For Costume Designer Yao Chen, designing the looks for The Diary of Anne Frank was an international, historical, and thoughtful experience. Read more from Yao about her global work and careful consideration in design for this production:
Can you share a bit about your career in costume design?
Originally from China, I moved to the United States 8 years ago with an educational background in Fashion Design and Costume History. I was always passionate about garments and storytelling, and I’ve always been interested leaving my comfort zone to experience and explore other parts of the world. So I choose to come to the U.S. to experience this “Cultural Melting Pot” and also start my path in theatre design. I am very lucky to have participated in various theatre communities in the United States, China, and Costa Rica for productions and to experience different theatre collaboration with different languages and cultural surroundings. Maybe partially due to my fashion background, I have been appointed to design costumes for various productions with a fashion inspiration and fantastic twist. I really enjoy that theatre serves as magic carpet to take me to experience different cultures, histories and communities, and I think it supports my learning path throughout my life.
How did you prepare and research for designing the costumes for The Diary of Anne Frank?
I was raised in Shanghai, China. This city accepted and accommodated big numbers of Jewish refugees during World War II. So the Holocaust and the legend of the Jewish community appeared a lot in the conversations with my grandparents. I visited the Holocaust museum in Berlin around 2013, and it was very impressive. To start the research for this project, I visited the Museum of Jewish Heritage in NYC and tried to grasp more detailed and complete information in a historical context. After that, I went through the timeline and collected initial visual archives from that museum. I began my journey of research about Anne Frank, her legend, and her family through her diary, memo, film footage, and historic records. I tried to use these to thread and weave an image of Anne Frank and her life’s details. Meanwhile, I collected visuals of the Jewish community around the world through the digital picture archive from The Museum of Jewish Heritage. It helped me to re-create a vivid context about their lifestyle, their clothes, hair, shoes, accessories, and I called them "Anne's Neighborhood".
While designing, were some characters more challenging to create for than others?
I think the most challenging character is Anne Frank herself. As the most famous victim of Hitler's violence, her appearance is widely familiar and known by the public. I needed to make sure I was confident about the fact that we were not 100% copying the historical event—we are trying to depict this story through our actors and our perspective. My job is not to copy a historical figure onto our actor’s body. Instead, I want to understand the traits, character, thoughts, values, and behavior and then make a decision on the costume based on the actors to make sure they are comfortable to tell the story on stage in their way.
Can you share your thoughts on the costumes for the Franks and Van Daans versus the characters who aren’t in hiding?
The appearance of our attic residents serves as a time clock. They are fresh and vivid when they first arrive, but due to the lack of fresh air, sunshine and activity, their bodies hurt and their appearances decay. While Mr. Kraler and Miep, even though their lives are not easy outside, still enjoy the freedom of walking on street and breathing fresh air, so they would appear more vivid when they show up in the attic. Like Anne said in the story: "Miep, you are bring the smell of the wind!”.
Growing up, what was your experience with The Diary of Anne Frank in school?
Across the Pacific, in China, The Diary of Anne Frank is always listed as one of the classic literary reading collections for middle or high school. As another country which suffered from Militarism and massacre during World War II, we pay close attention to the severe historical effects of extremism. From a public perspective, she is always a talented young girl whose innocence was lost under cruelty.
Any other comments you’d like to share about your experience?
The challenge of The Diary of Anne Frank is that we are trying to re-establish a daily routine in an extreme condition. It needs to be true, believable and durable on stage. When it comes to a production, all of these details come together with the set, props, costume, lighting cues and sound surrounding behind them. I am so grateful for the devotion of the talented crews from IRT, without their passion and input, nothing would happen. I am also grateful for this opportunity from IRT and Seattle Children’s Theatre to offer me a precious opportunity to research and learn more about this important historical chapter.
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The Diary of Anne Frank, presented by Glick Philanthropies, is on stage through February 24. Don't miss the final performances of this moving and relevant production!
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