Tony Award-winning set designer Beowulf Boritt gives Museumvillage Editor in Chief Whitney Robinson some behind-the-scenes insight into the set design of the Off-Broadway show, Fiddler on the Roof in Yiddish.
Whitney Robinson: I’ve seen Fiddler twice, and this set is deceptively simplistic. It seems like a central character in the show and also a deliberate statement. How did you come to that?
Beowulf Boritt: I’d never done Fiddler before, and when Joel [Grey, the acclaimed actor who is directing this production] asked me to do it, I thought, “Oh, this is interesting.” I don’t speak any Yiddish—at least, not more than the three words that every New Yorker knows. There’s been a romanticism to the way we’re used to seeing Fiddler, and putting it into Yiddish somehow made it more raw and more basic. There’s a power to that, and so we were trying to find a way to reflect that with the set design.
My father was born in Hungary during the Holocaust; he ultimately fled the country when he was 16, during the Hungarian revolution. He had a building blown apart over his head by Russian tanks. He ran across a border that they thought was full of landmines. He came to New York as a 16-year-old with literally a dollar in his pocket, and he made a good life here. I had a very comfortable middle-class American childhood. But that sort of story—where your whole life can go up in smoke in front of you—has always been in the background for me. And the current political climate somehow makes it all a little more poignant.
So that’s a long way of saying that what I was trying to get at with the Fiddler set is the fragility of our lives, and obviously that’s a story about very poor people who have a life that’s rich in tradition. Tevye says he complains a lot, but, basically, they’re a happy, loving family. And you realize how fragile life is. Your reaction to the set is exactly what I hope for: that people almost think there’s not a set there. We’re trying to make you think it’s just a bare-bones, simple telling of the story, which has a lot of strength to it.
So at the end of the first act, when the Russian police come in and shred part of the set in front of you, it’s shocking for people.
WR: Oh, you get a tear. It elicits an incredibly emotional response from the audience.
BB: Yeah, people recognize that it’s an act of actual destruction. It’s not theatrical-ized. We are really destroying this thing in front of you, and the fact that it’s ripping through the middle of the word Torah is obviously important. The Torah is a strong thing to violate, and that is also so much of what the story is about: the breaking of traditions and learning to deal with traditions changing.
But when we come back in the second act, they’ve stitched it back together again. Hopefully, it’s a statement for anybody about how, as life goes on and changes, you adjust, you put yourself back together, you move forward.
WR: I know what goes on behind the scenes. I was like, “Oh my God, they just tore it in the middle, and then they’re going to repair it—and they’re going to have to replace it day after day after day, forever.” That’s a lot of paper. From a technical standpoint, how does that work?
BB: It’s a special paper made for photo shoots, like a seamless, and it’s inherently flame-retardant. We buy it by the roll, but then it has to go to a shop where they can stencil on the word Torah and it can be crumpled. There’s not a fine art to how the paper is crumpled, but it has to be done carefully so it doesn’t tear before the show.
WR: Do you know how many pieces you’ve gone through? How many performances have there been?
BB: About 400 at this point.
WR: So the crew stitches it together during that moment in intermission?
BB: Actually, no, that is stagecraft. We have stitched-together ones that are ready to go, because it takes too long to do that work at intermission.
WR: Do the actors have to train to tear the paper a certain way?
BB: Yeah, the guy who plays the Constable has to practice. It’s harder than you would think to tear through it.
WR: Alright, my last question for you: How’s your Yiddish now?
BB: It’s slightly better after sitting and listening to the show so many times. The show really has an emotional effect—it makes me cry every time I see it.