'Number the Stars' a lesson in acting, history, morality

Posted: Thursday, March 20, 2003

Clad in baggy costumes on a modest set built on the altar at Northern Light United Church, the young actors rehearse the play "Number the Stars" and in the process learn that being in a play isn't just about acting.

It is about history and morality, according to J. Althea, Northern Light Junior Theatre director.

"I tell them at least once or twice a week in rehearsal, 'Stand up for what you believe in,' " Althea said. "If the kids are armed with knowledge, they can stand up for what they believe in."

"Number the Stars" is based on a Lois Lowry book of the same name about a little girl named Annemarie who helps smuggle her best friend Ellen, who is Jewish, out of Denmark during Nazi occupation in World War II. In the process of rehearsal, the young actors have studied history, listened to guest speakers and discussed morality issues.

"The story is really about two sisters and their families who really tried to help the Jewish people, even though they themselves were not Jewish," said young actress Katie Pollard, 10, who plays Annemarie's younger sister Kirsti. "The play is mainly about people helping people. I think it is a great story."

"Number the Stars" plays at 7:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, March 21-22, at Northern Light church. Tickets are $5 at the door. The play is not recommended for very young children.

"There were very few Jews that Hitler actually got his hands on in Denmark because thousands and thousands and thousands were rescued by non-Jewish families who risked their own safety," Althea said.

Betsy Wagoner plays the heroine Annemarie.

"My character grows because at first she doesn't think that she is brave, but eventually she sees that she is because of what she knows she needs to do," said the 13-year-old during a break in rehearsal. She chose to be in the play because she liked the book the play was based on, she said.

Veronica Narvaez, 12, plays Ellen, a young Jewish girl who Annemarie's parents pretend is their daughter to hide her from the Nazis.

"I think Ellen knows what is going on a little about what is happening to her, but she is at a very young age," she said.

Alice Ottoson-McKeen, 10, is a chorus member who plays a Nazi soldier.

"(Playing the guard) is really acting because it is not anything anybody here is," she said. "It is not my personality, so I really have to dig in as an actor."

Althea said many of the cast members have been in other Northern Light Junior Theatre productions including "The Sound of Music," which also took place during World War II. Many are shocked by the history, she said.

"They ask me, 'How could this have happened?' " Althea said, referring to the Nazi persecution of the Jews in Europe. Althea said her aim was to move children to be educated about their beliefs, and she hopes that education will make them brave if they need to be.

"I want the kids to grow and learn think for themselves and stand up for what they believe in and for other people, wherever they might end up. I will do any play that will encourage a kid to do that," she said.

Julia O'Malley can be reached at jomalley@juneauempire.com.

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