Moffat County High School pushes theater boundaries in preparation for ‘The Diary of Anne Frank’ |

Moffat County High School pushes theater boundaries in preparation for ‘The Diary of Anne Frank’

Director and students to break down 'fourth wall' in presenting historical drama

Michael Neary

Anne Frank (Stephanie Duarte) puts pen to paper while in hiding in "The Diary of Anne Frank." The production about a group of Jewish people during the Holocaust is the spring play for Moffat County High School's theater department.

— Grace Pomeleo likes the plays she directs to swell beyond the stage and ease into the audience's space.

"It's called the fourth wall," Pomeleo said. "I like to break that wall down if I can. I think it makes it less of a sit-down experience and more engaging for the audience."

Pomeleo, theater director for Moffat County High School, is opening up that wall to let the audience into a world they probably have studied in school — but may not have experienced dramatically.

This spring, Moffat County High School is performing the play, "The Diary of Anne Frank," based on the book, "Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl." The play, adapted by Wendy Kesselman, will be performed at 7 p.m. March 10, 11 and 12, with a matinee at 2 p.m. March 12 in the MCHS auditorium.

Pomeleo said some questions arose as soon as she began to contemplate directing the play.

"How am I going to build the set?" asked Pomeleo, who's in her first year of teaching. "How am I going to lay out the story in a way that's creative and in a way that works for our space and our cast but that still is accurate and tells the story in a truthful way?"

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And so Pomeleo contemplated how she could bring the audience into the lives of a Jewish family — Anne Frank, her sister Margot and their parents — and four other Jewish people hiding from the Nazis in Amsterdam, in the Netherlands. The account has come to represent for many people the struggles of millions of Jews who lived, and who tragically died, during the Holocaust.

The physical environment

Pomeleo has crafted a set design that strives for painstaking realism but that also breaks some traditional actor-audience boundaries. Throughout the play, the Jewish people in hiding are staying in an annex to a business owned by Otto Frank, Anne's father. Pomeleo will devote the entire stage to the annex, but on the floor in front of the stage she'll place furniture and other items — such as a typewriter — to show the business that continues to go on as the Franks live their lives in hiding. On the left stairwell will be a swinging bookcase to replicate the passageway the Franks used to enter the hiding place.

"It's very interesting to see the reactions of Miep (Gies) and the workers when they're in the office building," Pomeleo said. "You can see the worry on their faces."

Pomeleo has arranged for other small but visible objects to be placed on stage, such as a bare light bulb hanging from a cord.

"You'll see in the very last scene that it plays an important role," she said.

Imagining history

Stephanie Duarte, who plays Anne Frank, said she tries to imagine the Franks as if they are her own family.

"I try to put myself in their position," said Stephanie, a senior at MCHS. "I think about what it would feel like for my whole family to go into hiding for a whole year with very (few) things."

Jake Stewart, who's playing Otto Frank, Anne's father, said he thinks hard about pouring his own creativity into the part while trying to stay loyal to the historical Otto Frank.

"Otto changed people's emotions in real life," Jake said. "You have to figure out a way to do that and still be realistic."

Jake, a senior, also talked about the way he works to bring out the complexity of Otto Frank's character — someone who was able to divert attention from a stressful moment with an unexpected comment.

"I think that was my biggest thing — tapping into the side of Otto that wasn't just sad but also mildly light-hearted," Jake said. "He was trying to help his family, and help these other people, who were in such a traumatic situation."

Stephanie noted, too, the way she brings out the playful side of Anne — someone who remains, despite the devastating cruelty unraveling outside, a young girl.

"She's always skipping around, dancing, saying things that will make other people smile," she said.

Some research — and a visitor

As the students prepared for the play, they were able to gather glimpses of the historical setting beyond the script. Gisela Garrison, who grew up in Germany in the years following the Holocaust, helped the students with German and French portions of the play. Garrison said that when the students found out she'd grown up in Germany after the Holocaust, they wanted to learn more.

Garrison, who earned her medical degree in Germany, is the director of the Northwest Colorado Visiting Nurse Association’s Community Health Center.

Garrison recalled stories her parents and grandparents told her about Germany in the years leading up to World War II. Her parents were born in 1923 and 1924, and her father was a soldier in the German army. Garrison said that as she was growing up, she asked her parents and other relatives about the period.

"They clearly didn't like talking about this period," said Garrison, who was born in 1953. "My parents were very non-political, low-income, simple people."

Garrison grew up in a small town called Marl, and she said her parents and grandparents described a kind of indoctrination that occurred in Germany before the war.

"There was an expectation that the young kids would join after-school groups," she said. "They were designed to emphasize physical fitness and practical skills, but they also indoctrinated people into the philosophy of German superiority."

Although Garrison initially met with the students to help them with language, she noted that she was impressed with how curious they were about this historical period.

"I could tell they were very interested in what was going on in Germany at the time," she said.

Students immersed themselves in history in other ways, too.

Aaron Hill, stage manager for the play, talked about finding radio broadcasts from the period — some of which will be played during the performance.

"It was the real thing that was heard back in the day when it was first broadcast," said Aaron, a 15-year-old sophomore. "It was authentic, and it brought everything together."

A big part of Aaron's role as stage manager, in fact, is to weave together different parts of the production.

"What I like about it is that it's really diverse," he said. "You can go from trying to notice the subtle things that have changed within the scenes to make them better to going up and standing in place of one of the actors who were missing."

Community help

Aaron said his job also involves working with the set — an effort that's been nourished by community members such as Melinda Hall. A parent of two Moffat County High School graduates, Hall has helped to arrange furniture and other objects to create the sense, for the audience, of dwelling within the multi-floor annex.

"We're really trying to capture what it would have been like to be in that area," she said. "It wasn't very big, but there were lots of nooks and crannies."

Hall said she worked with Randy Looper, father to cast member Jeremy Looper, to craft portions of the set to experience the vibrant, though grimly confined, life that unfolds there.

"When people come into the theater, when that audience walks in, you actually want them to feel like they're stepping into that workplace that Otto Frank has," Hall said.

Cast for Moffat County High School production of The Diary of Anne Frank

Anne Frank: Stephanie Duarte

Otto Frank: Jake Stewart

Edith Frank: Christa Bird

Margot Frank: Bekah Bird

Mr. Van Daan: Jeremy Looper

Mrs. Van Daan: Madelaine Petersen

Peter Van Daan: Dylan Kernen

Mr. Dussel: Sambu Shrestha

Mr. Krahler: Sampson Fejt

Miep Gies: Kenna Rowley

Nazi Sergeant: Devin McIntosh

Nazi Officer: Kobe Switzler

Burglar: Aaron Hill

Office Clerks/Prisoners/Intermission Actors:

Mackenzie Hanson, Olivia Neece, Brenna Knez, Jerzey Gariner, Ashleigh Wheeler

Stage Manager: Aaron Hill

Stage Crew: Abigail Fritz, Laura Bolton, Logan Duke

— The show takes place at 7 p.m. March 10, 11 and 12, with a matinee at 2 p.m. March 12 at MCHS, 900 Finley Lane. Tickets are $6 for general admission.