Grand Prize Silver Winner: The House Within

By Jacob Kemp

When I turned twenty-one, I spent the better part of a year in an attic, hiding from Nazis.

The calendar read 2011. I had just graduated from college. I was offered a role in The Diary of Anne Frank, to play Peter Van Daan. So I packed a suitcase, a carry-on, my winter coat, and left New York only weeks after I arrived—for Amsterdam, 1942.

The actress playing Anne was a rising star in Chicago theater. A year later she’d be in a superhero movie, a blockbuster based on a comic-book. Onstage, she was a marvel. Scenes together, despite the long run of the show, the work and the sweat and the reaction of our energies each night, had that flinty and rare combination of absolute safety and vulpine unpredictability. We were well-matched. I awaited her articulation, her transformation into Anne, with the zeal of a tennis player anticipating a worthy opponent’s next serve. But in addition to being a formidable talent, she smoked.

Before the show, I’d watch her suck down smoke by the stage entrance, then pull the cigarette from her lips and throw it like a dart to the cement below. I always found it unsettling each night, when, during the play’s second act, I’d be leaning in as Peter to kiss a vibrantly alive Anne. Like some eerie harbinger, underneath the veil of mint toothpaste, Anne always tasted faintly of ashes.

We opened in Indianapolis and months later closed in Salt Lake City. And within that year, I spent less time in millenial reality than I did within the world of Nazi-occupied Amsterdam, living out the most well-known coming of age story of all time. I recognize it is not everyone’s dream to be immersed in one of the bleakest nightmares of human history, eight times a week. But as a teller of stories, it was mine. And my time in that annex has proved itself to be a most unconventional isolation education.

In March, like most New Yorkers, I entered an altogether different shelter in place, no longer embodied onstage, or in the past, but in the very much alive, unpredictable Now. The global pandemic of COVID-19 has forced me to face, once again, annexation and concealment.

~ ~ ~

The first publication of Anne Frank’s diary in 1946 was titled Der Acter-huis, which can be translated as the house behind, or the house within. The world knows it now as the Secret Annex. This house within now offers me, years later, its own script for survival.

I politely excuse myself for the comparison of the coronavirus pandemic, which has swept its way across our increasingly smaller planet, and the world of Nazi-occupied Amsterdam in 1942. There is a yawning gulf between the two and I have no intention of slating one aside the other as foil or comparison. The hundreds of thousands of deaths due to this pandemic pales in comparison to the six million people who were persecuted, tortured, and murdered while much of humanity did nothing. But the collision of my experience preparing for, and living in, the world of the Secret Annex: my own life now embossed by Peter and Anne’s true history, wholly felt, deeply imagined, and entirely unreal—with the here and now, the actuality of living in a time that seems more fiction than not, has been in unexpected rhyme for me these past months. A decade later, lifting the lid of that coffined time has opened an unexpected door.

~ ~ ~

There was no traditional curtain to open or close our production. Upon entering the theater, the audience saw only a looming, three-story dollhouse-style set, with a narrow staircase leading from a trapdoor in the floor. Once the actors entered the annex at the opening of the play, the eight people living inside never left the hiding place. The scripted text played out in the foreground but within dimly-lit rooms, silent scenes played out simultaneously. Every performance, we walked up the attic stairs as refugees, and were dragged down those same stairs to our imminent deaths three hours later.

This all happened, over, and over, and over again. And it was our job to make what followed onstage appear as real as if it were happening for the very first time.

The engine of a single performance of The Diary of Anne Frank would purr to life at warmup. The company met on stage for the Actors’ Equity union-required “fight call” as we tracked the more dangerous elements of choreographed simulated violence. The sounding cue was Mrs. Frank’s cry. My opponent and I would lock eyes, as the Nazi guard grabbed me by the collar. I’d whip around, left arm clattering two plates to the ground. Thud right into the wall, we’d stagger three steps (waltz, two three), he’d slam his boot into the floor as Peter crumpled to the ground. Done. Other choreographic passes were cleared by the fight director and scattered props from the counterfeit chaos were reset. Onwards, towards the half hour call—the actors received clean undergarments, hosiery, and costumes from the laundry department. Vocal cords were soothed with hot elixirs. The women bobbed and pinned their hair. Men shaved or slicked side-parts with grease or pomade. Prop suitcases were checked and repacked, a mink thrown over the actress playing my mother, a wool scarf spiraled around my neck, and we were all sprayed with water by a crew member as though we had passed through an Amsterdam rain. Into the hot stage lights, hopping onto the already moving carousel. The cruel spin of the show.

