The World’s Most Famous Diary, Live on Stage

Becca Ingram as Anne Frank in BYU's production of The Diary of Anne Frank.

Last night I saw a play at BYU,The Diary of Anne Frank, which has to be the most read diary in the world.  Everybody knows the story of a little girl who was forced into hiding, shut behind a bookcase with her family during World War II.  People may not know all of the details, like the fact that there were 8 people living in those small rooms for over two years, that they had to be absolutely silent during the day to avoid being heard by men working in the factory below, or that after being sent to Auschwitz, Anne, her sister and her mother were sent to Bergen-Belsen where Anne died of typhus just weeks before the Allies liberated that camp.  Still, most people are generally familiar with the history of Nazi Germany during World War II and the many atrocities associated with the Holocaust.  But it is different to hear it described by an upbeat, optimistic, cheerful young girl who was first-hand witness to its effects.

The first thing that strikes you as you enter the Pardoe theatre at BYU is the size of the set: it is extremely small, but extremely well-designed.  A two-story attic apartment with very small rooms that barely contains all of the actors who remain on stage for most of the production.  It really gives you a feel for what it must have been like to live like that for such a long time.  I was feeling claustrophobic for them only watching the play for a little over an hour and a half.  The sides of the set are slanted with tiles and windows, representing the roof of the factory in which the Frank and Van Daan families spent their time.  These spaces were not simply for decoration, though, as historical information and video clips and pictures were projected onto these walls during the preshow, intermission, and during scene breaks helping to give a context to the events of the play and to provide the historical background.

This historical information was great because it was surprisingly missing from the actual play, which focuses more on young Anne and her relationship with her family and the others staying with them.  Essentially, this is less a historical play and more a play about how a girl deals with growing up in a very difficult situation.  Becca Ingram played Anne’s youthful, hopeful energy wonderfully, bringing this teenage girl’s words to life in a such a way that she became a real person and not just a name that we’ve all heard so often.

And we get to see young Anne Frank as a real young girl, with a young girl’s real problems, compounded somewhat by being stuck in hiding, afraid for her life.  We see her argue with her mother, played by Ashley Bonner, and we see her turn to her father, played by Jeff Dickamore.   And we see Anne develop a friendship and the beginnings of a romantic relationship with Peter Van Daan, played by Graham Ward, whose family is in hiding with them.

This play is not really about the Holocaust, it is not really about a Jewish family hiding from the Nazis in Amsterdam, it is not really about the tragedy of World War II.  It is about hope and family and growing up.  It is about youthful optimism in a world that says nothing good can ever happen again.  It is about finding something to be happy about no matter where you are or how bad things seem.  This Diary of a Young Girl that has been such an inspiration to millions is still helping audiences ask the hard questions and ponder the answers.

As I was leaving the theatre after the show, I heard a boy of about 10 ask his father, “But, why did they do it?”, to which his father could only respond, “That’s a very good question.”

And that is why this play, and the book it is based on, are still so successful and popular.  It begs us to ask these questions.  Why did the Nazis do what they did?  Why does such cruelty and inhumanity exist in the world?  And what am I going to do about it when I encounter it?  What can I do to end or prevent similar atrocities that happen throughout the world?

A great play does not just entertain for an evening but seeks to give its audience something to think about and take with them as they leave the theatre.  The Diary of Anne Frank at BYU does exactly this.

The play runs through June 11th.  More information can be found at byuarts.com.

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Finals, And What Comes After

Here at BYU, we are firmly in the middle of Finals week.  I’m not too worried, mine aren’t that bad, except for the fact that I had one scheduled at 7:00 am this morning.  but I was done by 8:30, so it’s not all bad.  And I only have two other finals, the rest of my classes just had us turn in papers on the last day of classes that counted as our finals.   I have a take-home German linguistics final, that should actually be fun (I told you I was a nerd!), and my final for this class for which I created a research blog: Shakespeare.

As the professor explains, this final will be very different from anything I’ve ever done before.  It will be sort of a group discussion of what we have learned and experienced this year.  We will discuss our individual learning plans and how we have met the learning outcomes of the course.  It seems like we’ll also have a chance to discuss the progress and the product of other blogs in the class.

I am excited for this,  I am looking forward to an opportunity to expand the conversation and the discussion about Shakespeare and my interests in Hamlet and Germany.  This has been a very interesting class, exploring the future of academia, by creating research blogs that can connect with scholars and students across the world. This social learning has been fascinating to observe, as students become friends and help each other with research and ideas via comments in class and on the blog.

