Stage Designs of Richard Finkelstein

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Richard Finkelstein
630 Stonewall Dr
Harrisonburg, VA 22801

finkelrs@gmail.com
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is 2012 R. Finkelstein

 

The Merchant of Venice - Colorado Shakespeare Festival 1996. The photo is of the model of the setting by Richard Finkelstein. The Production was directed by Susan Gregg.

 

Production Photo at Dusk. Through most of the show the building in the rear
disappears into the night. This shot as is, really shows the total
environment and relationship between the stage and the audience.

 

Description of the Setting:

The setting is very layered and has a feel of both rock and lace at the same time. The set consists of a series of low platforms to compliment the natural shape of the Rippon stage. On the platform sits a many layered structure of columns, arches, lintels, arches, and stairways. These are built with no added visible braces, and are built in accentuated perspective. The coloration matches the stone of Venice itself, but also of the architecture surrounding the Rippon Stage. The buildings of the UC-Boulder campus are all designed in an Italianate style from locally quarried sandstone.

Conceptual Foundations:

One of the many questions Shakespeare poses in this work is one of whether past circumstances and past institutional wrongs might alter circumstances of our behavior today. I have also been intrigued for a long time with the idea that out of social prejudice, often comes seeds of role reversals, followed by renewed and further prejudice.

In the case of the latter, there are many evidences of this process through history. For instance, even today in American cities with the tallest skyscrapers like New York, the steelwork is done by members of the Navajo Indian tribe. I surmise that today they are even paid a great living for this service but the question is why the profession is dominated by this particular Indian Tribe. While the uninformed reason that this is because "Indians are Natural Climbers", this seems to be a generalization, a racist stereotype. To me the reasoning for this tradition is simply because at the time of our industrial revolution, the white workers were not willing to risk their lives for the low wages provided. It was much easier to assign such duties to the lowest ethnic group in American social structure, the Indian.

In a more direct parallel to Shakespeare’s play, one can see a parallel in the society that gave rise to The Nazis and the Holocaust. Indeed many (though certainly not all) institutions of business and finances had Jewish ownership. Forgotten by the Nazis though was the reason for this. Before the rise of secular business and financial empires, the road to success lie in land ownership and in military service. Since these were of the most respected areas of commerce, these areas of enterprise were closed off to Jews. An earlier generation thus literally forced Jews into the commercial/financial realm of enterprise. But with time, circumstances changed, and what had been considered a lowly category of enterprise became the most envied, and with the reversal of fortunes, old social hatreds came to the surface in a most dangerous way.

The process even has its analog in the world of theatre. Even today the field of stage lighting is represented heavily by the work of Female designers. At the start of the field, lighting was even dominated by designers from Maude Allen (who the New York Times claimed to be the inventor of "the light bridge), to Jean Rosenthal, to Tharon Musser. In the 1970s one set of Tony Awards was dedicated to the role of Women in the theatre. Each award was presented by a female leader in the profession, and for lighting the award was presented by Tharon Musser. She used her time on stage to address the question of why women were so dominant in the field of lighting design. By her most plausible explanation, this was because lighting was not, until recently, recognized as an "art" or a field requiring particular expertise. Rather, lighting was valued at first, only in its utilitarian functions. Producers did not want to invest any of their funds into a "mere utilitarian" function so they hired women, especially ones that were willing to work for free, or near free. By the time lighting was recognized as a true art of the theatre, the women of lighting had the most experience working in the field.

In the case of Venice of this era, trade was everything, and trade cannot happen without capital. But loaning money or charging interest was considered taboo as biblical "usury". The solution was to "Let the Jews do it". Many jews became quite wealthy in this process, but the citizens of Venice still rejected the Jews as a people, as heathens to be scorned. This was very ironical – out of prejudice, a people considered to be lower, were given opportunities to become wealthier. Obviously this was an engine of hate in the making.

In designing this show and its sister, I did extensive research into both the social and visual history of this period in Venice. I discovered that the word Ghetto, associated with Jewish life since the middle ages, was not a generic term at all. THE Ghetto was one of the islands in Venice. It’s unique geography afforded it but one way on to the island and off. It became a perfect location for the Jewish money lenders of Venice to work in the city by day, while being locked up at night so as not to pose a threat (as they felt it) to "society" of the day.

In designing this work, I saw the metaphor of "island prison" as important. The Ghetto of Venice was not an ordinary prison, Jews were free to travel freely during the daylight. This Ghetto thus embodied aspects of freedom & subjugation intertwined.

For this reason, the idea of making this "prison" lace-like was important to me. This was a prison in which it’s population was in tantalizing juxtaposition with freedom, light, and truth. Within this construct, the element of light became important. Not only can light react to the myriad of architectural forms; it can also pass through the spaces creating a very directional composition. The collaborating lighting designer also worked quite hard to always hint at the water which at once was beautiful, as well as the prime imprisoning element.

In designing the scenery for this show, I worked hard to relate the architecture and color of the set to the buildings surrounding the amphitheater. The natural background to the Mary Rippon stage is the structure of rear of a natural history museum. A designer is faced with three choices. The structure can be ignored, mitigated (although it is too hard to hide), or integrated into the design. This is most important at the start of each show while daylight still competes with stage lighting. With my design I opted for the integrated approach, but I extended the strategy to mimic the stone of the entirety of the surrounding buildings. This served two functions. It made the setting look quite a bit larger than it actually was by extending the style beyond the set borders proper. The strategy also made the hint that the audience itself was to be put in the shoes of Venice society of the day.