I spent day after day after day playing Peter Van Daan, though that aberrant word, play, fails entirely to represent the experience of embodying him, living out his story’s dangerous beginning to its devastating end, hundreds of times. On Wednesdays and Saturdays, I would cycle through it twice, when a matinee and evening show offered a double-dip. And by the end of that first year of adult employment, the walls of the Secret Annex had assembled itself into an unlikely first cubicle.

Most folks, I think, remember with fondness a play once-rehearsed. From cherished schooldays, at camp, or a holiday pageant; where their long rehearsal process quickly erupts into a handful of firework performances. But within a long run, the iterative wind-up toy of the play far outlasts its preparation. The lesson becomes the delivery of astonishment amidst a cyclic catalogue of repeated words and actions.

No one mentions in drama school that when a three-tiered set is being built to be run up and down, heel to step wearing thin-soled period shoes, your Achilles tendon will come to call. No one mentions that, even though it’s a simulation, in “selling” a violent punch—using your right arm, for months on end (or even being the recipient of said punch, with a whip of the neck and a bobblehead return) the human spine begins to shift and turn to compensate. Your body adjusts its architecture: your vertebrae becomes an anguine, scoliotic cathedral to the dictations of your job requirements. And no one mentions that, as the cycle of a show turns into the hundreds it erodes the carapace of who you were, and begins to change you in ways you won’t always understand.

Onstage meals often echo after a show ends, but for me, The Diary of Anne Frank’s survival menu was its own trapdoor. In the family dinner scenes, we ate sauteed spinach (its onstage iteration was canned greens, soaked in citric acid), reconstituted mashed potatoes (boxed potato flakes that puff up when exposed to warm water), and the sucker punch: pickles. The plate after plate of spears that Peter had to hungrily eat each night. He, after all, was starving. Eventually, onstage, full sours moved to half sours, which then had to be replaced with cucumbers—due to the fact that after a month of shows, the cast developed excruciating acid reflux. These were full-company meals, so I was not alone in this nightly acid trip. It was a long time before I could eat anything steeped in brine.

I will never look at a heap of mashed potatoes on my plate without thinking of Anne, Peter, Margot, Otto, Herman, Auguste, Dussel, Miep. This happens not just for mashed spuds—it’s any potato. I hauled a 10-pound burlap bag of them, down three flights of stairs, twice a show. And then there was the solid twenty minute stretch in which I peeled those bags of potatoes, in one of those silent scenes occurring on the fringes of the stage, supporting the action of what needed to be the audience’s primary focus. I can still hear the director during a rehearsal, calling out from within the dark womb of the theater’s seven hundred seat audience bank, shouting: JACOB, YOU ARE ACTING PEELING THE POTATOES. JACOB. PLEASE. JUST PEEL THE POTATOES.

Peel the potatoes. It is the most basic of acting lessons. It is also a good one for life. Chop wood. Fetch water. Do the thing.

The one food that was never substituted over the run of The Diary of Anne Frank were the strawberries. Each performance, Anne’s mother passed around that box of ruby jewels—moments of sweet exhale before the thirty-minute sequence of the family’s discovery in the Annex. The smell of strawberries, to this day, makes me uneasy. One whiff and I anticipate violence. Their flesh clutches at the back of my throat.

Throughout the run, our cast and crew participated in post-show talkbacks with teachers and students. Some were thoughtful, resonant; others chilling, confronting. I can still see the Salt Lake City students’ spooked faces when they learned that Anne Frank and Martin Luther King, Jr. were born in the same year and only months apart, the students’ eyes wide, the ubiquity of their round porcelain faces, their fair-colored hair. The way in which one teacher said to us: “How sorry for all of you that this happened!” Many nights onstage in Utah, we heard audible gasps. As widely-read as Anne Frank’s diary might be, there were seats filled by those who did not know how this story would end.

