Stage Designs of Richard Finkelstein

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Richard Finkelstein
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Harrisonburg, VA 22801

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As You Like It, by William Shakespeare. Presented, November, 1998. Scenic & Lighting Design by Richard Finkelstein. Presented by The University of Colorado at DENVER at The Acoma City Center. The production was set in the Russia of Ivan the Terrible. Depicted below is a rendering of the palace scenes followed by production photos of the Arden scenery. 

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As You Like It

Context/Pretext:

This production was the inaugural theatre production of The University of Colorado - Denverís newly constituted College of Arts and Media. It is also the first production that I was to design for UC-D. However, as UC-D had no home theatre to speak of, this and the next 3 subsequent productions of the college were moved to The Acoma City Center Theatre. The Acoma theatre is based in an old Swedish Orthodox church, converted to theatre use. It was a small space in a poor state of repair. The site provided for no wing space at all, no performance backstage space, and only had access to the stage through 3 small doors in the rear. It had no fly space but did have a lighting pipe grid. The theatre space itself was painted in an awful mustard color with the stage rendered in splotchy flat-black paint.

The small Acoma space has a home made upper stage level in the form of a wood balcony extending into the playing space from the back and side walls of the stage.

Shows traditionally done at The Acoma are done with only minor scene changes within a simple unit set. We aimed to expand the mode of performance presented there.

The task for us was to transform this very limited space and atmosphere into something magical and special for our inauguration, and all with very limited resources in funding, time, and staffing. Besides myself as designer, we had a part-time costume designer and a part-time technical director.

Description of the Settings:

The settings designed were on Russian themes (see conceptual justifications, below). There were two basic sets. The first was for the court scenes, with the second, transformational set being for the forest of Arden.

The court set was what greeted audience members when they entered the theatre. It was a very stark, cold setting consisting of a series of six stylized, skeletal, building silhouettes in a Russian style. These were dark black in color with silver edges to catch the light. The stage proper was newly painted gloss black as were the visible stage house walls. The stage balcony level was left in full view, and a set of skeletal steel stairs was fabricated to connect the upper and lower levels. A modest landing area was provided at the bottom of the stairs to serve as an intermediate acting level.

For Arden, a series of bright, colorful, cut roll drops descended from behind modest masking strips. These totally transformed the space from one of darkness to one of light; one of starkness to an environment of lushness; a world sans color, to a rainbow of color, from a linear world to an organic world come alive.

Conceptual Foundations:

In their work, Shakespeare in Performance, Consultant Editors Keith Parsons and Pamela Mason succinctly sum up the theme of the work as well as itís relation to setting:

"Explorations of love lie at the heart of As You Like It. Set in two principal locations, the rigid hierarchical patriarchy of a usurped court and the unstructured and pastoral potentiality of the Forest of Arden."

Clearly, Shakespeare intended to set up tow opposing worlds and ideals. The world of the court is cold, dark, and devoid of honor. It is stiff and rigid. The world of Arden, in the pastoral tradition, is a world of possibility. It is a world of light and DE-light. It is a world of color. But most of all, it is a world with immense power to heal and to restore the balance of nature.

In mounting the production, we wanted to find a parallel set of opposing worlds from within history. The productionís director, Kathy Maes, was struck by exactly such parallels in the history of Russian culture, particularly in the time of Ivan. It was a time in Russian history where brother was indeed set against brother. It was a dark time of power struggles and court intrigue.

By contrast, Russian folk art from this period and later was typified by light, bright colors, rich organic line, beautiful patterning, and delicacy.

We adopted these contrasting worlds in our setting, and worked to emphasize that contrast.

First, Kathy Maes re-worked the script so that the action would not move back and forth between the two worlds. In our edition the action begins in the court and moves to Arden in the midst of our first act. There the action remains.

The goal was to better emphasize the transformation that the new environment and its inherent ideals brings to the characters in the work.

So in our own very limited environment, we sought to create two worlds of maximum contrast by which transformation could happen in a most magical, theatrical way.

In this regard, the court scenes were staged in a setting marked by its starkness, blackness, coldness. It was a minimal setting, colorless, with carefully chosen forms to indicate the environment of the Russian Court in as stark a manner as possible. In this setting, the environment of the Acoma theatre itself was not hidden. The setting was not outside of the expectations of the traditional audiences to that space.

Audiences at The Acoma are not used to any kind of scene changes, let alone transformational ones. The theatre includes no proscenium, no fly space, no wing space, and no way to get scenery out from backstage. The environment of the Acoma in its most natural form, seems to parallel that of the court - an environment of rigid expectation.

We wanted to set expectations on their head through a transformational change of setting, that would transform the space itself. We did so through the employment of layers of roll cut drops. These were patterned after the lively folk - arts and the lacquer paintings one finds from artists in villiages such as Fedoskino, Palekh, Kholui, and Mstera. It is as though the court is the blank, black lacquer box, devoid of life, while the Arden scenery provides the environment that transforms the box into one of light and life.

We hid the stored roll-drops well within the lighting equipment on the pipe grid. When the drops came into view it was indeed a total and magical transformation of the space. While roll drops and cut drops are common in our scenic heritage, I suspect it was somewhat of an innovation to combine the two technologies. In any event rolling an uneven cut drop proved to be a highly difficult task. But keeping the cut-drop strategy allowed for a wonderful integration of performer and costume within the painted elements of Arden.

Here the photograph is deceptive. At the Acoma, no audience member is farther from the stage than about 30 feet. We created a very dimensional environment, with many layered playing spaces. While colors matched between performer costumes, lighting, and set elements, separation in the 3-d space was always crisp. The 2-D photograph artificially flattens the stage image in a way not experienced by actual audiences.

In lighting, I worked too towards contrast and transformation, within our very limited set of resources. The court scenes were typified by highly dimensional lighting. Most lighting was from backlight and high side-lighting angles. The coloration was in the steel-cool side of the spectrum but not overly colorful. As I didnít have the resources for a double hang, I used cool side light from one side and a cool lavender from the other (the lavender could also work with the warmer colors in Arden). The lighting in the court was also marked by pools and zones of light. Actors would move through light and shadow. In lighting, this was a world of contrast and lower intensity of lighting. The contrast of the lighting kept things stark. The gloss black of the environment, coupled with the side lighting angles, gave a feeling of disjointedness to the performer. Each performer seemed to float independent of each other and of setting.

The world of Arden contrasted in most every way in the lighting. Arden was bright, and colorful. While side and backlight was still important to provide dimensional separation from the drops, there was much more front lighting to mitigate stark shadows, to provide a feel of brightness, and to bring out the coloring of costumes and scenery. Since the colorful nature of the environment was accomplished primarily through scenery and costume elements, the lighting itself did not use saturated colors, but rather colors that would enhance the natural colors of the pigments of the set and costumes. In contrast though to the cool tones of the court, the environment of Arden made use of generally warm tones in lighting.