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What Do I Hope to Find?

by Tina Landau

To prepare for
The Diary of Anne Frank, ensemble member Tina Landau traveled to Amsterdam to research the actual events that underlie the play. We asked her to blog about her experience. Read Tina’s full entries at SUNDAY, OCT. 8 "I’ve come to Amsterdam to visit the Anne Frank House – which is what it is called but not, technically, what it is. It’s her hiding place – the secret annex – that her father and associates arranged for her and others to live in while the Nazis occupied their city and WWII raged. They were Jews in hiding – eight of them in these tight and shuttered quarters – How can this possibly translate into English as her ‘house’? I wonder (although I’m sure it’s a translation of the Dutch word ‘huis,’ which has alternate meanings such as ‘building’ and ‘location of’…). “The one thing I’m quite sure I can find here is what the space feels like to be inside – the architecture, the dimensions, the light, etc. Beyond that I can only hope, but not assume, that I will gain insight for the production I’m directing at Steppenwolf. But what kind it will be, when it will be revealed, how it will unfold – anyone’s guess. To begin, I know only that I can actually go inside the very rooms where the Franks and Van Pels hid – and that is enough. I’m just beginning the design process now – having met once with all designers, and about to meet again with set designer Richard Hoover upon my return – and I hope this trip will enable me to communicate to him a greater sense of detail and reality. And I hope again later, with the cast in rehearsal, I’ll be able to draw on this trip to help convey to them (and in turn, therefore, our audiences) some of the actual place. “The trees, the light, the wind – it was so exquisite, and I imagined this little girl behind the window up there who could ‘see’ but not ‘feel’ any of this – and I imagined her longing – I imagined what it would be like for me to remember these sensations but be denied them. And in spite of my having only moments before been aware of my complete remove from this place, I now felt an intimacy with it. I suppose it was the Imagination which led me there – as it so often can and does in the work I do. So I cried as I stood there gazing at the canal, now imagining Anne’s version of a ‘partial’ experience. “As we walked away from the house, we passed again not the entrance to the museum part, but the entrance of 263 Prinsengracht itself, which served as Otto Frank’s business. Because I was a little teary still, Niki asked me what specifically I was feeling – but all I could manage was, “It’s real.” Well, of course, it’s real, Tina – what else could it be?! A movie, I guess. A book. A play. Sometimes I fear that my experience (however partial in this case) is wholly filtered through and corrupted by the media – images of places that I am fed before I ever see them, or stories of experiences before I ever have them. So, for instance, when I finally saw the Grand Canyon for the first time, I recognized it first from the movies I’d seen of it and then, only later, was I able to find my way toward some authentic, first-hand experience of it. In these situations, the primary encounter for me becomes one of familiarity as opposed to strangeness, one of recognition instead of discovery. And so, I was grateful now, here, today – to stand outside the Anne Frank House and, for that one brief moment at least, let all that fall away and just experience the building itself as if for the first time – to realize, no, it’s not a book, it’s not a movie or the photos I’ve already seen of it; it’s real, it’s here, and I’m standing right in front of it - and tomorrow I’ll go inside. “For fifteen minutes or so, I was alone in the rooms of the Annex. First the bedroom of Otto and Edith Frank, later shared by Margot as well. On the wall I found the markings where their parents had measured Anne’s and Margot’s growth in pencil lines, as well as the map of Normandy where Otto Frank recorded the allied invasion with pins. From there, I walked into Anne’s room, later shared by Fritz Pfeffer (known in the play by the pseudonym Anne used in her diary, Mr. Dussel). Here I looked at the images Anne had glued to her walls: Norma Shearer, Shirley Temple, Ray Milland, scenes of bucolic country houses, a poster for her father’s pectin business, postcards of cherubs, a basket of strawberries, four monkeys eating at a table like humans. Anne’s bedroom led to the washroom and toilet (the one place the residents of the Annex could be assured of privacy), and out from there back to the stairs which lead to the second floor. Up the very steep (very Dutch canal house) stairs. On the second floor I entered into the Van Pels’s (renamed the Van Daans in the diary and play) bedroom-cum-common living area, then Peter’s small room, which also houses the stairs to the attic. The attic figures very prominently in both the diary and the play and therefore I was surprised (and disappointed) to discover that it is closed off to the public. Can places get so built up in our imaginations – so endowed with some essential or magical power – that they can, in reality, only disappoint? “For these times, I hope to make a production that looks with an unflinching gaze, embracing both the light and the dark – in Anne, in the Annex, in history and our responses to it. Neither sugar-coated nor sentimentalized. Incorporating hope, but not limited to it. As critic Arline Greer wrote, ‘The new version of the play was not written for a world that needs another perfunctory hug but rather a stiff shot of sincerity.’ And as Ben Brantley wrote in his NY Times review of the ‘97 Broadway production (in which our very own ensemble member Austin Pendleton played Mr. Dussel), ‘This new interpretation never relaxes its awareness of the hostile world beyond the attic that was the Franks’ sanctuary and prison for two claustrophobic years, nor of the religious identity that made them a quarry. The earlier version began in a scene of sentimental hindsight, with Anne’s father discovering her diaries; this one leaps, with a gripping immediacy, into medias res.’ (I had to look up that phrase: In medias res is Latin for ‘into the middle of things.’ It describes a narrative that begins, not at the beginning of a story, but in the middle — usually at some crucial point in the action. The term comes from the ancient Roman poet Horace, who advised the aspiring epic poet to go straight to the heart of the story,” as was done in Homer’s Iliad and Virgil’s Aeneid.). Monday Continues – THE RIJKSMUSEUM, AND OUR DESIGN “After going to the Anne Frank House this morning, I went next to the Rijksmuseum, which was under renovation. But thankfully, due to the restoration of the main building, the museum is displaying the ‘crème de la crème’ of its permanent collection in one newly furnished wing and I therefore had the unique opportunity of being able to view all the highlights of the Golden Age in one place! It turned out to be a wonderful way to see the work. And what began for me as a somewhat compulsory visit quickly blossomed into a delightful lesson on the design possibilities for Anne Frank. Which I was definitely not expecting. It was great that the Anne Frank House was so immediately fresh in my memory for I’m sure it was this immediacy which provided me with a lens through which to view the artwork at the museum – and lent it a tremendous relevance for me today. “And last but not least, I came today to REMBRANDT. Looking at his work today I realized that I want to light the production with this kind of contrast between dark and light – ‘between fine detail and coarse, unpolished areas.’ In either event, I look forward to working with this kind of daring in how we light the production. (And you can remind me of this, Scott. I’m talking here to Scott Zielinski, our lighting designer for Anne Frank, and almost every other production I’ve directed at Steppenwolf. Scott and I always end up doing a dance around how dark or light to make a production. I turn into a predictable bundle of contradiction as I first encourage in him to create strong atmosphere, sense of architecture and texture, through shadow, contrast in intensity, etc. And then, inevitably comes the time, usually after a first preview or two, when I tell him that I ‘need to see the actors better’ and start asking for every light cue to be brighter. It is always a fine line we have to find between creating the ambience of a world on stage and ensuring that an audience can see (and hear) enough to remain engaged. Part of what I am loving about the Rembrandt approach is that the ‘canvas’ can remain relatively dark and atmospheric because such intense, clear light is focused in specific places. It’s part of why I have grown so fond of ‘follow spots’ in the work that Scott and I do, although ‘spots’ are traditionally used more in musicals and overtly theatricalized styles. But for me, if they are used with great subtlety and precision of focus, they are wonderful tools for creating the kind of ‘glow’ I saw today in Rembrandt – a more subliminal but utterly necessary focus – and in the most seemingly naturalistic of works. Tuesday Oct. 10th – The “Other” Anne Frank House “We began by trying to find Merwedeplein 37, the apartment building where the Franks lived from 1933-1942. I suppose I’m simply continuing to try to remember her, as well as make her more real, more dimensional. In the theater I feel that we are often doing this: conjuring ghosts. Sometimes they are the ghosts of the theater itself – past players and writers and audiences. And sometimes they are the ghosts of the subject matter we are ‘doing.’ Spirits – memories – that stay alive through our writing and talking about them – through ‘performing’ them. We breathe currency into the past. We strive to keep memory alive. And we do it together – a communal act – as we sit in the dark – straining to reach across time, or place, or ethnicity, or any barrier which separates us one from the other, or from the past. Perhaps, as E.M. Forster wrote, the urge is to ‘Connect…. Only connect.’ And to do so through remembrance. He also wrote, ‘Unless we remember we cannot understand.’ Somehow, I am standing on this street corner because I want a glimpse, a touch, of Anne’s three-dimensionality. As if the more I meditate on her, the more I fill up with the details of her life, the more likely she is to join us, grace us, when we are in rehearsal. I want her to be there with us. I want to feel her presence. I know this might sound like mystical hokum to some of you. But it is genuinely how I think of the possibilities of our theatrical – and haunted – spaces (i.e. our theaters): that they are spaces in which we can invoke, access and converse with those who have come before us and those who will follow, through the art we make. At least this is my hope.”