Within the American regional theater there resides amongst its makers and protectors a passion to bring art to those who may never travel to a major city like New York or Los Angeles. Ours is by no means a perfect enterprise. But I believe in the purpose of this work. Because it is, more often than not, far outside of our diverse urban epicenters that these stories need to be heard most. We itinerant storytellers live out of suitcases in order to dwell in the mansions of our greatest stories. It is a life chosen with the belief that poetry heals.

~ ~ ~

As an actor, I measure my years not in months but in chapters of preparing for, and telling stories—broken down first within rehearsals, then stretched to technical load-ins, the chrysalis of preview periods, the magic of opening night. Then, the slow osmosis in performance. For better or worse, these periods render you slowly, changing you. Closing night, the cast lines up for a final curtain call, then the jigsaw of each ensemble disassembles. Once inseparable from me, the character I have played is left behind. That soul flies off, like one of Marc Chagall’s painted lovers. My own grounded body remains.

At the end of a run, my suitcases are repacked, the members of this little fleet lift their own individual anchors and our hermetic skiffs go their separate ways. The span of living within an ephemeral story’s time or place, gone. The next pilgrimage begins. The temple of the open stage? Closed to me, temporarily, until the next contract. The gig actor’s life is threaded like a rosary, or its eastern beaded sister, the japa-mala, where roles and projects emerge like brief devotional gifts. Before and after the hallelujahs, there is a life to be lived in the space between.

This is a very different kind of in between.

After three weeks of isolation in New York City, a car was leaving from Manhattan to my hometown the following morning. I was offered a ride. I took it.

When faced with the rush to pack and depart New York City, I prepared to leave my home behind, for whatever indeterminate amount of time that might be. But as I was assembling what I could into the pockets of backpack, suitcase, and winter coat—by rote, my hands completed a choreography that I did not realize was still committed to memory. In a matter of minutes I had simulated a version of the contents of Peter Van Daan’s suitcase that I had unpacked onstage hundreds of times. My body was seized and claimed by a performance I believed was left entirely in my past.

I was astonished by the bridge-building of my unconscious. This was nothing at all like Anne and Peter’s hurried packing to Prinsengracht 263. But there was some weaving of one experience in my life with another, the consilience of the two events, one real, one lived out onstage—stimulating the insight that I, in some uncomfortable and entangled way, had been here before. I had lived out this flight before. I had already packed this suitcase.

Living in other people’s stories is complicated.

My body lept into action without hesitation. I had the echoes of a plan, a schedule, at the ready. Somewhere, from some secret door, I’m walking back up that dark staircase, back to the Annex, living out one of the strange truths of creative living.

I’m not a fool here; I am unabashedly aware that I have survived no war. There had been no hiding. I had not, for a single night’s sleep, been locked in the Secret Annex. While on a proscenium stage, an actor isn’t even surrounded, it is a diorama with three walls, the audience sees the play through an invisible fourth. I hid in public, in front of eight hundred people a night. And yet, ripped loose out of some interior lining-pocket of my brain, came forth an automatic response.

Into my luggage went those delicacies of the World War II ration books, items that the Annex dwellers, and all of those who lived during World War II, prized—as borders closed and supplies ran low. In 2020, America’s borders were closing, and fast, so imported goods slipped into my bag. Without thinking, my palms wrapped themselves around the items in my own home that I had known to be rationed in my simulated World War. Chocolate. Coffee. Sugar. Alcohol. Any difficult medicines to obtain, and my stash of traveler’s antibiotics. I grabbed my passports, some cash. Snuck my few pieces of jewelry into the pockets of my clothes. I reached for specific items, instinctively, as swift as a cadet completing a drill—except the recollection was for an escape occurring over eighty years ago. I packed my winter boots, though the sun-drenched days of spring were already well on their way.

And so I left New York, and walked up a different staircase. The one in my childhood home. The home that I believed had already had its way with me. Now, it works on me again.

~ ~ ~

I was raised outside of Boston not only by my family and school teachers, but by a ragtag, kaleidoscopic, and multicultural collection of artists, storytellers, and makers who unknowingly taught me how to be human as I watched them from the corners of dressing rooms and rehearsal studios. The professional theater welcomed me into its wings, but it also taught me I had a pair of my own folded between my shoulders. I listened. And I learned how to use them.

