Problem:

When director Tina Landau and scenic designer Richard Hoover began work on the Steppenwolf production of The Diary of Anne Frank, they wanted to create a replica of the secret annex that was Anne's home. Hoover studied photographs, documents, and designs for earlier productions, and he took a virtual tour of the house. Meanwhile, Landau headed for Amsterdam to visit the house and wander through places the Franks frequented before they were forced into hiding. She noted the stains on the annex walls, cracks in the kitchen countertop, the odd angle of the mirror over the bathroom sink, and the miniature drawings on family friend Peter's game board, and brought the details to Hoover so he could do an authentic design.

Back in Chicago, it soon became clear that if they opened up one wall of the house, other rooms would be blocked to the audience. They began to alter the architecture they had done so much to research, changing the placement of the bathroom, eliminating Peter's room, and questioning the verticality. When they stacked the rooms, they understood why so many previous productions had settled on a horizontal design. Although most of the action is in the main room, “stairs and entrances were for subjective scenes in the bedrooms,” Hoover notes. Sightlines were going to be a problem, and “it felt huge and cumbersome, as opposed to tight and contained,” Landau reports. They considered dropping a building into the stage, with Anne's room downstairs and the main room floating 6' above the stage, but the raised stage was going to hit a fire curtain wall and create issues with the fire department.

As Hoover studied the shapes and elevations and thought about ways to create the annex on an open proscenium stage with an apron, the production manager responded to preliminary sketches: Replicating the annex would put them way over budget. They cut one detail, then another, and another. Then one day in a design meeting, Landau wondered aloud if there was anything they hadn't explored, and Hoover joked, “Not unless you want them to come in and tape the rooms out on the floor.”

Solution:

What if? What if they discarded naturalism entirely, eliminating most scenery and moving toward the abstract? Why not really use black tape on white rectangles to delineate the rooms? Anne could wander through rooms as she narrates scenes, while those engaged in scenes would stay within taped lines.

Landau's idea had been to show people who had to manage with the little they have. What if they had next to nothing? Hoover placed minimal props on a wide expanse — a black rake, a black wall, with outlines of rooms taped or chalked on the floor. Because the characters move into the space at the top of the show, the design included a pile of stuff upstage center, part sculptural installation, part evidence of the Holocaust, part belongings. From this, characters set up and create the annex.

LD Scott Zielinski had seen Hoover's model for the original design, with little nooks and crannies in the set for props that he prepared to light. Now he would light a wide-open space, and lighting would have to do scenic work. “The light defines the rooms the Franks live in,” he says. Hard-edged, unfrosted downlights could maintain the room boundaries, but “they have no front so the whole beam is sharp.” Actors would have to walk through squares with multiple downlights — the main room has nine — eight around the edges and one in the center.

“Tina was adamant that the lighting define the rooms, so you're trying to create these squares on this stage that's designed to look empty, and yet you need to see actors clearly,” Zielinski says. “You want to get into the lives of these people; you have to see their faces.” Sidelight and frontlight would reveal the actors, but how much could be turned on without violating the room definitions?

When Zielinski lit The Three Sisters for Krystian Lupa at the American Repertory Theatre a couple of years ago, he faced a similar challenge. In the third act, Lupa wanted a room defined by a square that sat inside another room. Zielinski had managed the mix then, but now he had to delineate five rooms. How would he maintain clarity and definition of one square next to another, while revealing the actors in each? A mix of soft frosted frontlight light with no edge and the hard-edged downlight worked for him now, too. “An audience doesn't perceive frontlight very much. When it hits the floor, it goes away from an audience,” he notes.

Landau found it hard to let go of the walls and wallpaper after such intense research, but as the space became psychological and dreamlike, she came to feel the nonliteral design was as true and less limiting. “By taking the focus off the concrete reality, the production focuses on the people,” she says.

“It became more of an actor's space and not about real scenery, a theatre piece and not a museum piece,” says Hoover. “We wanted to energize the piece for today. It's about Anne Frank, but it's also about every refugee and has to reference that sadness. It's about the Holocaust and other holocausts, and about a changing woman in a constrained society who asks, ‘Why do I have to behave like that?’”