Stage Designs of Richard Finkelstein

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Richard Finkelstein
630 Stonewall Dr
Harrisonburg, VA 22801

rfinkels@msn.com
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Witness for the Prosecution
Scenic  Design by R. Finkelstein 

Presented by The New York State Theatre Institute. The production, by Agatha Christie,  was directed by Ralph Allen. Depicted below is a white model of the courtroom set.


Context/Pretext:

I had a tough act to follow with this show. About 15 years earlier the company had produced the show with designs by the great designer Peter Gould (Later Associate Designer on such shows as Cats and Les Miz). Gould's designs were clever, rich in detail, and a joy to look at.  The company wanted me to keep the underpinning of realism and as well to utilize a turntable to accomplish the main scene change as was done with Peter Gould's design. The production was also being directed by the legendary Ralph Allen (creator of Sugarbabies on Broadway).

Researching this production was quite interesting. For some reason it is very hard to find photographs from inside courhouses. I even tried research at a law library, but to little avail.

While waiting for the script to arrive I decided to go the dramaturgical route. I discovered that Agatha Christy's short story, which she later developed into the play was available at the library. I was also able to obtain a copy of the film, which Dame Agatha also worked on personally. Armed later with the script, the research provided for a wonderful spectrum of development. I was able to follow the many iterations from story to play and then to film.  It was quite interesting to see how the focus would change with each version and to see what details of plot or theme or circumstance came to the front in each version.

Especially given the difficulty at finding general photographic research I decided that it might be fun for my visual research in this case parallel the dramaturgical research. I am rarely influenced by the Broadway design of a production but I did look up Raymond Sovey's design. It's detail matched the film which he did not design! But then I discovered why. Both the Broadway edition as well as the film edition were based on a realistic interpretation of the actual Old Bailey courtroom where the action takes place. Eventually I was able to find a photo of the specific courtroom. Peter Gould's design too was largely copied from one of these sources.

So, who was I to break with tradition <G>!  In truth, while I took the detail in this design from the actual Old Bailey and portions of the floorplan from Sovey's work, I did nevertheless work to incorporate some original concepts. First you will note the interesting roller-coaster feel of the top of the set, related to the extreme perspective used.  The set is also interesting in how much of it extends beyond the edge of the turntable. When the set changed to the Judge's chambers it was a total surprise to audiences. The design engineering was difficult though. The number of cast members the set has to hold is so great that this set actually extended beyond the proscenium. The director insisted on a full 12 members in the jury, something even the Broadway production did not attempt to do.

However this made for another fun choice which demonstrated the value of the dramaturgical approach to the research. In the actual courtroom, the defendant would enter his box via a tunnel directly from prison. This system kept him separate at all times in the actual courtroom from the citizens and thus would keep them out of any danger. Indeed the film version made reference to this tunnel to the box.  The Broadway edition cut this totally out. In this design though, I was able to pay homage to this wonderful detail. In this courthouse the defendant's box stretched downstage of the proscenium and it is entered actually from the house (on the side).