I have long been amazed at the concept of Knowledge Management and Knowledge Centered Support, which are usually applied only to businesses or IT departments.  The basic idea is that knowledge is an asset and needs to be managed and used in order to be a benefit for the company.  Knowledge is key, and access to knowledge should be easier and better.  I am a big believer in Collective Knowledge and Open Source, especially Open Source Education (thus the title of this blog), where knowledge is free and freely shared with anyone who wants it.  For me, it all comes down to this: I don’t know everything, you don’t know everything, but if we add what you know to what I know, and add that to what everybody else knows, then collectively we do know everything.

And so, with Shakespeare, these ideas, for me, have meant that I have documented my thought process and my findings, my research and my ideas for anyone who cares.  My blog exists and will continue to exist, and I will add to it when I have new things to say pertaining to Shakespeare, teaching, Germany or Hamlet.  I have welcomed the comments made on this blog, and I have made comments on other blogs.  I have collected and cited sources, both traditionally academic sources as well as web resources.

BYU Showcases Senior talent

Last night I had the opportunity of seeing the BFA Senior Showcase at BYU.  I was there on assignment from UTBA (Utah Theater Blogger’s Association) as a trial run, hopefully I will be able to see more shows and write about them for UTBA in the future.  Here is what I wrote about last night’s show.

 

Every year for the last ten years Brigham Young University’s Music Dance Theatre (MDT) program has sponsored a Senior Showcase to highlight the talent of its graduating seniors.  The focus is entirely on what students can do; there are no costumes, no lights, and no set.   The Showcase at BYU serves both to allow the public a chance to see what these singers, dancers, and actors can do and to raise money for four performances in New York City and Los Angeles, where students will perform for agents and industry professionals.

It was a fun show, with a wide variety of genres and music styles represented, as well as monologues.  There were some pieces from well-beloved classics like The King and I, West Side Story, and The Scarlet Pimpernel as well as some more modern shows like Urinetown, which was an interesting choice.  Lisa Stoffer chose to sing “It’s a Privilege to Pee”, which is a good song to show off her singing voice, but an odd subject matter.

The monologues, which were all performed by the female students, were interesting, if a little overbearing.  All of them seemed to be by women who were either recently divorced or separated or dumped and angry at men.  They were strong monologues and the girls performed them well, though frantic and crazy, which seemed to be the point.

Two brief guy/girl scenes were sandwiched between the musical numbers, one from The Heartbreak Kid and one from He and She Fighting a new play by BYU professor Eric Samuelsen, which was wonderfully acted by Ashley Bonner and Ivan Hoffman.  The absurdity of a man proposing with a ring when his girlfriend has just told him that she never wants to see him again, was played to great comedic effect.

Another interesting twist to the show was the addition of two rock songs, Crazy by Gnarls Barkley, performed by Hugh Cha, and Heartbreaker by Pat Benatar, performed by Aurora Florence rather than the traditional showtunes of the rest of the evening.

It was a great show, a wonderful evening of musical theatre that was the perfect showcase of the talent that exists in the MDT program at BYU.

Jesus and Skateboards: A Review of New Play Project’s WWJD

The play runs March 28 and April 8, 9, 11 7:30 PM. 100 N 105 E Provo, UT

New Play Project has a new show, WWJD, about just what you think: Jesus.  It’s a fun play that answers the question we’ve all asked ourselves: What would life be like if Jesus moved in with you and your roommates?

It started out with great hilarity, looking like a TV sitcom, setting up the situation that Jesus stopped by and did the dishes, then decided to stay and hang out.  The first scene even ended with lights out on a dumb little joke, like a sitcom cutting to commercial.  But the play took a more serious turn when it’s revealed that the female friend was beat by her drunk boyfriend, and the other characters start asking “Where was Jesus?  Why didn’t he do anything to prevent this?”

That, to me, is one of the main themes of the show: not What Would Jesus Do, but Why Would Jesus Do?  Each of the characters have to deal with that, as each believing Christian has to deal with that question.  Where was Jesus when tragedies happened?  Why did he allow Japan, Chile, or Haiti to suffer the terrible earthquakes and devastation?  Or, as one character asks, what about Africa, the entire continent of Africa?

I was also very impressed with the fact that Jesus did not speak at all during the play.  In a way, this puts the entire audience in the same situation as the character of Tom, who can neither see nor hear Jesus.  All of his roommates, even random people on the streets can see and talk to Jesus, but Tom, who is a believer, cannot.  It’s funny and thoughtful, Jesus nods, and talks with his hands, and the other characters translate, but in the end, Tom has no physical proof that Jesus is there.  And as an audience, we can see Jesus, but we don’t hear him.  We too, find ourselves asking if he is really there, as so many people, believers and non-believers alike, ask every day.  Jesus cannot always be seen or heard, but his influence can be felt, in many little subtle ways, just like the Jesus in the play.

