Members of UT Theatre and Dance address cultural significance of Holocaust with performance of “The Diary of Anne Frank”

Matt Robertson

Without leaving their makeshift attic, Texas Theatre and Dance students will take audiences back to a time when the Nazi occupation horrified families across Europe.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning play, “The Diary of Anne Frank,” follows two Jewish families, the Franks and van Daans, as they hide for nearly two years in Nazi-occupied Holland. Adapted from Anne Frank’s novel “Diary of a Young Girl,“ the play will run Oct. 8 through Oct. 18 at the Oscar G. Brockett Theatre.

Brant Pope, chair of the Texas Department of Theatre and Dance and the play’s director, partnered with the Schusterman Center for Jewish Studies to produce a symposium in honor of the 70th anniversary of the Nazi concentration camp liberation. The symposium, which takes place Oct. 8-9, features scholarly discussions of Anne Frank’s cultural significance as well as artistic representations of the Holocaust, The event centers around the play and a keynote address by Jeffrey Shandler, chair of the Jewish Studies Department at Rutgers University.

“The play isn’t about the Holocaust, but that is the context,” Pope said. “We use the play as the small story and we use a two-day symposium to tell the bigger story.”

Theater senior Robert Di Donato, who plays 16-year-old Peter van Daan, said he thought a collaboration with the center for Jewish studies was important for the play.

“I think it’s smart they’re tying it to contemporary audiences,” Di Donato said. “The issue was brought up that it’s becoming too distant for some people to understand just how brutal it was.”

Di Donato said having a personal connection to the narrative helped him tell the story. During the war, members of his Italian family were sent to concentration camps in Poland where they were gassed and killed.  

“It affected my family more than what the world knows as the Holocaust,” Di Donato said. “Because we didn’t have a certain amount of money or worship Mussolini, we were sent to camps to be killed. It’s just not talked about as much.”

Di Donato said the most challenging part of the project has been the emotional toll it has taken on the actors, who have to relive their characters’ fates during each performance.

“One day we walked out of the theater, and one of the guys broke into tears,” Di Donato said. “It’s exhausting because we have to go in thinking the end isn’t going to happen every single day and experience it over and over again.”

Pope said that watching the performers imagine the story during their rehearsals has been his favorite aspect of the project so far. He said in order to make the importance of the story clear to the audience, the actors needed to capture the humanity of their characters.  

“It’s not a play about the Holocaust or another story of Nazi cruelty,” Pope said. “But rather the idea that the diary and genius of this young girl is more important and lasting than any cruelty that the Nazis could have cooked up.”