the performance space will be outlined by PVC piping assembled into a cube, and the set for Teenager: Anne Frank will be spare. A table, Anne’s bag, a diary. The plan is to use a Dictaphone as diary: sometimes Anna will record, sometimes she’ll listen.

“As Anne Frank,” says Anna, “I’ll have the urge to leave some messages. In the beginning I’ll have the urge to figure out the Dictaphone. There will be some pictures in the set too. Anne Frank decorated her room with film stars. I’ll use some current stars, some from her time, and there will be a mirror somewhere, which is very important for the teenage girl.”

There will be about 40 seats per show, with the audience seated on benches mounted at a lower-than-usual height on three sides of the performance space. The audience at stage right and left will have their backs to the low wall that surrounds the roof deck. The fourth side is a view, looking southeast, of the whole Philly skyline. Sunset during the Festival will be about 7:20 pm, so the show will start up against the backdrop of the skyline lighting up for the night.

Anna and Richard are still debating the lighting on the stage itself. Anna wants a construction light: “It looks weird, very ugly. I like looking ugly on stage.” But fluorescent tubes might do the trick, and would get mounted on the PVC tubes that create Anne Frank’s annex.

“The possibility of doing whatever you like is awesome,” Anna says. “Richard, Frank and I can’t think of anything like [Philly Fringe] in Germany. There, if you try something and it doesn’t work, you fail, you’re a loser. I like Germany and German theater, but Fringe and the American DIY way, for me, it’s perfect.”

–Nicholas Gilewicz

Photos by Josh McIlvain