Magical musical gets Fiddler producer charged up

It’s her 45th year teaching musical theatre, and her fifth time producing “Fiddler on the Roof,” but Diane Harris Kamrin is still eagerly anticipating opening night.

“There’s something very magical about Fiddler,” said Kamrin, a San Francisco native who grew up in the Bay Area’s rich theater community. “It’s about family, and community, and it’s always timely — no matter when you’re doing the show.”

As the founder of STARS 2000 Teen Theatre Company (a special program within the Diablo Theatre Company in Pleasant Hill), Kamrin has been working with young actors for the past 19 years. But she never gets tired of watching a cast warm to a play and truly make it their own. This summer’s production of “Fiddler” opens July 22.

Diane Harris Kamrin

Taking a break from rehearsals, Kamrin said she can’t help but gush about the 67 youth who make up this year’s cast.

“The kids who choose to do this are extremely bright, well-informed kids,” she said, noting that the age-old tale of conflict — between cultural traditions and modernity, between parents and children — clearly resonates with the group.

Though only a few members of this year’s cast are Jewish, Kamin said there’s a certain degree of Jewish education inherent in being part of the production.

“We gave them each a little Yiddish glossary, and we’ve been encouraging them to use words from it,” she said. She also split the kids up into “family units” for different theatrical exercises, driving home the theme of family and community.

“And truly, the story in Fiddler is so universal,” she said. “You look at what’s going on in the world right now with people’s freedoms … in the Middle East, and other places, where they have decided that freedom is the most important thing in their lives, and sometimes they’re leaving their homelands to seek that freedom. We thought it was the perfect time to bring this story back.”

Kamrin spent her childhood in San Francisco’s Sunset District; her parents, Gert and Mort Harris, were members of Congregation Beth Sholom, and regulars in a community theatre group that focused on Yiddish shows. They made sure their daughter began taking dance and music lessons at age 4. She went on to perform in musicals while attending Lincoln High School, and continued to study the performing arts at San Francisco State University.

Allan Kew plays Tevye in the STARS 2000 Teen Theatre Company’s production of “Fiddler on the Roof.”

But after graduating, rather than just performing, Kamrin was drawn to education.

“I had always wanted to be a teacher, and I always loved musical theater,” she said. “But I felt that if I were a drama teacher just in one school, I wouldn’t be able to affect as many kids.” She began working part-time at a couple different schools in Contra Costa County, able to produce plays at three or four schools in one season.

In 1991, when California’s Prop. 13 saw drastic cuts in arts education throughout the state’s public schools, Kamrin created STARS 2000 as a way for youth to get the comprehensive theater experience she credits with having shaped her goals as a teen.

Participants ages 13 to 20 go through a full audition process, get mentoring from professionals in the performing arts and see a full-scale musical production through to completion. Kamrin said the experience level varies, but she tends to have a few veteran actors in each cast — high school students who have been in the program since they were in elementary school.

This year, her career seems to have come full circle, as Mark Cornfield, a former student of Kamrin’s, is the director for this summer’s production.

“It’s been wonderful to have him directing this with me,” Kamrin said. “I know he feels it really instilled a sense of pride in his Jewishness when he was in it, so it’s been wonderful to have him be part of it again in this way, so many years later.”

This year’s production will honor another former STARS 2000 actor with a performance July 28 that will benefit the Contra Costa County Crisis Center, which helps at-risk teens.

The performance will be in the memory of the actor who played Tevye in the 2000 production of Fiddler on the Roof, a young man who later committed suicide. “The work they do at that crisis center has a very personal attachment for me because of that,” said Kamrin.

All in all, while Kamrin is as excited as always to be producing a play that celebrates Judaism, she hopes it will ultimately remind audience members of the struggles that bind all cultures.

“The very first time I did this show, two of my main characters were both Mormon, and it was such a wonderful thing for them,” she said. “It’s kind of a joke that Italian weddings and Greek weddings are just like Jewish weddings … but it’s also kind of true. Deep down, we all have that innate feeling that our traditions are important, and that it’s important to hold on to them, and pass them down to our children.”

“Fiddler on the Roof” runs from July 22-31. Tickets are $12-$15. Due to a last-minute change of venue, for location information visit

Emma Silvers

Emma Silvers is a former J. staff writer.