Set Designer Robbie Carruthers describes what went into creating the Amsterdam attic set for our March 2023 play, The Diary of Anne Frank…
Thoughts for the set design for the Progressive Players’ production of The Diary of Anne Frank began prior to any inkling of the approaching Covid 19 pandemic. First ideas sprung from the story about a Jewish family hiding in an attic building that was being used to sell spices in Amsterdam during World War 2. Judith, the director and I had intended for us to visit the Anne Frank Museum, but circumstances prevented that. I knew the story, but Judith was very knowledgeable about the story of Anne Frank. I had to rely on detailed research in books, the internet and information from the script. Judith and I talked a lot and, armed with research, I put myself in their hiding place and thought what features could we build in to our set to give the impression of a cramped attic hiding place. I knew almost immediately how to give the impression of where we were by using our standard 12 foot by 1 foot flats as the roof trusses. I also wanted to have a big round table with a pendant light above as a focus for the family to work, play, disagree and to help tell their story.
The actual layout of Anne Frank’s real hiding place did not lend itself as a vehicle for presenting a play. I broke the rooms down to a living room with kitchen, two bedrooms, a toilet, and a single means of entry and exit. I also realised that the families’ accommodation would be cramped. The roof trusses would make the actors lower their heads, giving the sense of a lack of space. I started messing about with bits of paper and card forming the roof trusses, the beds, the kitchen and the centre table with chairs on a scale drawing of our stage. I looked at a lot of Z beds, army camp beds and cookers on eBay. Space was a problem, but I realised that a lack of space would help the actors portray the cramped situation the families were in.
I then built a scale model to help the director and actors visualise the set. Judith and I used the model to describe the set at the meeting of our production team, explaining how the set was going to be built. It was also important to ponder how and what the set was made of.
The hiding place had to be built without the Nazis knowing about it. I thought pallet wood might be a source material, and checked they were around in 1915. I think the model enthused our members. They always like a challenge, and this was something we hadn’t done for a while.
I wanted to try and have the set built quickly to allow the cast as much time on the set as possible, as this play was quite complicated in all departments. One of the ways I used to enable this plan was preparation. I laid out the 12 foot by 1 foot flats on an empty stage, and worked out the angles of the trusses. I then pre-built the bosses and bases for the trusses under the stage. The elevated bedroom was to be built on our 12 foot by 3 foot flats, laid sideways on the floor with standard size plywood boards on top. By pre-building components and using our standard flats the set went up very quickly.
Basically, the whole set was built in a week, even with an outside hire in the middle. We have some very good set constructors, including some new ones. Of course, when everything came together with our carpenters, painters, props and lighting I realised we had built something quite special. The set and all the other paraphernalia are the vehicles by which the cast bring the story to life in quite a wonderful way.
I hope you come and see our play. I think it’s going to be a good one.