.Theater: Lessons learned

Marcia Pizzo looks back on playing Anne Frank

By Charles Brousse

With The Diary of Anne Frank about to open at the Marin Art & Garden Center’s Barn in a production directed by former College of Marin (COM) stalwart James Dunn, some longtime local theatergoers may remember a powerful student version of the iconic Holocaust drama that played at COM in the late 1970s. Back then, it was Harvey Susser, Dunn’s teaching colleague in the drama department, who directed a cast that exemplified the incredibly high talent level that the college achieved during its “Golden Years.”

Memories remain extremely vivid for Marcia Pizzo, whose moving performance as the young Jewish girl who chronicled her daily activities and thoughts as she and her family hid from the Nazis in an Amsterdam attic, brought many to tears.

“I loved the role,” she told me during a telephone interview from her self-described “artist’s cottage” in Santa Cruz, where she’s temporarily a guest of the Jewell Theatre Company while rehearsing for their upcoming production of Noel Coward’s Fallen Angels.“We did it in the black box Studio Theatre and the set was tiny, really cramped, to the point that we could barely move. At first it was kind of claustrophobic, but then I got used to it. When I visited the house in Amsterdam years later, it felt completely familiar, as if I had actually lived there.”

The experience has had a lasting effect. “Playing Anne gave me an appreciation of her courage and, above all, her determination to remain optimistic about human nature and the future despite the horrible things that were happening,” Pizzo said. “On another level, it reinforced the message I was getting from Harvey and Jim that theater is a communal activity that depends on everybody working together as a team.”

Pizzo’s years at COM were followed by two more in the drama department at UCLA, in which she appeared in productions that attracted an offer of representation from an influential theatrical agent. “Instead, I got married. It was disastrous!” Not surprisingly, it didn’t last.

Eager to get back on track, Pizzo enrolled in A.C.T.’s Master of Fine Arts program and spent a couple of years understudying Annette Bening, then the company’s featured ingenue. Her big break came when Bening left A.C.T. for the Denver Center for the Performing Arts and Pizzo, M.F.A. in hand, inherited her roles. But just when things looked their rosiest, Bill Ball departed and the new regime brought in its own talent. Despite the disappointment, however, she remains upbeat about her experience with San Francisco’s flagship company—especially the chance to work opposite one of her idols, Olympia Dukakis, in A Mother. “The play was pretty awful,” she admits, “but I loved every minute!”

Now in her mid-50s, Pizzo has an extensive professional résumé that includes films, television and almost all of the Bay Area’s leading nonprofit theatrical producers. While her finely honed acting skills and remarkably youthful appearance give her a wide range, she regrets that the current finance-driven emphasis on small cast, domestic dramas provides relatively few opportunities to appear in the larger scale musicals and Shakespeare productions that she finds most appealing. (Favorite roles are Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady for the Mountain Play, and Cleopatra in Antony and Cleopatra for the Marin Shakespeare Company.)

On a personal level, Pizzo has two sons, Tyler and Lucas, both of whom are doing well, as is her third marriage. “There’s been a lawyer, doctor and Indian chief in my life,” she jokes, the last describing husband Peter Meyers, with whom she lives in Mill Valley. A man of many talents (including acting and directing), Meyers is best known as an entrepreneur who has built a wildly successful business of executive performance coaching, aptly named Stand & Deliver, that allows husband and wife to globetrot together when she isn’t busy on stage.

As for the future, Pizzo says that she’ll never forget the lessons learned in that claustrophobic attic in COM’s Studio Theatre 38 years ago. Anne Frank’s story, tragic as it is, can touch us in many ways.

NOW PLAYING: The Diary of Anne Frank runs from January 17 to February 7 at the Barn, Marin Art & Garden Center, Sir Francis Drake Blvd. at Lagunitas, Ross; 415/456-9555; rossvalleyplayers.com.

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