By Annette Hinkle; Photography by Laurie Barone-Schaefer
When it comes to grabbing the attention of young people, there’s nothing like a good book — except perhaps a good stage adaptation of a good book.
That’s what the Bay Street Theatre offers through its “Literature Live!” program which, each year, presents a staged version of a classic book which middle and high school students are reading as part of their school curriculum.
This year’s production, “The Diary of Anne Frank,” opens November 8 and runs through November 26 with weekday shows for school groups and evening performances on the weekend for the community. This production is directed by Joe Minutillo, who has a long history of working with students and theater.
“I spent the last 34 years doing theater education with students, not only through my own district — Eastport/South Manor from which I retired a year ago June — but also as part of the New York State Theatre Education Association in Albany,” says Minutillo. “I’ve been very involved with theater education from middle school to high school and college.”
Because he has taught for so long, Minutillo recognizes the importance of certain pieces of literature. The story of Anne Frank, the young Jewish girl who for two years hid from the Nazis in an Amsterdam attic with her parents and sister along with another couple, the Van Daan’s, and their teenage son Peter and Mr. Dussel, a dentist, is well-known thanks to the diary Anne kept while in hiding.
While it’s a familiar tale for those of us who grew up with parents or grandparents who had first hand memories of W.W.II, memories have faded with time. For Minutillo, keeping Anne’s story alive in the minds of students today is of the utmost importance.
“I was talking to the cast about this, I said, there’s an opportunity here to really get involved with the historical aspects and present this information to students who aren’t aware of it anymore,” he says. “My dad’s going to be 90 – he fought in W.W.II, but people like him are few and far between.”
Minutillo, who taught W.W.II literature in the school from 1980 until about eight years ago, saw his students awareness of the era wane as the years progressed.
“It was interesting to watch the reaction of the students when we discussed those books,” says Minutillo. “It became further and further away from them and more unbelievable. But it’s something we can’t forget. I think this play is so incredibly important and the cast feels it too.”
“We can almost feel the spirit of the family with us,” he adds.
Keeping that spirit alive is where theater can be most effective, particularly in a story like this where the book offers a single perspective, and that of a very young girl besides.
“It’s a diary, so right there it can only be so interesting to a 15-year-old reading it in a high school today,” says Minutillo. “Some parts are pretty cool, but for the most part, this is kind of boring when you present it to students. Now with the play it’s coming to life and something they can connect with when they see it.”
And seeing it is vital for this generation.
“Today, students are very visual with the bombardment of the different media they’re hit with,” explains Minutillo. “They’re definitely visual learners and to see it, to feel it is so different.”
Along those lines, one of the interesting dichotomies in the play is the vastly different manner in which Anne and Peter pursue their romance compared with today’s teens. In the absence of cell phones, Internet or even television, the young lovers must explore their mutual interest the old fashioned way — face to face.
“We talked about that in rehearsal,” says Minutillo. “Going up there to the attic, the first contact is not through a text. You have to confront this person, see them, look at facial expressions. The two actors playing this are young — they get it. They’ve done their research and it’s interesting to watch that whole romance come to life.”
The other aspect of the staged version of Anne Frank which Minutillo finds intriguing is the need for absolute silence due to the overwhelming fear of discovery. It’s an emoition that few of us can imagine expeireincing, and one he feels must have been terrifying.
“It’s the intensity. What does it mean that they are going into hiding? What they are hiding from?” he asks. “There’s the fear factor. The play is really showing that through the subtext and background — which the diary itself doesn’t do enough of.”
“They can’t make noise, day becomes night, night becomes day, their only heat is from a stove, they’re burning trash and worry about flushing a toilet,” says Minutillo. “It’s intense. I can’t imagine what they must’ve been like — the fear of being in danger like that.”
“I have read the play numerous times and it has affected me in the way I’m working with this cast,” adds Minutillo. “They’re wonderful and have done their homework. I’ve had a great experience with them.”
“The Diary of Anne Frank” by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett runs Friday, November 8 through Tuesday, November 26 at Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor as part of “Literature Live!” The play is suggested for ages 13 and up. Public performances are $12 for students and $25 for adults. For group sales, show times and to purchase tickets, call the box office at 725-9500 or buy online at www.baystreet.org.