It was also very interesting, for a New Play Project show, that there was no reference to Mormonism at all, unless perhaps a slight jab at the Utah hair that one female character wears.  None of the characters are Mormon, nor do they talk about any specifically Mormon themes or doctrines, which I thought odd for a play about Jesus being performed in Provo, Utah.  It’s not a bad thing, in fact, I think that’s one of the strongest aspects of this play.  It is universal in its Christianity, in its look at what Christianity means to us as individuals, and in its asking us to find Christ in our everyday lives.  Tom says a couple of times throughout the play that he believes in Jesus, he just doesn’t believe that Jesus is hanging out in his living room.  Or in other words, any one of us might say, ‘I believe in Jesus, I just don’t believe he has a place in my personal life.’

It was a wonderful show, just funny enough to keep you entertained and interested and just serious enough to give you something to think about and talk about as you left the theatre, which was only enhanced by New Play Project’s tradition of having a talk-back with the audience, cast and crew after each performance.  It was a great opportunity to not only express my personal thoughts and feelings about the play, but to hear from others.  This is definitely a play worth seeing, you should totally go, and bring all of your friends.  You may just meet Jesus.

The Authorship question, thanks to Twitter

There was a fun thing going on yesterday on Twitter, the hashtag #askshakespeare being sponsored by Blogging Shakespeare.  Some prominent Shakespeare scholars were answering questions about Shakespeare.  This is fun, and I got involved as well, asking a few questions that I have been thinking about, and I got some great responses.

One of the biggest things that I have always had a problem with when people discuss Shakespeare is the Authorship question.  For me, it doesn’t really matter.  I am very much of the school of thought that “the author is dead.”  Once an author has written the text, and released it to the public, his involvement with it is over.  At that point, all meaning that can be found in the text must be found in the text.  If an author makes a statement about anything, I usually ignore it, unless it can be found in the text.  For example, J.K. Rowling has said that Dumbledore was gay.  I’m sorry, but I find no textual evidence for that, so I do not believe it.  If Ms. Rowling wanted Dumbledore to be gay, then she should have put something in the text that would lead to that.

So, with all of this in mind, and seeing that several people had asked about who really wrote Shakespeare, I asked, “#askshakespeare Does it really matter who wrote the text, if we can find deep themes and enjoyment in the plays t hemselves ?”


I got some great responses from #shakesstandard, The Shakespeare Standard, that I found wonderful.


@dteeps We like where your question is headed w/ re: authorship but having the context of a person’s life informs understanding of the plays


@dteeps #askshakespeare all context is important for a complete understanding of the plays.


@dteeps #askshakespeare If u know WS was an actor, it might help u understand why many of his plays use acting as the central metaphor.


@dteeps #askshakespeare We also think determining meaning always requires comparing the object (text) to other objects (yourself).. (cont’d)


@dteeps #askshakespeare So why can’t the author or the context of the way the play was made be one of the things that reveals meaning, too?



This gave me quite a bit to think about, especially that comment about Shakespeare being an actor — I guess I had never really thought about that fact being relevant.  It does help explain why so many plays talk about plays, why there are so many examples of the play-within-the-play (Hamlet, Midsummer Night’s Dream, Taming of the Shrew, etc.)


I guess I need to revise my previous literary criticism theories, and maybe not write off author background quite so completely.  And even if we never find out conclusively who put quill to parchment to pen these famous lines, we can at least catch a glimpse into the character of the man by reading, studying, and analyzing these plays.


Of course, when all is said and done, we all know that Christopher Marlowe is the real Shakespeare!

 

Wilhelm Shakespeare – Shakespeare in Germany

William Shakespeare is loved the world over, but nowhere near as much as in Germany.  From some simple Google searches on Shakespeare and Germany, I have learned that the oldest Shakespeare Society in the world is German: Deutsche Shakespeare-Gesellschaft, founded in 1864, English acting troops brought the Bard to Germany in the early 1700s with performances translated into German, and there have been so many translations of Shakespeare’s plays into German that most Germans actually believe thatWilhelm Shakespeare was a German!

