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Anna's Worlds Super-busy scenic designer Anna Louizos has five shows currently running in New York. The newest: "In the Heights."
What do a Mississippi clapboard house, a pop concert set, a cavernous theatre backstage, and a pair of gritty-but-magical New York neighborhoods have in common?

All sprang from the imagination of Anna Louizos, one of New York's busiest and most in-demand scenic designers. For the record, those shows are, in order: Crimes of the Heart, Altar Boyz, Curtains, Avenue Q and the Broadway transfer of In the Heights, which Louizos originally designed in its hit Off-Broadway run. (Recently closed: the high school-set Speech and Debate.)

On a break from the load-in of In the Heights, Louizos sat among equipment-cluttered seats of the Richard Rodgers Theatre, with the smell of sawdust and the sound of power tools thick in the air.

"I love this part," she said. "It's like building a house and moving into it. I go, 'Oh my God, this was in my head six months ago-and look at this!' I feel so lucky that I get to do this. It's so fun."

Louizos seems equally comfortable designing urban or rural settings, and though most of her recent work has tended toward the realistic unit set, as with Crimes of the Heart and In the Heights, she has also done more abstract or conceptual work, such as for the Kafka adaptation The Castle at Manhattan Ensemble Theatre.

Even in a seemingly straightforward unit set like the one for In the Heights, which essentially recreates a slice of New York City's ethnically diverse Washington Heights neighborhood, there's a lot of thought layered in, Louizos explains.

"My initial reaction when I read the script was to push it in a more interpretive, stylized way, not necessarily realistic," Louizos recalls. She was interested in rendering the neighborhood "as seen through the eyes of a primitive urban painter, in an outsider-art, kind of stylized way. I found this wonderful self-taught urban painter, Ralph Fasanella, an Italian-American who painted a lot of New York scenes. They were very colorful, and the scale was kind of funny."

As she continued pursuing that idea with the show's director, Thomas Kail, they started to fear it would be look too cartoony.

"It would have involved buildings not quite lining up with each other, the scale being off, the colors being much more vivid," Louizos explains. "But then we decided that it's the people who bring the color to the neighborhood; the ethnic makeup of the neighborhood is what gives it life. It's not the buildings. They're just the framework."

So Louizos' set, expanded upward from her initial design for the more horizontally oriented 37 Arts where the show debuted, is dominated by a pair of upward-straining tenement buildings with a crowded matrix of windows, fire escapes and storefronts below. In the background is a stone wall evoking Fort Tryon Park, and a replica of the George Washington Bridge that looks like you could walk it to New Jersey.

But as solid as those brick structures look, Louizos points out that there's more--or rather, less--to them than meets the eye.

"The bricks are printed on a scrim," Louizos says. "They're actually an image on a computer that's then printed on mesh material." If only home improvement were so easy.

While with many sets what Louizos relishes is the chance to do pull off quick scene changes (as with her set for Curtains), with In the Heights, she says, "What's going to be magical is when it looks like it's a solid wall, and then suddenly you can see through it. You'll be picking people out--someone perched on a fire escape, someone hanging the laundry, someone on the phone.

"We wanted to give the impression of people living on top of people. So the patina of the walls is gray, nondescript, but the color is inside, where the people are."

This approach certainly befits a designer who says, "New York City is one of my favorite subjects to study." A native of Northern California who initially caught the theatre bug as a performer, Louizos still views design at least partly from an actor-centric perspective.

"I wouldn't put actors in a place where I wouldn't want to be," Louizos says. "I never think the concept is so important that an actor has to hang from his toes. It's important that the actors feel safe, and that the set feels right to them.

"So I always imagine what it's like to be onstage. I walk through the set in my mind constantly."

Until, that is, the exhilarating day when she, and the cast, can walk through the actual set--and, more importantly, we get to see the story unfold on the exquisite frame she's created.

Click here for information about In the Heights.