Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Fiddler on the Roof--Scene and Costume Design

"Rich Man"
Fiddler on the Roof, music by Jerry Bock, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick and book by Joseph Stein, was produced at Brigham Young University-Idaho Winter Semester, 2005 in the Snow Drama Theatre.

Fiddler on the Roof is a story of Tevye, the milkman and the coming of age of his three oldest daughters.  The play is based on short stories by Sholem Aleichem.

Tevye is a Russian Jew rooted in tradition.  Each time one of his daughters finds a man to marry, he finds he has to balance his committment to tradition with the love of his child.  His first daughter, Tzeitel does not wish to have a traditional arranged marriage, instead she wishes to marry for love. 

Hodel, his headstrong second daughter falls in love with a revolutionary that Tevye has invited into his household.  They ask for Tevye's blessing but not his permission. 

Finally, Chava his third daughter runs away with a Christian and marries him.  All of this takes place during the horrible pogroms of the early 20th century.  At the end of the play, Tevye and his family are forced from their home and he has a moment of reconcilliation with his third daughter.

This has been a beloved play by millions of people for decades.  It is a play I have had the opportunity to work on many times.  This was my first time as a designer.


About a year before the play opened, the director, Hyrum Conrad told me that his concept for Fiddler on the Roof was a "Marc Chagall painting come to life".  Boris Aronson had been the scene designer for the original Broadway production and had been inspired by the paintings of Marc Chagall.

Most productions of Fiddler on the Roof  borrow heavily from the Aronson design.  We decided we did not want to copy Aronson, but rather go straight to the source and paint the scenery stroke for stroke after Chagall's own hand.

Hyrum originally wanted to have all the costumes painted as well in the style of Chagall, but we ended up abandoning this idea.  It would have been very costly to build all the costumes from scratch to be painted, and other members of the department were not in favor of us painting existing costumes that would never be able to be used again.  Consequently I had to go with a more traditional costume design.


For several months I immersed myself in Chagall's work.  Chagall was a Russian Jew who lived in Russia during the time of the pogroms and saw first hand much of what was depicted in the story.  We decided to focus on his work from 1910 to 1920, but we did use some later images as well.  Fiddler on the Roof was first presented in 1964, Marc Chagall was painting Jewish fiddlers fiddling on rooftops as early as 1910.

Chagall is usually classified as a surrealist but there are elements of expressionism and cubism in his work.  I discovered that for every scene in Fiddler on the Roof, there was a Chagall painting that expressed it.  I had two student assistant designers on this project, and one day one of them held up a Chagall image and asked me, "Do you really like this stuff?" 
I said, "Yes!"
She said, "Why?"
And I said, "Because that's what the inside of my brain looks like."

Besides the fact that I was working with surreal images, the design was actually fairly straightforward.  It was basically just cut-out, flown scenery pieces.  Our facility has 38 linesets and I used every one of them.  It still wasn't enough and we ended up dead hanging some of the masking pieces to make more room for flown scenery.

Once the scenery was built, I was one of the principle scenic artists.  We did have several very good scenics but there was a great deal of scenery to be painted.  Besides that, who wouldn't want an opportunity to paint in Chagall's style on a grand scheme?

I discovered the color Van Dyke Brown from Rosco Corporation on this play.  Regular black paint tends to be lifeless onstage and appears as a void, rather than a color.  On a whim I ordered a can of Rosco Supersaturated Van Dyke Brown.  This is a very dark brown and I found that from the audience it reads black except it is much more reactive to light than regular black.  That gave me a new tool.  Now I default to Van Dyke Brown whenever I wish to accent something that I used to use black for.  Van Dyke Brown is the new black.

