Ironically it is art, rather than history class, that exposes many of us to the most important stories—and lessons—of the past. The ultimate example of this principle at work is, perhaps, the play “The Diary of Anne Frank.”
The stage adaptation of the posthumously published memoir of Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl first opened on Broadway in New York in 1955. An Oscar-winning film adaptation was released in 1959. The play continues to be one of the most performed productions across the country.
In January, Evanston Township High School (ETHS) graduate, former Chicago journalist, and author Adam Langer launched a podcast at the Forward, a publication for which he serves as Executive Editor, which tells the story of the play through some of its original cast members and how the play impacted their lives.
Last year, Langer published Cyclorama, a novel about a high school production of The Diary of Anne Frank in the early ‘80s and how its young cast members were forever altered by the play’s subject matter and theme in ways that changed their lives.
“This was a work of fiction, and I was exploring the lives of these characters and how one piece of art could change someone’s life for the better,” Langer says. “When I was done, I kind of thought I hadn’t completed the work because there is a real production of The Diary of Anne Frank. Real people were in it, they were real actors, and directors, and so forth.”
Langer was curious about what happened to the actual cast, and what happened to the people who were on Broadway in 1955 and who toured the country with it. He started poking around and found the stories of the people who were in that production very compelling, some of whom are still around and who he ended up speaking to.
“I haven’t done a podcast series before, but just hearing these people’s voices made me think that print wasn’t something I wanted to do,” he says. “I wanted these voices to be heard, particularly since a lot of the people haven’t told their story, or if they have, they haven’t done so in 60 or 65 years.”
Langer will discuss the history of the play and the podcast project at an event at the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center on March 23. Chicago Tribune theater critic Chris Jones will moderate.
“The podcast is a very condensed 2-1/2-hour story of me guiding the listener through it, and allowing these people to tell their stories,” Langer says. “I didn’t tell everybody’s stories. Not everyone was available and not everyone is still alive, but I think I was able to tell as many of these stories to kind of give a history of the production and also to give some sense of the impact it had on the people in it.”
Langer says what’s intriguing about the project was that almost everyone who was involved in the production went in a very different direction afterward. Almost everyone took on some kind of feeling of social responsibility. A lot of the actors didn’t act much after the original production. One became a photographer, some went into writing and directing, and some got into civil rights causes.
“Very few of the people I spoke to viewed it as just one more role in a series of roles,” he says. “It seemed to all of them to make them think about why they were doing what they were doing and not wanting to do art that was frivolous.”
The Holocaust Museum has always had as part of its mission to reach out and educate younger audiences, something that’s been particularly evident the past few years, and I asked Langer during our phone conversation if he felt a podcast such as this fits neatly within that agenda.
“It does. What I found during the course of researching and reporting this podcast is, for whatever reason, the original play became a Holocaust education for the country,” Langer says. “It was what introduced audiences to this story.”
The play went on the road to more than 100 cities, including the deep South, and a lot of cast members said the audiences didn’t know the story of Anne Frank and didn’t know the story of the Holocaust. Langer says some audience members hadn’t met a Jew before in their lives.
“This persists decades and decades later. This is the text that introduces many high school students to the Holocaust,” he says “The last episode of the podcast I zip forward from the 1950s to the 21st century, and I speak to high school students who were in the production last year. I spoke to them about how it impacted them because a lot of the people in their audiences didn’t know the story, and for the kids in the show who are still teenagers that was their introduction to the story of the Holocaust.”
Langer says it’s hard to find the proper way to educate kids about the Holocaust. He remembers Holocaust awareness assemblies he attended at ETHS where there were 3,200 students and some of them were paying attention while some were hanging out.
“You’ve got to find a way to connect with students,” Langer says. “I understand why you want to try a bunch of different approaches in order to do it.”
“Playing Anne Frank: A Conversation with the Forward’s Adam Langer” takes place at the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center on March 23. For more information and to reserve seats visit ilholocaustmuseum.org. To subscribe to the podcast, “Playing Anne Frank,” visit forward.com.