A Revolution in Set Design

Revolving floors inspire a round of applause and questions about the visual poverty of Israeli theater today.

When the School for Visual Theater was established in Israel and festivals for "Visual Theater" began to multiply, I used to ask for the sake of argument, "Is there such a thing as non-visual theater?"

I admit I dissembled a bit, because the name "Visual Theater" is supposed to emphasize the visual dimension of stage creation, thereby stating that the verbal and linear (plot development, if such a thing exists) elements are secondary. From the outset, the visual element in theater was always the most important.

At some point, however, the development of the visual dimension of theater was limited to the stage sets, the background that provides a tangible sense of the place where the plot unfolds. Realistic theater turned stage design into an exercise in creating an illusion of actuality and perspective, and then designers were faced with the challenge of effectively switching the places where things occurred. To a certain degree, the stage sets became the background in established theater, and had to be both well done and inconspicuous.

One well-known cruel comment made by those who are not set designers goes like this: If the stage set earns applause when the curtain rises and before the play begins, the play itself is in trouble.

I presented this historic background in order to clarify why I was so impressed and envy-stricken at the sight of the stage set for "Hedda Gabler," produced by the Schaubuhne Theater from Berlin (director: Thomas Ostermeier; set design: Jan Pappelbaum), hosted about two weeks ago by the Cameri Theater in Tel Aviv. Apart from the quality of the set itself and the level of the execution, I realized immediately that there was no chance another set like that would be seen on an Israeli stage. And not because we don't have designers capable of conceiving it.

The stage set and the photo shown here illustrate this. The setting for the play is the living room of Hedda Gabler and her husband, Jorg Tesman - a modern bourgeois room dominated by a long couch. The back wall is made of sliding Plexiglas doors leading to another part of the stage - a kind of balcony off the living room. Water courses down these doors, creating the illusion of rain. The living room is also delineated by an opaque wall with a door, the area behind it visible from the side.

This realistic description, however, is only the beginning of the set's many virtues. The entire rectangular structure on which the set stands is a revolving stage that shows the audience the action from different angles. The revolving stage operates in absolute silence between acts, and then, each time the outside of the opaque wall comes into view, pictures of the forest surrounding the house are projected onto it. The Plexiglas wall, particularly when the water streams down, creates a sense of an aquarium with the characters inside.

At the original play in Berlin, the set also has a mirror image. A huge mirror (not used in the Israeli production) is suspended from the ceiling at a 45-degree angle facing the audience, such that at any given moment one could also see what was happening behind the wall that served as the backdrop for the main scene.

Thus the stage set was both a substantive backdrop and an aesthetic statement about the events and the characters' world. At the end of the play, when Hedda Gabler shoots herself on the far side of the wall, the set continues to revolve and the other characters in the play are immersed in their own world, unaware of the heroine's death. Only the audience sees that she has committed suicide, and the world continues to rotate on its axis without her, even though she so wanted to be at its center.

There are designers in Israel, older and younger, with creative talents capable of providing an imaginative set solution to any plot, of designing a set that serves both as background and an aesthetic interpretive statement. Most of these designers do a lot of work abroad. On Israeli stages, however, they usually design realistic sets built on black background screens and carts that bring and remove furniture for each scene.

If it is a realistic set that presents the interior of a home, most of the attention is focused on using parts of the set, based on the same basic structure, to design another interior look with quick and efficient changes, and minimal use of stage hands.

Generally speaking, stage sets in Israel are functional, minimalist and on rare occasions artistic interpretations on their own.

It was not always like this. With sets designed by the greatest Jewish-Israeli artists, the early days of Israeli theater actually enjoyed a visual richness. Even today one can certainly still point to a few plays whose visual dimension is different than what is described here, and the stage "works." This happens, with relative consistency, at plays by the Gesher Theater, and not by coincidence.

Why is this the case, then, if Israel has designers no less professional and imaginative and directors no less capable of creating plays both spectacular and moving? The answer is simple: money.

The stage designer in Israel can build the most wonderful set, and at the meeting between the production team and the theater's management, which hired his services, no one will argue with his artistic concepts. Instead, he will have to answer questions like: "How many trucks are needed to transport the set? How many stage hands are required to operate it? How much would production and transportation cost?"

Only after answering these questions (the correct answer to all of them is: "the lowest possible number you can imagine"), can aesthetic issues be addressed. Even then, if the set designer and the director win in the home theater, there is no guarantee that the entire set will be used when the play is mounted in other halls.

Of course the theater's main core is the actors, without whom nothing is possible. And of course there have been plays in both Germany and Israel for which massive sums were spent on creative ego trips rather than genuine artistic work. And of course budgetary constraints can force imaginative designers to produce creative solutions.

But at the same time, theater needs a visual dimension that excites the eye and activates the imagination. Israeli audiences seldom get a chance to see such plays on local stages. The loss is entirely the audience's, because good theater must be a delight not only to the ear and the emotions, but also to the eye.