Who The Folk?! Sulia Altenberg

Sulia Altenberg never set out to be an actress – but she’s found she has quite the knack for it. She stars this month as the title character in The Diary of Anne Frank at Park Square Theatre, and she took advantage of a rare long weekend away to talk with us about the show, acting, and finding balance in this week’s Who The Folk?!

Is it good to get that time away from a role, especially when you’re so deeply immersed it?

I love doing the show, it’s my favorite thing I do every year, but it’s weird because it becomes a habit to bring it up in conversation and to have a break and be a person with hobbies of their own that aren’t related to me being Jewish, or that the Holocaust happened. It’s nice to put makeup on; I’m into my own things and I like styling myself. I like vintage clothes. I don’t have to wear an outfit that I can easily change out of to get into costume. It’s just me.

Is it nice when a show is done and you can get back to being yourself?

I don’t know if it’s nice. I kind of love that I get to disappear from myself for a couple hours every day. That is such a relief. These little short breaks are great, but when I leave the show at the end of two and a half hours I usually pop back into myself. But having a long term break is not very satisfying. I’ve been thinking a lot this year about being mentally healthy with doing this show in particular, and not letting the Holocaust follow me around the rest of the day. It’s a bummer, every day.  I try to give myself the opportunity to be happy for the rest of the afternoon. That is something I’m working on. I think it’s good for any actor. I know some try to bring around with them all day so the next day it’s easier to pop back into it. I don’t know if it’s worth it. I don’t want to be distraught. My point of view on it is I’m going to live a life that Anne never got to live. It’s weird and creepy in a way, but If I’m going to commit to that I’m not going to be distraught and enjoy being alive.

What type of roles do you tend to look for?

I try to find the comedy in every part I take. That is the most fun thing for me. Next, I’m playing Annelle in Steel Magnolias, which is a depressing show too, but I’ve loved the comedic, character roles. They are so much fun. I look for fun, funny, goofy people that don’t fit in any box. It’s hard because you have to be so real about who you present as. In dreamland, I would love to play leading ladies. In reality, I don’t come off as a leading lady. I’m not this tall, graceful woman. I’m a girl to a lot of people and a lot of casting people see me that way. The only way to attack it is to get the most fun out of it. I love to transform, but I don’t want to put a ton of extraneous energy to force people to change their mind about me. That doesn’t allow for a good story to be told.

You’re looking for roles that you can be true to yourself.

Yeah. Putting the energy into playing villain doesn’t sound like fun. I want to be true to myself or true to telling a story I care about it. Because I’m a woman and I identify as a woman, people will give me stories about women. That is super meaningful to me. playing strong women is easy for me to do.

When did you know that acting was a career for you?

I went to college in 2013 and I wanted to be out as quick as possible. The whole time I did it, I said I wasn’t going to do acting, it was too hard of a life. I wanted to find the thing that got me money and I would be satisfied with that. But I never found anything that gave me any more satisfaction. That’s what a lot of people have said. “if you can pick anything else to do, do that.” I literally can’t think of anything else that I could will myself to do. Around 2015 where I was continually getting cast throughout college. I got cast as Anne while I was living in Amsterdam, and I was like “I guess I’m going home and becoming an actress full time.” And I never stopped, thankfully. Now it’s just the grind. Pounding the pavement all the time. A lot of people are like “why would you pick it?” and it kind of picks you. If I could do anything else, I totally would. I keep showing up. I can’t help myself. It’s so stupid! It’s a hard career to pick. Everyone’s critiquing you all the time for everything that you say. And that’s fine; that’s kind of the love of it. But I wouldn’t ask anyone to pick this. But it’s wonderful once you get the fulfillment. If you can get over the auditioning.

Is that hard for you?

If you can handle being rejected all the time. If you don’t let it flatten out your soul.

That’s vaguely depressing.

It often feels like people saying “I don’t like you.”

You can’t take it personally, right?

Once you can swallow that, that you aren’t going to be what people need all the time, which is hard. Most actors are super empathic to want to fulfill someone else’s need. But, it’s OK.

How many times have you been in Diary of Anne Frank?

It’s my third year in the production. I understudied a while ago, then I moved to Amsterdam for a while, then came back to play the part. Park Square does it every year for schools since every kid learns about the Holocaust, although clearly not every kid has. This year we’re doing public shows, too.

Where did you grow up?

In Minneapolis. I’m a proud Powderhorn Park native. Went to South High and did theater there. I started acting in Minnesota Fringe and I’ve done almost every year since I was 11. This will be my 11th year this summer. I graduated high school in 2013, and I graduated from the U at 19.

What’s the biggest challenge of playing the character over and over as you’ve grown?

The hardest part is believing what I believed three years ago when I first started the part. The things Anne says at the end of the play and the book about human beings and the world turning upside down. As I’ve grown to be able to vote and becoming an adult who participates in society and committing to believing about what Anne says about the world. As an actor, I don’t have to believe that. I could commit to believing it for those moments on stage. But I myself want to believe that it’s heading in a direction of hope and goodness and kindness. It’s hard to show up to work that and realize that I don’t necessarily believe that. Each day is different. That’s been really hard. Some days, saying those words “I believe people are good at heart” and thinking of all the crap going on, it’s hard. Another thing is just evaluating the age change. Not knowing many people who are 13, 14, 15 anymore, I have no barometer for a young teen anymore, and I probably wasn’t an accurate description of a 13-year-old. So checking in with that is hard when we start the process every year. Working with everyone is so great. Coming back to it is always so grounding; I’m getting to represent a community I care about.

Favorite Jewish holiday?

Passover, 100 percent, no question. The food is the best of the best. And we do a feminist Haggadah and it always makes me laugh. Every year, we’re reminding ourselves – and it’s the same with Anne Frank – that the world will head in a direction of betterment rather than returning to being screwed up. I like that we are a connecting point for others that oppressed.

Favorite Jewish food?

We always eat a ton of rugalach. It’s so good.

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