Stage Designs of Richard Finkelstein

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Richard Finkelstein
630 Stonewall Dr
Harrisonburg, VA 22801

finkelrs@gmail.com
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becoming non grata - University of Colorado, Lighting and Projections Designed by Richard Finkelstein, with scenery designed by Nate Thompson, Laura Cuetara, and R. Finkelstein.

Context/Pretext 

While this show was one of the best I have ever worked on from an audience perspective, it was clearly one of the most frustrating work situations. The show traced the life of those in and around Colorado's Amache camp for Japanese Americans, active during World War II.  The show opened about a year before the 9/11 tragedy in America and the insights of the show dealing with the slippery slope of erosion of civil rights at a time of fear in the general society was eerie in this new context.

Many factors though made the show frustrating to work on. First it was nearly totally improvisational in its development, yet called for complex lighting both in plot and in cueing, very difficult without a script or even good outline in hand.

The production was also the first to be presented in the black box theatre space of the new King Center for the Performing Arts.  Many of the systems were still not complete when we had to open. For instance the space's worklights still had no switch to turn them off! We had to go to another part of the building and hand push relays that had no control wires yet leading in!

and that was before the weirdness set in! We had our standard manufactured seating risers and seats installed and then the powers that be insisted that only non-combustable seating materials could be used - flame-retardant was not enough! They literally required 100% metal seating components, and this was within a week of the theatre's opening!  

I remembered that the school's athletic department had abandoned some aluminum/steel athletic bleachers outside the university's phys-ed facility. We were able to borrow these but then we had the problem of audience safety from falling off the units (strange that no one had the same concern when these were used in sporting events!)  In the end, believe it or not, we had to surround each of the 4 units used with chain link fence! The only break in all the craziness was that as the show represented a concentration camp, the metal seating and fencing fit right in. But audience members swore they would never come back unless there were "real" seats to sit on.

Another factor that made this difficult to work on was the fact that there was no designated scenic designer. This too was improvisational. The problem with improvisational scenery is that it has to be BUILT and that means plans, and real money to spend etc.  While this process was agrivating, the final look was indeed quite striking.

Last, since the facility was out of construction money we were informed at the last minute that no lighting equipment would be purchased in time for the opening! But since all our resources had gone into getting the facility open, there was no real money available to rent lighting either.  So this very ambitious project had to be done by the seat of our pants.

Actually, the challenges continued after the show opened. The show was so successful dramaturgically that it was selected to tour to the regional finals of ACTF in Kansas where the move-in time is severely restricted. Since the show was designed around 9 tons of sand this was.....a challenge!

Physical Description:

The scenery consisted of a rather large sand pit, about 18' wide by about 40' in length with a wood 1' wide border surrounding. At one end is a vertical Japanese screen about 25' high designed to be lit from the rear with a modern sculptural representation of a tree in front. At the other end is a wooden tower structure with a makeshift look. Onto this tower structure, above and below, could be attached more screens and in fact at the start of the show, the screens were attached. The space looked very Japanese at the start, but as the tower screens came down, some becoming planks to bridge the sane, the tower took on the look of the camp guard tower. 

Even though our theatre was brand new and industrial strength, the engineers ruled that the weight of the sand would exceed the floor's rating. Besides it would take too much time to move it all in or out, so the bottom 4" of the sand pit was taken up with sheets of poly-styrene with the sand placed on top. This also helped to protect the theatre's new floor. Still, with only 3-4" of actual sand, the weight was still something like 9 tons!

At the start of the show, the sand was pristine, with beautiful raked patterns.

Needless to say, the generated dust made for a very problematic environment to work in.

When the show was remounted to move to Kansas, a wonderful and truly collaborative technical solution was developed. Not only was the sand deemed necessary as a visual element; it was also a necessary audio element, and often the sand became a prop element too, with various things buried in the sand and sand blocked to stream from the fingers of the actors, etc.

But the theatre in Kansas simply forbade the use of sand in the production, and given the limitations of time in the space, we were not disappointed in this restriction.

