BY CARY GINELL
“The Diary of Anne Frank,” which continues through September 20 at the Conejo Players Theatre, is the product of many hours of hard work and research. Led by director Rachael Pugh, producer Priscilla Losey, and especially Rachael’s mother, Kimme Black, who worked as set dresser and painter, the cast and crew endeavored to make this production as accurate and realistic as possible. For those who might feel that such a presentation might be depressing, “The Diary of Anne Frank” has a different message – that of perseverance, survival, adapting to one’s environment, and especially pride and a valued sense of self, instead of shame. Despite the fate that befell most of the characters in the play, viewers of the play come away having marveled at the heroism and bravery of the Franks in the face of the greatest oppressive threat to freedom in modern history.
Prior to opening night, we talked on the set with director Rachael Pugh, lighting designer Alex Choate and cast members Daniel Jared Hersh and Larry Shilkoff, who added their thoughts as well.
VCOS: The set design for this show is really remarkable, painstakingly accurate down to the last detail. Can you talk about the process you went through to research it?
RACHAEL: I knew from the beginning that I wanted to do as realistic a portrayal as I could. That was part of my vision all along. So I went several times – first by myself – to the Anne Frank exhibit at the Museum of Tolerance, spent a lot of time on the computer, and looked through “old-fashioned” library books, and getting as many pictures as I could. It was something I discussed at length with my mother. I designed the layout of the set bearing in mind the structure of the theater. So the first thing you do is put the bones together. Then my mother and I pored over pictures together for hours. Thankfully, we were joined by people with artistic talent and ability such as Alex Choate and Rick Steinberg, who were able to put the details in. We actually have pictures out on our lobby board of the annex itself so you can compare. You can see the stove and the cabinets, which were modeled exactly after it. We have the same pictures on Anne’s wall that the real Anne put up on her wall. We have the same posters in Peter’s room. My mother was able to recreate those. We wanted a realistic look, so that when people walk into the theater, they can look at the stage and gasp, “Oh my gosh. I’m about to watch this actually unfold – the next two-and-a-half years – here we go.”
VCOS: So, are the dimensions reflective of the real thing?
RACHAEL: Not as much. It’s more the design – who was in each room, the color schemes, the furniture, stuff like that. But the dimensions had to fit within the confines of the theater. Here’s a great example. A lot of people think the Anne Frank attic – and don’t make the distinction that it was an annex – it was several stories of confined spaces, but there was an attic in the annex that you got to from Peter’s room. Well, we only have so much height here. We have a beautiful, roomy stage, but we only have so much height. So instead of being able to put the attic above Peter’s room, if you look, it’s just stage left of his room.
VCOS: How about the props that you are using?
RACHAEL: The props! The plethora of props!
ALEX: We found an actual radio from the ’40s, just to have a period-appropriate prop.
RACHAEL: A lot of blood, sweat, and tears went into making sure that the props were period accurate. The Franks were able to plan ahead. They went into hiding two weeks earlier than they had planned. They had been planning for months. So that was an interesting thing, too, with props, in that it’s not just industrial stuff that they would have thrown together. Some of it was stuff that they were able to send ahead, stuff that was nicer. So that made it more fun for us to work on the props.
VCOS: What other props are specific to the period?
RACHAEL: Anne’s diary. I was fortunate enough to find fabric that was almost identical. We found a small journal that was the same size as Anne’s and our producer, Priscilla Losey, put the fabric around it. Watching Katie Rodriguez, who plays Anne, carry that around is very moving.
VCOS: What’s the connection your mother has with this story?
RACHAEL: My mother is Armenian, and she has relatives who were some of the few who survived the Armenian genocide of 1915. They fled to this country, so she grew up learning about that. When she converted to Judaism, although it was always important to her, she had the benefit of seeing it from different viewpoints. When she married into a Jewish family, there was a new connection to the Holocaust. She herself is an artist and a free spirit and is someone who would be really kindred to Anne. And she is a very detail-oriented perfectionist, so that helps.
VCOS: How did you acquaint the cast with their characters?
RACHAEL: That was really fun. We look for something when we’re casting, and I was really careful not to look for just physicality. I didn’t want to just think, oh, this person has to be taller or wider or whatever. So we assembled a really fine cast of people who embodied a lot of the wonderful attributes of the characters. It was really important that we portray real people, not caricatures. This is something that I really insisted upon from the beginning. So the day after the read-through, I took half the cast the next day and the rest of the cast the following day, and we sat around in Dave Parmenter’s living room and we discussed their characters. We discussed the factual history and we discussed the relationships that they would have had with each other. Some things we deduced from things that they say and things that we put together from history. Some things we’d say, well, if I were in that situation – for example, if I were a single man coming into this annex with people that I hadn’t met, what that must have been like for Mr. Dussel. We talked about Peter’s relationship with his parents, we talked a lot about their family dynamic before going into the annex, and how it would have morphed within the annex.
VCOS: And you took everyone to the Museum of Tolerance?
RACHAEL: I did. We all went together. Well, most of us.
VCOS: Daniel, how was that experience for you?
DANIEL: When I was a lot younger, I went to the Museum of Tolerance in Washington, D. C. and I vaguely remembered it, but being able to go again with the cast, knowing that we were about to portray these people on stage, it made it that much more powerful to get to see actual objects that were in the annex, to see all the pictures that they have there, it was really a great experience.
VCOS: Larry, had you seen any other productions of the show?
LARRY: I was in a production in 2007 in Camarillo when I played Mr. Van Daan, so I’ve done this before, but not to the detail that we have here. This is quite the production.
The Diary of Anne Frank continues through September 20 at the Conejo Players Theatre. For dates, showtimes, and ticket information, see the VC On Stage Calendar.