As a student of German, who has loved this language and this culture for over a decade now,  I find this fascinating.  I have found several translations of these plays online and they have evolved as the modern German language has evolved.  Shakespeare is very much alive in German, because he is allowed to be translated and retranslated, where in English there are always those purists who frown on anything but the actual, authentic, original text.  But Shakespeare has been allowed to thrive in Germany precisely because he is a foreigner.  And yet, he is very much a German.  A poem from the German Shakespeare Society reads,

Seht, heut’ gesellt, im heil’gen Bund der Dritte,
Zu Deutschlands Dioskuren sich der Brite,
Auch er ist unser…

(See, today in the holy bond joins as the third, to Germany’s dioscuri (referring to Schiller and Goethe), the Brit.  He, too, is ours.)

The first line is almost a direct quote from a poem written by Schiller, Die Bürgschaft, where a Lord had condemned a man to die, but allowed him to visit home shortly to see his sister married, provided his friend stay behind.  Should this man not return in three days, the friend would be executed in his stead.  This lord is sure that the man will not return, but when he does, this lord is so surprised at the bond of their friendship that he begs to be allowed to join their bond as a third.  And that last line is reminiscent of a poem that Goethe wrote about Schiller, saying “Denn er war unser” (For he was ours).  Shakespeare is as German as these two great classical writers who have shaped and molded not only the German language, but their culture and their idea of themselves as well.

I would like to explore this phenomenon.  Look at when and how often Shakespeare has been translated into German, and by whom.  I would like to examine, as far as I can, Shakespeare’s influence on German language, or at least German literature.   The great German writers like Goethe, Lessing, Schiller were definitely familiar with Shakespeare’s works and were definitely fans.  How much was there writing influenced by the plays of Shakespeare?  That would be very interesting to look into.  I wonder if anyone has done research on that?

Teaching Shakespeare, or What I learn from Slings and Arrows

There is a wonderful Canadian television show that I was introduced to a few years ago in my Shakespeare class.  The teacher showed us a little clip of the theme song of Slings and Arrows.

It’s a great show about a Shakespearean Festival producing plays, but more than that, it actually teaches a lot about Shakespeare and theater.  I love the show because of my theatre experience, it’s hilariously accurate in some respects.  From all of the crazy hijinks that happen backstage, to the crazy relationships between actors, director, techies, Stage Manager, etc, to the plays and the rehearsal process and the performances.

What is really impressive to me about this show is that it is not just a funny TV show that makes fun of Shakespeare, or actors, or theatre, it actually performs great works of Shakespeare.  They don’t show the entire play, but they do act out scenes from the play, and even in the short clips we get, you can tell that they’ve put a lot of thought and effort into the production.  One of my favorite scenes is from season 1, where they are doing Hamlet, and the director is trying to explain Ophelia’s madness to the ditz of a girl they’ve got playing her.  I have never really understood Ophelia’s madness, but when I heard this scene, this director explaining it to his actress, it made sense to me.

I also love some of the directorial choices they make when they are producing their plays.  I seriously consider stealing some of these ideas should I ever find myself in a position to direct these plays.  Like Macbeth.  Most productions love using a very bloody, ghastly looking actor to play the ghost of Banquo who comes and torments Macbeth during the banquet scene.  But only Macbeth and the audience are supposed to see Banquo, the other characters on stage do not.  In this show, they talk about not using an actor, but leaving the chair that Banquo’s ghost is supposed to sit in empty.  They talk about how eerie it is to watch someone yell and scream and argue with an empty chair.  I believe this emphasizes Macbeth’s insanity at this point – he’s seeing the bloody results of his ambition.  Such a simple thing, but I love it so much.

That’s why I love this show, and that’s what gives this show its power.  When they need to they can perform Shakespeare as well as any professional troupe.  But, mixed in with that is the humor and interesting character development that makes the show worth watching.  It’s not just a Wishbone-esque retelling of the plot of the play in the lives of those performing the play, but certain elements of the plays do appear in the other characters and the plot of the TV show, which just serves to emphasize those aspects and sheds understanding on the plays.   For example, the director of this Hamlet, shown in the clip above, was once an actor who played Hamlet so very well – for three performances until he went mad and ran off stage in the middle of a performance.  Now, he is seeing the ghost of his former director, whose production of Hamlet he has been to take over.  His character parallels that of Hamlet, and this director, who had famously been a Hamlet, helps the young actor cast as Hamlet understand the role.

And so, as I think about teaching and Shakespeare, I love this show.  I am going to use a lot of the elements I learned from this show, as well as using some of these clips.  Shakespeare is wonderful stuff, it teaches amazing things about human nature and about life and relationships.  But it is becoming harder for students to understand as our language is developing and changing from that language that Shakespeare wrote in.  But behind the language of Shakespeare are ideas and situations that students can and do understand.  That’s why so many different adaptations and versions of Shakespeare can be done.  Shakespeare can be taught, it can be understood, it can be loved.