Alexis Fishman. 
Photo: Kaye Tuckerman
Alexis Fishman. Photo: Kaye Tuckerman
Off-Broadway premiereThe goodness in people

Reimagining the story of Anne

“In spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart …” Anne Frank wrote these words a mere three weeks before she met true evil. They have become synonymous with Anne and her story. But after being taken by the Nazis, would she still believe this statement? Jessica Abelsohn spoke to Ron Elisha and Alexis Fishman about their new off-Broadway play, Anne Being Frank.

Main image by Alexis Fishman. Photo: Kaye Tuckerman

Would Anne Frank still believe in the goodness of people? This is the question that Melbourne-based Ron Elisha and Sydney-born Alexis Fishman are trying to answer with their new play, Anne Being Frank, which is due to premiere off-Broadway in September.

The production, which has actually been in the works since 2020, is a one-woman play featuring five characters in four accents, none of which, as Alexis pointed out, are Australian.

Ron explained that he was inspired by an essay featured in Smithsonian Magazine by Dara Horn titled Becoming Anne Frank.

“It was a brilliantly written article asking the question: Why is the diary of Anne Frank so popular? She concluded that it was because it lets you (the reader) off the hook, inasmuch as [Anne] says, ‘in spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart’ which is the most frequently quoted line from the diary. So, I’ve tried to re-imagine what she would’ve written if she knew what was about to happen to her and her family,” he told The AJN.

Ron intended for the play to be seen around the 75th anniversary of Anne’s death in 2020. But COVID intervened, bringing the theatre world to a standstill. During this time, Ron and Alexis were connected via their mutual agent.

“At the beginning of COVID, when the world had shut down, particularly for actors and artists, it was a really terrifying time,” Alexis recalled. “Our agents were spectacular at keeping us buoyant and afloat and positive. And what they did was organise Zoom happy hours. But what they also did was shared a bunch of Ron’s plays with their clients. They were connecting their playwright clients with their actor clients.”

For Alexis, Anne Being Frank immediately took her breath away.

Since then, the pair have formed a wonderful and collaborative friendship, workshopping and rewriting the play to create what it is today.

“Ron is an incredible collaborator because he’s not precious about his work, even though he has every reason to be because he’s a masterful playwright,” Alexis said.

Ron described Alexis as magnificent, saying she “has lived and breathed this role since 2020”.

“It’s a huge and demanding, but I think very rewarding role with a great deal of light and shade.”

The story is portrayed through three different worlds – the annex, where the Franks were in hiding; the concentration camp; and New York where Anne becomes a famous writer.

Ron explained it as Anne “rewriting her diary”.

“Once she’s left the original behind in the annex and realised that young readers might one day read her diary and take away the wrong message, she decides she must rewrite it, from beginning to end. She does this in the concentration camp … Then she imagines herself getting it published in New York, as becoming a famous writer was always a great fantasy of hers. But the editor she’s dealing with wants to highlight that particular quote (and attitude) from her diary, and she must constantly fight him on this point,” he said, talking about the “people are really good at heart” quote that has become so famous. “This third world provides us with the ongoing conflict we need to drive the narrative.”

While portraying such an iconic individual may sound daunting to many, Alexis said she has been more terrified to play others in the past.

“From an acting perspective it’s not as terrifying to me as when I took on Amy Winehouse, because people know Amy Winehouse and she’s an iconic performer, whereas Anne Frank, obviously, is not. People haven’t seen that many representations of Anne Frank on a stage or in performance. So, it’s not so much daunting in that way,” Alexis admitted. “But this play really does turn everything that we know about Anne Frank on its head. It’s truly a reimagining of what her diary might have looked like. So, we are exposed to her in the last few months of her life, which is not something that the average reader of her journal ever really thinks about. We take what we read in her brilliant diary, as the end of her story, and of course, that’s not the truth.”

Alexis said this may be confronting for some viewers, but that’s the challenge behind it.

“I feel daunted by the idea that people may be offended by this, but to me that’s what makes theatre juicy and exciting. I wholeheartedly believe that this play is important because it forces us to confront the reality of what happened to Anne Frank, and to six million other Jewish victims of the Holocaust,” she said.

But, Alexis said, she’s very proud to bring the story to life, especially after all the work that has been put into it. Although, she did say that she never imagined her career would revolve around her Jewishness and the fact that she’s the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors.

“It feels even more meaningful to me to take on something that, yet again, looks at that awful time in human history,” she said. “I feel proud to be able to be performing on stage and taking on such an important story.”

In some good news for fans of Ron and Alexis in Australia, Alexis also hinted that Anne Being Frank will hopefully be on its way to Melbourne and Sydney in 2024. Stay tuned.

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