By the time the Seneca Community Players' last dress rehearsal of "The Diary of Anne Frank" ended, many of the Southern Cayuga Central School District students in attendance were rapt.
The students were in the audience for a question-and-answer session with the show's actors Thursday at the theater, located at the Partridge Building in Seneca Falls. The talkback was set up by the Southern Cayuga Anne Frank Tree Project, a district organization meant to promote education and peace.
Around 14 students and some adults saw the play, which is based on the personal written entries of Anne Frank, the renowned teenager who hid in the annex of a warehouse with her family and four others during the Holocaust. She was found with the others, and ultimately died in a concentration camp. Of the eight people in the annex, only her father, Otto Frank — played in the Seneca Community Players' production by Steve Mitchell — survived World War II.
The tree project's name refers to a tree Frank wrote about in her diary. The tree sat outside the annex, and she viewed it as a symbol of hope. After the tree was blown down in 2010, The Anne Frank Center for Mutual Respect selected the Southern Cayuga district and 10 other sites in the country to receive and plant its saplings.
The theater's stage was on a lower floor of the building with the windows shut. From the moment the Franks enter the annex to when the Nazi officers haul the eight victims away, most of the actors were on stage for the entire production. During intermission, the performers silently went about their characters' day-to-day activities as the stage lights stayed on. The break was only signaled by the house lights brightening and a woman standing by the theater door.
After the curtain call, the actors stayed on stage to field questions. Southern Cayuga student Kadrian Rossbach, 14, said the show was interesting and "amazing to watch," before asking the actors how it felt bringing actual human beings to life.
Susie Cornett, who played Anne's mother, Edith Frank, said she drew from experiences with her own two daughters to depict Edith's conflicts with Anne.
"All of you girls or teenagers probably butt heads with your mother at times, right?" Cornett asked as the young audience murmered in agreement.
Cornett said she also connected to Edith through reading about her and constantly thinking about how Edith would react to every line and moment.
Eric Jansen, the play's director, pitched the idea of students doing a question-and-answer session with the actors, and the Southern Cayuga Anne Frank Tree Project loved the idea. Speaking on Oct. 4, Jansen said he was "elated" to have students talk to the performers.
He said he and the entire cast and crew felt a responsibility to be accurate, down to the color scheme of a prayer shawl and the fringes on the corner of the garment. He said cast members did their own deep dives into research, even learning the Yiddish lyrics of songs the characters sing to comfort themselves and others.
The production used the version of the script by Wendy Kesselman, who revised the original version of the play by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett. Kesselman's revision included material from Anne Frank's diary that had been omitted from earlier scripts, like her writing about her attraction to women's bodies — which was greeted with subdued, uncomfortable laughs and amused looks from some of the teenagers during the dress rehearsal.
Jansen believes Kesselman's changes amounted to a fuller depiction of the teenager as she actually was, from her hopes and dreams to her burgeoning sexuality. The director also felt it was important to show the emotional high and lows those eight people experienced while sequestered between the same few walls for 25 months.
"They had real trials and real tribulations, and real joy and real expectations that we have without being in those extraordinary circumstances," Jansen said.
At the talkback, 13-year-old Riley Binns asked the actors who played the Nazi officers what it was like to portray hated figures. Tom Hoster, who played Karl Silberbauer — who actually arrested Anne Frank and the others — likened it to film actors playing villains, and said he had fun being the bad guy. To keep things light for himself, he gave his henchman officers silly names like "Stinky feet."
The production's Anne Frank, Union Springs sophomore Emma DeGroff, said that she heavily researched the part. She and other cast members also made flash cards to pronounce the Yiddish terms correctly. DeGroff said she was glad she was able to "carry (Anne Frank's) legacy" through her performance.
Bill Zimpfer, an English and journalism teacher at Southern Cayuga and a member of the Southern Cayuga Anne Frank Tree Project, said that even though he wouldn't be able to go to the dress rehearsal, he was glad the attending students — many of whom were drama club members — were going. He said he teaches the play in class and encourages students interested in drama to go see shows. Zimpfer said the school district, as host site to one of the saplings, has a "strong focus" on Holocaust education.
Speaking after the talkback, Kadrian Rossbach said she was moved by the production.
"It felt like I was feeling with them, and (I) just felt very emotional connecting with the characters," Rossbach said.