Downtown hovered at a twenty-seven-minute drive from home, but a commuter train ran directly to Government Center. And that outbound train would call out like a loon each night, when my reckless imagination would keep me up reading the words and work of poets, painters, playwrights, the passionate and the profane. I’d be sleepless as that train whistled at 10:05, 11:05, 12:50. I would sit on the iron radiator under my bedroom window, knees-to-chest, palms-to-thighs, dreaming of (and also terrified of) becoming an artist.

That train so often carried me into the city, to the theaters where I lived and learned. Now, I barely hear its song at night. That very train to Boston, due to the pandemic, and so many working from home, runs on a limited schedule.

~ ~ ~

The performing arts have shuttered. My opportunities to work as an actor do not exist. Most production is halted in theater, film, and television. Theaters darkened, ghost lights holding court for months to empty seats. There is no clear path ahead. No new stories, of course, means no characters for which to audition. Film sets are currently attempting to bring full creative teams into group isolation. Welcome to our Petri Dish Production Company! Perhaps, there could be voice lessons, coaching, or class, but probably unwise given the need to save money until creative work resumes. My community was one of the first to shut down, and we are sure to be one of the last to reopen.

The arts employs actors, directors, dramaturgs, designers, engineers, musicians, choreographers, editors, gaffers, set decorators, key grips, PAs, and this meltdown of our entire industry and former way of both making art, and sharing it with the world, has spared few. None of the typical parameters of our storytellers’ lives exist anymore.

The repetitive patterns, the latitude and longitude of an actor’s work, are a kind of cartography that had always structured my days. As I have sheltered in place, in my cluttered childhood bedroom, I have found myself following the Annex inhabitants’ daily schedule. Its architecture structured their lives for the better part of two years. Otto Frank created a regimen suggestive of his days as a lieutenant of the former Imperial German Army. This was both due to the danger of the circumstances but also in order to break an overwhelming period of time in hiding and isolation into manageable, completable tasks. The days in the Annex began at 6:45am, when the first alarm went off—bathrooms were used for the brief period before the warehouse staff, working below the Annex, would enter the building. Every activity was planned based around the inhabitants’ movements not being heard by those below. Days progressed into timed and regulated periods of action and silence, of study and calisthenics, of food preparation and cleaning, intake of news and radio, and unstructured free play. Order was docketed with precise care.

For Peter, weekdays allowed for casual dress—while Sundays were for a “nice suit, neat shoes, a shirt, a necktie,” he says in an interview in Anne’s diary. “In any case there is no need for me to sum up all the rest, for everyone must know what decent clothing is like.”

Now I hear Peter, Otto, and Anne’s voices, reminding me to create order.  My days are now parceled into a three-act vernacular; eight hours of work, eight of play, eight of rest. Without a stage, I move to the page. I write. I write with hopes to turn whatever mud I have, into Golem. Because words, and stories, are the best currency I know to exchange the mysteries of my life for meaning.

I do not bake any bread. But I do surrender to one meal with mashed potatoes.

A friend has been telling me that all of her ex-lovers keep texting her. I tell her that a girl I once kissed has reached out, too.

And after a Zoom funeral ends, my family helps teach my eighteen month-old nephew to count to ten. There is a pause each time he reaches five. He waits to be told the answer.

I, too, wait. To be told what to do next. I wait for a director in the back of the darkened theater to call out to me.

Chop wood. Fetch water.

Five. Six. Seven. Eight, my sister says.

So there has become a new kind of curation. Twice a week, for the past four months, my peers and I meet on Zoom as a slapdash collection of actors, directors, designers—for what we have named Curtain Calls: round-robin readings of whatever plays we have on our bookshelves and hard-drives. We digitally recreate that ancient act of gathering around the fire and telling stories. Within this collective, playwrights have shared new works. Actors have conquered dream roles. We’ve hit the greats; read language that sent chills down our spines. While reading Diana Oh’s “My H8 Letter To the Gr8 American Theater,” we watched as her self-published Google Drive script was edited live by the playwright, even as we spoke her words aloud from miles away. We continue to speak these words without certainty of when we might share them again, either on sets or on stages, with an audience in camaraderie, breathing the same air.