The images that follow are in chronological order from the play.  Most of the images correspond with the main songs and production numbers.  I will also post links to images of Chagall's original paintings for comparison

The main backdrop for Anatevka.
Chagall Images
  • The Blue House  (1917)  -  Backdrop
  • The Grey House  (1917)  -  Foreground
  • I and the Village  (1917)  -  Floating milkmaid  Link
  • The Fiddler  (1912-13)  -  Floating 3 headed man  Link 
  • Over Vitebsk  (1914-15)  -  Floating beggar  Link
The Fiddler
Stage left acting deck with decoration
Chagall Image
  • I and the Village  (1917)
"Sabbath Prayer"
Stained glass windows symbolizing spirituality for Sabbath Prayer
Chagall Images
  • 12 Tribes of Israel (1962)  Link
End of "To Life"
The Constable warning Tevye and Lazar Wolf
Chagall Image
  • Vitebsk, Village Scene (1917)  (Link)
"Miracle of Miracles"
One of the more joyful moments of the show.  I painted this backdrop over the Christmas holiday. 
I toned the goldenrod with purple.
Chagall Image
  • A Wheatfield on a Summers Afternoon Aleko  (1942)  Link
"Tevye's Dream"
Chagall Image
  • Cemetery Gates  (1917)  Link
"The Bottle Dance"
"Now I Have Everything"
Tevye's house
Chagall Image
  • The Blue House  (1917)  Link
"The Rumor"
This drop was painted for the in town scenes.  It was taken from the painting, The Russian Village, but we painted it without snow for our show.
Chagall Image
  • The Russian Village  (1929)  Link
"Far From the Home I Love"
This building became our train station.  I reversed the image and removed the fence for our show.
The backdrop is actually projected on a cyc using Rosco Corporation's iPro Image Projector
Chagall Image
  • The Grey House  (1917)  Link
"Little Bird"
Other Images
Around the theatre we had pieces of Chagall paintings here and there to give more of the ambience of the play.  As part of the preshow routine, stagehands would slowly add more of these cut-out images to the theatre until it was time for the play to begin.  Here are a few of my favorites.

Image of Tevye:  When I was researching the play, Hyrum found an image of Chagall's father in pen and ink that he said exemplified Tevye and he wanted it to be in the show.  I liked the image but was torn because it would have been the only thing in black and white on the show.  All the other imagery was in full, vivid color.  I found another painting called "A Spoonful of Milk" which had a similar figure but was in color.  I combined the the linework of the pen and ink drawing with the painting style of the other painting to come up with this piece.

Chagall Images
  • Portrait of Father (1907) Link
  • A Spoonful of Milk (1910)  Link
I and the Village images:  I and the Village, painted in 1911 is one of Chagall's most famous paintings and I drew much of my inspiration from it.  I used the row of houses on one part of the set. I used the man chasing the upside down woman on another part, and we flew the woman milking the goat, upstage.

Row of houses
Man chasing upside down woman
Woman milking goat
Chagall Image
  • I and the Village (1911)  Link
The Fiddler images:  The Fiddler, painted in 1912-13 is another important image.  This is likely the painting that Fiddler on the Roof was named for.  It features an oversized, green faced, Jewish violinist playing his instrument with one foot planted on a rooftop.  I used several parts of this painting to create the world of Marc Chagall in the scene design of Fiddler on the Roof.  I used the row of houses in the top left corner, the three headed man and the Orthodox Church on the left side of the painting.

Row of houses
Three headed man
Orthodox Church
Chagall Image
  • The Fiddler 1912-13  Link
Chagall self portrait:  At the bottom left of the painting The Grey House, Chagall painted a self portrait and signed it.  On the front of the stage, in the same colors as the "rocks", I copied the self portrait and his signature, but above the signature I painted, "A tribute to".  This was the last thing I painted on the show.  Because it was in the same colors as the boulders and had some similar shapes, the self portrait wasn't always visible.  It only really showed clearly when Tevye walked across the front of the stage and the spotlight picked it up.  That was serendipitous for me.

Chagall's self portrait
Chagall image
  •  The Grey House (1917) - click image in link to make larger Link
Getting to know the artwork of Marc Chagall was a wonderful experience for me.  I felt a great sense of self discovery through the process of designing and executing this production.  One of the most exciting aspects of this was that I was able to do a large part of the painting, matching Chagall's stroke.  This play was a true labor of love for me.

More images Here

Production Details
  • Directed by Hyrum Conrad
  • Scene Design by Gary Benson
  • Costume Design by Gary Benson
  • Lighting Design by Richard Clifford
  • Technical Director:  Ray Versluys
  • Costume Shop Director:  Patty Randall

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