What we ended up with were sheets of plywood, loosely covered with muslin. Into the muslin was stuffed gobs of packing peanuts, making the structure about 5-6" thick. Then furrows were stapled into the muslin (as it was being filled) along strict design patterns. The look was somewhat like one of those plastic beach rafts, but once painted and on stage, these units together looked exactly like the sand as raked into its design pattern at the top of the show!  The units even crunched like sand when walked on. In the photos above, the first two show the cloth "sand" and the next two shots show the real sand. Pretty cool, no?

The seating was on two sides, which is often a disaster as an audience-stage relationship. Given the content of this work, the spatial arrangement, and the choreography this mode worked extraordinarily well in this case.

Above the space, two 45 degree angle Japanese screens were hung to receive both rear and front projection images and texture.

Lighting Scheme:

This project was approached somewhat like a dance project. Indeed at least half of the story of Amache was told through movement. The show presented many "worlds". There was the past (in various periods) and the present. The Japanese and the Americans; the military and the civilian; the truth and the distorion; the public and the private; and even the good and the evil.

In this context, as the lighting designer, especially with limited resources at my disposal, I opted for a disciplined approach based on contrasts. There were a number of layered systems in my scheme.  First I set up three axes of composition: The long axis, (sidelight to the audience); downlight for toning and more often, isolation; and diagonal, from the corners, for texture.

The sidelight provided for a stark key light. It was divided into 9 strict zones from each end of the space. It was important for regions of the space to be able to be lit as separate units and this scheme worked. The sidelight also allowed for a film-like composition. As the action would shift to one of the political or military speakers, for instance, the light could shift to shine directly into their face. This was most striking in situations where there was a call and response between the speaker and the chorus. In these instances the direction of the lighting could at an instant, shift 180 degrees for a very powerful pictorial moment. 

The starkness of the sidelight could be mitigated by a series of 8" fresnels used as downlight. These mimicked the feel of an overcast sky when blended properly with the sidelight.  The sidelight was of no-color and thus it could appear warm is low in dimmer or like a bright incandescent white. To be able to move more towards daylight white, another set of 8" fresnel downlight was employed in a deep blue. These could make the white quite cool. They could also mitigate the red shift when other lamps were at low reading. Finally the units could provide for a field of deep blue into which specials could cut.

Another layer of downlight provided for 12 pools specifically as specials. The geometry of these pools though was such that although each was distinct, they could be used individually on actors, or in groups almost like gobo-light to provide a texture or starkness.

From the corners into the space came a gobo pattern of branches. This light provided a stark contrast to both the sidelight or the two layers of downlight. When used together these basic layers could provide for a myriad of  lighting possibilities. 

This new theatre space featured a tension lighting grid that also made it possible to place two source-4 units on the grid as follow spots. These could also double as search lights.

Another important layer of lighting consisted of 4 shin-busters - tough to implement in a non-proscenium space. These were placed at the corners of the sand box and allowed performers to be totally isolated from the floor; an especially valuable asset when projections were employed on the floor surface.

The screens on the set and above all had backlight, and gobos to play on them with image projections as well on the hanging screens. There was also a set of deep red wash lights from the direction of the audience for use in key points of the show.

Each of these carefully planned layers could be used individually or in tandem with the other systems to provide a very fluid lighting environment that would shift in space and emotional content in a very cinematic way.

In the first iteration of the production, I employed quite an old-school approach to the screen projections. We used simple overhead projectors, hooked into an old variac dimmer (so the motors wouldn't freak out too much as they do with electronic dimming).  These old projectors are really quite bright, brighter than most video projectors affordable to a University, and the field is much wider...great for large screens at a short throw. But best for us, the use of these projectors allowed us to keep up with the improvisational nature of the show through use of a simple Xerox machine and ink-jet printer.  The projectors were modified so as to eliminate stray and spill light. The projectors were located between the audience seating sections, and with the stray light shielded, they were essentially invisible to the audience.

For the tour to Kansas, the images were all migrated to Ektagraphic Slide Projector format with the lenses carefully matched to the throw from behind the two audience sections. Interesting that both approaches worked quite well but by the second year the show was less improvisational making it more conducive to the traditional projection approach.

In the first production, an Ektagraphic projector was placed on the tension grid and with the use of a mirror, focused onto the sand pit. With a 1.4"fl lens the image largely filled the pit. When the actors were lit with the shin-busters they would appear to float above the projection.  In Kansas two sets of gobo patterns from above were used as a substitute.