Evanston’s very own Next Theatre Company isn’t afraid to challenge its audience. For nearly 35 years the company has remained committed to producing “socially provocative, artistically adventurous work,” and this season’s staging of Rinne Groff’s Compulsion stays true to that mission. Based on the true story of Meyer Levin and his obsession with Anne Frank’s diary, the complex tale explores the fictional Sid Silver’s passionate fixation on Anne’s story as he attempts to honor her legacy. You can catch Compulsion through November 17th at the Noyes Cultural Arts Center, and EPL cardholders can purchase 2-for-1 tickets using the promotional code FRANK. We recently spoke via email with Next’s artistic director Jenny Avery about Compulsion’s critical reception, the history behind the play, puppetry, and the company’s future plans.
Evanston Public Library: Compulsion has been praised by both Time Out Chicago and the Chicago Tribune – the latter calling the play “clear-eyed and compelling.” What is your reaction to Compulsion’s critical reception thus far?
Jenny Avery: The critical reception from the press has been mixed as I imagined it would be. This is an extremely complex and provocative script about a difficult and complex man, and I knew that the play would not be for everyone. I do believe that it is an important and incredibly intriguing story that asks great questions, and I felt that it was a story that our audience would be particularly interested in.
EPL: Generally speaking, how does Next Theatre select the plays it produces, and what specifically drew the company to Rinne Groff’s Compulsion? How did the company come to work with director Devon de Mayo again?
JA: Next always looks for scripts that ask important and complex questions that the audience will hopefully chew on and debate long after they have left the theater. We always hope to present stories that will appeal to both the head and the heart – plays that will allow for both a visceral and intellectual experience for our audience. Compulsion fits that bill to a tee. I chose Devon de Mayo to direct for two main reasons. She is excellent with texts that have a sense of heightened theatricality to them – which Compulsion definitely does – and she loved the script and was eager to work on it. It is always key to have artists helming a project who are passionate about the project.
EPL: Can you give us a brief overview of the history on which Compulsion is based?
JA: The story is based on a writer and Chicago native named Meyer Levin who became obsessed with bringing The Diary of Anne Frank to the stage. Groff based the play on a really interesting book by Lawrence Garver called An Obsession with Anne Frank about Levin’s 30 year battle to see his stage adaptation of the Diary produced. Levin’s wife and fellow writer Tereska Torres gave him the Diary in French, and he then helped Anne’s father Otto Frank to find a publisher in the United States. In exchange, Otto Frank and Levin had a handshake agreement that Levin would be allowed to write the adaptation for a potential Broadway production. However, Levin’s version was rejected by the producers which sent him on a 30 year spiral of lawsuits and mental instability. It is really a heartbreaking story of a man who was compelled, against all odds, to tell a story in the way he felt it needed to be told.
EPL: What were the biggest challenges in preparing the play for the stage? Can you tell us about the use of puppets in the production?
JA: This is a really complex story and uses a great deal of tricky theatrical devices including actors playing multiple roles, taking on multiple accents and traversing three decades of history. The use of puppets in the play is really integral to the story. The puppets take on all of the roles of the characters in The Diary of Anne Frank. Scenes from the different versions of the stage adaptations are played out by the puppets as well as some other scenes that feature these characters. I find it to be an extremely powerful and compelling use of puppetry in that the play talks about how Anne Frank means many things to many different people. With a puppet, we can project whatever we want onto the puppet which is, I think, a wonderful way to theatricalize that idea. The puppets that we are using are also extremely haunting and ghostly looking which I also find to be a perfect way to theatricalize characters that live in the protagonist’s imagination.
EPL: What do you hope audiences take away from Compulsion? As it’s a very literary play, can you suggest any books that might enhance the performance for patrons?
JA: I hope that audiences will consider what, if anything, happens to a story when we universalize it. I hope that they will consider the idea of commodifying a person and what happens when we make a person larger than life and a symbol rather than the flawed person they probably are/were. I hope they will feel for the main character, even when he is abrasive and difficult, and consider that a message may be worthy, even if the messenger is hard to listen to.
In terms of books to read, An Obsession with Ann Frank by Lawrence Graver, An Obsession by Meyer Levin, and The Hidden Life of Otto Frank by Carol Ann Lee are all really interesting reads!
EPL: What are the future plans for the Next Theatre Company?
JA: Next has two more Chicago premieres this season: Luck of the Irish by Kirsten Greenidge which centers around the theme of home and identity, and Great God Pan by Amy Herzog which is about memory and how what we do and don’t remember shapes who we become. Luck of the Irish will run in January and February 2014 and centers around an upwardly mobile African-American couple who want to buy a home in an all white neighborhood of 1950’s Boston. They pay a struggling Irish family to “ghost buy” a house on their behalf, and 52 years later the Irish family wants “their” house back. Moving across two eras, Luck of the Irish explores our legacy of racial and class issues and the long held secrets that tie two families and one house together. We are really excited to share this story with our audience this winter.
Interview by Russell J.