Upper East Side In New York City, theater aficionados never want for options, and many Broadway shows pack Hollywood star power. But about 30 blocks north of Theater Row, a longstanding community theater takes on a well-known story.
The St. Jean’s Players, the oldest continuing community theater group on the Upper East Side, will open Wendy Kesselman’s “The Diary of Anne Frank,” based on “Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl,” on May 2 at the St. Jean Baptiste High School auditorium, the group’s home theater.
Director Bryan McHaffey has been involved with St. Jean’s Players for almost 20 years, and his history with the play dates back to the early sixties. While studying with famed acting coach Charles Nelson Reilly, he was asked to read the role of teenager Peter Van Daan opposite a 17-year-old Liza Minnelli, who played Anne, when her scene partner didn’t show up.
“At that point I was still rather juvenile,” said McHaffey, who brushes his white hair away from his forehead and keeps a barber’s comb in his shirt pocket. “So I played Peter for her.”
Luke Bond, 19, plays Peter in the St. Jean’s production. Though he assumes the audience will be familiar with the play, he wants his performance to come from his own relationship to the script.
“When you do a play that’s very well known, you can’t approach it like it’s a well-known play,” Bond said. “Then it’s going to come off as though we’re putting on a famous scene rather than trying to put on the actual, truthful scene that is there in the script.”
Lucy Apicello, who plays Anne’s mother, Edith, has been acting with the group since 2005. Though she has performed with other groups, she returns to St. Jean’s to continue working with fellow actors and directors who have become friends.
The cast and crew are unpaid and often do double-duty. Without stage hands, the actors are responsible for bringing props on and off set. Jay Fink, who plays Mr. Van Daan, also does sound and lighting design. Some of the proceeds from selling tickets, which are $20 each, and $10 for seniors and children, cover the production costs and other operations, while the rest goes to St. Jean Baptiste Church and to the school, which otherwise grants the group the auditorium for free.
Though the budget is spare, McHaffey said the actors he works with are an experienced and talented group, and many former St. Jean’s actors go on to do off-Broadway work.
Ava Patino, who plays Anne Frank, had small parts in St. Jean’s production of “Fiddler on the Roof,” and considers this her first real role.
“It’s kind of terrifying,” said Patino, a seventh grader at the Professional Performing Arts School, who rolled around the auditorium on a scooter after running through a scene. Patino has read the book many times, and started keeping her own diary on her computer. Before rehearsal, she marked up her script with a highlighter.
Without paid advertising, the group relies on fliers and word of mouth to fill seats. But audience development, McHaffey said, is always challenging, and St. Jean’s Players has found an audience on the Upper East Side for over 35 years.
“Developing an audience would probably be a whole theater course in itself,” McHaffey said, laughing. “I think they tell you if you’re opening a stock theater you have to do at least three seasons before you know if you’re going to make it.”
By that standard, St. Jean’s Players has made it.
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