Stage Designs of Richard Finkelstein

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Richard Finkelstein
630 Stonewall Dr
Harrisonburg, VA 22801

finkelrs@gmail.com
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Kutiyattam Ramayana- Scenic Design by R. Finkelstein - Produced at The State University of New York at Stony Brook 

Kutiyattam Ramayana - Set Design by Richard Finkelstein

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Kutiyattam Ramayana 

Conceptual Considerations

R. Finkelstein

The performance of various Kutiyattam pieces at The State University of New York at Stony Brook presented many unusual challenges to the scenic designer. Kutiyattam is non-western, not part of the tradition of realism, primarily visual, and not readily familiar to either American audiences, performers or craftspersons.

In mounting the production, we were to be guided by two masters of the form imported from India to work with our performers, and designers. Although the prospects for this cross-cultural collaboration were exciting, the collaborative process would introduce further unique challenges to the production.

At the very least, our standards had to be maintained at the highest level. In the western tradition, theatre's prime function is frequently to "entertain". If social consciousness is raised in the process, so much the better. Nevertheless, entertainment value seems to determine the success or failure of many productions these days. Kutiyattam, on the other hand, has its origins in Hindu ritual and liturgy and is still considered to be an important part of religious practice in parts of India. Its performers are in fact considered to be high priests!

With these priests in our midst, I felt it important to approach this work with the utmost of respect - not only in deference to our guest artists but to our students as well. The experience of mounting this production provided the perfect opportunity to expose students to religious and cultural values that few Americans have the opportunity to explore. Furthermore the experience offered the opportunity to explore theatre as something more than the mere "doing of shows".

I was especially anxious to make our guest artists feel at home in their new environment. The cultural world of Long Island is so vastly different from that in Southern India, I felt it important to help them (as well as the audience) make the transition as easily as possible.

So...besides the traditional scenic tasks, my work as a designer for Kutiyattam needed to include the following goals:

A. The space had to help in the process of preparing the audience, making them receptive to a most alien and unusual experience.

B. The space had to be true to the religious traditions that are central to the development of the form. Furthermore, the space had to meet with the approval of the guest artists so that their work could proceed as smoothly as possible.

C. The space was intended to approximate the intimate audience-stage relationship found in the actual Kutiyattam theatres while allowing for our own spacial needs.

D. The space was intended to foster a spiritual dimension. The entering audience member should immediately realize that he or she was about to become a part of something special and important.

E. To succeed, the unique forms of communication used in Kutiyattam ie. the hand and face gestures, had to be clearly visible to the audience members.

F. To succeed in "transporting" the audience into the world of India, it was necessary to hide the normal nature of Theatre ie. to make the decor of the space unique to this one production.

G. It was hoped that a way would be found to give the dramaturg and the production advisor a chance to be more active in spacial decisions - an opportunity not often available in more traditional theatre forms.

H. Technical considerations also had to be met, from audience size, to costume support, to lighting, to budget.

Realizing the objectives:

Since we were being directed by masters of the art of Kutiyattam, and since I decided to fully respect the religious content of the form, research became even more important than it is to the design of most productions. The first task was to gain a familiarity with the art form. In the summer I was able to attend one of our guest artists' performances in Islip, New York. Later I was able to see videotapes of other productions of the Kutiyattam and related theatre forms. I also had access to the comprehensive collection of research materials owned by Professor, Farley Richmond.

The next task was to separate arbitrary decor elements encountered in my research from those decor elements with religious significance. To this end I was able to read through two Doctoral Dissertations that Professor Richmond had in his research collection. These were of immense help along with Professor Richmond's enormous slide collection of Kutiyattam images. Since the religious symbolism is actually quite complicated and the chance of making wrong choices was always a factor, I decided to take most of the design forms used in the set from the actual design of one of the major Kutiyattam stages. In our design, for instance, both the columns and roof structures were patterned directly from research into actual Kutiyattam spaces.

Research in hand, I then had to deal with concerns unique to the specific performance space. In India, the Kutiyattam space is in a double structure - one enclosed space within another. Although the stage structure is small, the surrounding structure is quite large. Since we were limited to building just the inner structure, I chose the most interesting elements from both of the original structures combining them into our version of a Kutiyattam stage. The columns, for instance, were from the inner structure of the original, while our roof design was patterned after the outside roof of an actual Kutiyattam temple.

Bringing the outside roof "inside" had an added advantage. Since we wanted to get some of the feeling of the majesty of the walk up an Indian hillside to the temple complex, the initial vista of the stage that our audiences were to see was designed to help to create some of this feeling.

The actual spacing of the columns and proportions of the stage space were relatively authentic. I felt that these proportions would be quite important to our guest artists.

In this scheme of production, every choice was an important one and had to be approached in a deliberate manner - Even the choice to play towards the corner of the room. This choice allowed us to meet a number of our objectives. While corner staging has undoubtedly been a part of past production in this black-box space, it was probably the most uncommon arrangement. By playing to the corner the production would be immediately "set apart" from other recent productions in the space. The arrangement also allowed the most easy access for performers to the dressing rooms - an important consideration in this production. Finally, the corner staging allowed us to carefully plan for an exciting audience entrance experience.

Unlike most of our productions, the design of this one started in its lobby. Much of our efforts went towards creating a lobby space that would acclimate the audience to the events that were about to unfold. To this end we were able to position various artifacts of Hindu ritual while presenting scenes from life in Southern India. The lobby was kept dark and lit very carefully in order to create an atmosphere of reverence. The slides were designed to draw the audience up our makeshift hill and to our "temple vista". The vista, if properly planned was to be a wonderful final surprise of entry.