“I live in a crazy time,” Anne wrote.

And as I write, my childhood house murmurs. Slice through its walls and this set is its own dollhouse of classes taught, meetings taken, lives lived simultaneously under one roof. This plays out over and over, as days cycle through a succession of acts, unbroken. “Writing in a diary is a really strange experience for someone like me,” Anne wrote. “Not only because I’ve never written anything before, but also because it seems to me that later on neither I nor anyone else will be interested in the musings of a thirteen year old girl. Oh well, it doesn’t matter. I feel like writing.”

Small acts of creativity, much like rehearsal, and I think, a bit like prayer—add up. And when performed regularly, and with determined unattachment, these acts change us. Actors are ruled by repetition, and its byproduct, reinvention. And so this new role, and its particular and clear choreography, moves forward.

~ ~ ~

It is summer here. While sheltering in place, I have a habit of opening many windows in this house. Because, unlike Peter, I can. I leave the front door open, as a welcome resident of my own hometown, where the bulbs my parents planted over twenty years ago have emerged from the tilled earth of our front lawn. Where the perennials pop their crowned heads out of the underground. Where, from these hiding places, each verdant bloom cracks the surface after a year underground as a botanic jack-in-the-box.

Whatever I sow during this time will be reaped later, that I am certain of.

Each morning, I tread my neighborhood’s hills, which rise and fall in a pattern of naturally-occurring topography that, from a distance, always has the mysterious appearance as if it is, itself, breathing. I feel dropped out of time here. I worry that I will need to find a new profession. I might need to be melted down and recast.

Perhaps, I’ve actually done this before. It’s another role. Another mask. I will pack a new suitcase and head into the next unknown. I will create stories in my own words. For now, I am no longer able to recreate other people’s lives. I am only able to live within my own.

Change happened in this pre-Revolutionary town much like the way a stone’s face softens after years of running water have driven its crags and grain to something smooth, pale, essential. The Public High School now bears the sign “GOD BLESS AMERICA!” with rows of white stars running parallel above and below; and the three words “GOD BLESS AMERICA!” emblazoned so large that the O is bigger than a grown man’s skull. With any man standing in front of it, the enormous O, always looked to me like a great white halo. In 2020, it appears to me now like a noose.

How naive I was. I now realize that embodying Peter was nothing short of a dress rehearsal. Our fragile democracy lurches towards derailment, not just through the pandemic, but through intensifying social discord. Anne’s words reverberate: “I simply can’t build up my hopes on a foundation consisting of confusion, misery, and death. I see the world gradually being turned into a wilderness, I hear the ever approaching thunder, which will destroy us too, I can feel the sufferings of millions and yet, if I look up into the heavens, I think that it will all come right, that this cruelty too will end, and that peace and tranquility will return again.”

I choose art and empathy in the midst of this canyon in our collective life. Our stories, when at their best, offer not only a chance to bear witness but a hospitality, welcoming each other into what we have in common, but also show us how much we have to learn.

We will mourn our dead. Masks will once again belong to the stage. The children, having grown over these months while in lockdown, will tangle themselves wild in playgrounds once more. The bachelors will stand on dimly-lit banisters and kiss new beloveds. When we all emerge with stories to tell, marked like a palimpsest in ways we won’t entirely know, by the houses in which we hid.

I hear a quiet voice, a speech I heard over and over again onstage: “Whenever you’re feeling lonely or sad,” Anne says,“try going to the loft on a beautiful day and looking outside. Not at the houses and the rooftops, but at the sky. As long as you can look fearlessly at the sky, you’ll know that you are pure within, and will find happiness once more.”


Jacob Kemp is an interdisciplinary artist and writer. He appeared in the award-winning Season 2 of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, 20th Century Fox’s feature film Why Him, Broad City, and Season 1 of Black-ish. He was also a lead in Disney’s hit musical NEWSIES, a Yale Trust of Boston Scholar, and a National Foundation for the Advancement of the Arts Award Honoree in Theater. He graduated cum laude from Yale, where he was the recipient of the Louis S. Gimble Jr. Scholarship and the Glenn de Chabert Prize.

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