In 2019 JET Community’s Rivka Deray sat down with three of Jerusalem community theater’s finest set designers, namely Dooby Harvey, Roxanne Goodkin-Levy and Eli Kaplan Wildmann to discuss their artform and the theater community in Jerusalem. We were able to finish putting this together during this time and here it is. Enjoy!
What drove you to become a set designer? How did you first become interested in theater design?
About ten years ago I was studying at the Bezalel Arts school, and I saw a poster for auditions for My Fair Lady at Hebrew University. I auditioned and got a part. When the production began I heard about doing set design, and I helped the girl who was designing it at the time. It turned out to be a lot of fun!
I think the first time I designed a set was when I was little, like 5 or six. We had a magnet theater at home… A simple toy. I loved this toy, but there were only two sets. There was the forest and the castle. So I was like, “I can’t do a show like this;” and so I would draw things and put it in front of them. Then I made an entire new stage using those magnets. I made it bigger, and I needed more space. I think that was my first set design. And then when I was 12 and we moved to Israel I became involved with JEST (Jerusalem English Speaking Theater), and I rose in the ranks, doing backstage, chorus in a musical; but mostly offstage–doing sound, doing the lights, and eventually set design. My first set design was Pygmalion with Leah Stoller. It was really cool.
When I was little there was a doll house that I always saw in a toy shop window that I always liked. I thought If I can’t get it, I’ll make it. I loved to build spaces and houses for dolls and stuffed animals. I guess that’s where it started. A model is everything; I studied art in Reading University and the first year they asked for people to help with set design for the drama society, so I actually did a couple of sets. It was great. I really enjoyed it. I used to stay until 1 a.m. doing these sets.
What was the first set you ever created and how do you feel about it now?
Well my first one was Les Miserables in 2011 and it’s still one of my favorite sets. We had a little story with that particular show. I was originally cast in it to perform one of the parts, but due to a licensing issue every actor above the age of 20 had to leave the cast. I stayed on as a set designer. I was unemployed at the time so the only thing I had going on was doing the set of Les Miserables.
That’s the only set I didn’t photograph. I didn’t realize that it would be destroyed at the end. So I never took a good photo of the backdrop. I came a week after the show and I said “Hey, Michael, do you mind if I take the backdrop?” It was like a six by three meter canvas. Michael was like “what, what are you talking about?” I said “Where is it?” He said I don’t know, we tore it down; probably threw it away. Since then I’ve been obsessively taking photos of my sets before they get destroyed.
I worked on Pygmalion JEST. It’s still one of my favorite things that I’ve done. I think it’s really good. It holds up. It’s not like it’s my favorite because it was first. It’s my favorite because it was really good. I would do it a little differently now today, of course, but I’m still so proud of it. It was abstract in just the right way and it was still beautiful, and full, and I was so happy with it.
It was the Pirates of Penzance. I decided I wanted the rocks to look really three dimensional. We’d build them with paper mache, but I had no idea how to use paper mache. We used to make such a mess. It was crazy. The effect was quite good in the end. But I thought it was too much work. I’ve made it. I can paint the same thing with three dimensions without doing it. But it was – there is a difference when it actually is three dimensional.
What is your set malfunction story?
It was during a rehearsal. There’s a moment in this show where there’s a big set reveal. Usually the set doesn’t get to be such a prominent part of the show where it’s kind of the climax of the show. There’s a visual, scenic moment with a thing that has to sort of pop open and reveal itself. At the dress rehearsal, it opened and it completely fell apart. All the strips fell off. It’s this beautiful thing that I made that everyone loved and it was really cool. Then, like in a cartoon, it revealed itself and then “tak, tak, tak, pff.” It did it like in a cartoon where it fell, and there was a part that was still hanging on a little bit and then it fell. Then, the next day, I came in and we had an idea for how to fasten them in a different way, and it was fine.
When I was doing the student plays I designed the caucasion chalk circle. They used carpet. It’s Hessian hanging down. I used a row of carpets. Like these big tubes; kind of a circle with a carpet tube. Somehow, as I was hanging one of the Hessian pieces up–it was not long before the show–and the whole chalk circle fell down. We had to put it up at the last minute. You build it and you break it.
I had one where I was both a set designer and an actor. This was in Cinderella. Cinderella’s house has an exterior and you turn it around and open it up and that’s the interior of the house. It was my job to do that and I completely forgot. I was also playing Sebastian the villain, and I was like: “oh my god I missed my scenery cue and now Cinderella and the sisters and the mother are sitting in the exterior of the house instead of inside with pumpkins and whatever.” I was freaking out because I forgot to change the scenery, and so I forgot my acting cue that I was supposed to go onstage. So Rivka, who played the evil stepmother, had to improvise for about two minutes, completely going to a monologue.
Could you tell us about the craziest set you’ve ever designed?
Pippin for sure, it was crazy. Pippin is a show that can’t happen on just any set, it’s this meta-theatrical, metaphysical treatise on life, it needs a framework. It could have been anything! It was so hard to pin down what I should do. With other shows there’s a specific setting that the show needs to happen in, so there’s already something for you to work with, but with Pippin, there’s none of that, it’s totally open. We wanted none of it to look realistic, and there’s no reference photos for that! They have to be in a style of this kind of weird troupe of artists that we created. Not to mention needing to work with what we have as a community. I’m always trying to push and stretch our resources, see what can be multifunctional. Some of them didn’t work, but in the end it all worked out.
Fiddler. We opened it up. It was Friday morning. This is a real happening. Its lovely because a lot of people came to help me. But then children came home from school and they all saw it from their windows and they all came down and I gave them – I had a few copies and I gave them a different house each. Each house was painted – it was not a made happening but it just became this community thing. It was great. That day was wonderful. I said to Ronnie because he was the set constructor. I said to him there’s a set and I want you to build the set. He said to me I can build anything for you as long as its 90 degrees. And then the Fiddler on the Roof – nothing is 90 degrees in it. Not 190 degrees anyway.
Is there a dream set that you would love to design?
Chess. It was a musical that came out in the 80s and it takes place during the Cold War. It’s great: very ambitious music, and the set is actually usually based on a Chess board in some ways.
The Phantom of the Opera. I’d love to do the Phantom.
Here’s what they had to say about the community.
I think, in terms of the English speaking community theater, it’s amazing to me that I’ve grown up in it and learned. I went to art school and studied design, but I learn so much from doing stuff here and it’s such a great community. I do certain things outside of the theater community and also in the theater community; everything here is always so much more fun, because people are just so much more supportive and committed. Professional stuff is not as fun. It’s just work. I’m a big fan of this community.
I think when you go and see a professional show, you go and see something in London and it’s so far away, too sleek and you’re not part of it. You can’t get into it. Here when you see a show you really feel for the people. You can connect to all the different elements much more in the amateur theater. It’s very interesting. As long as it’s good, you know.
The interview went on and transitioned from a traditional Q and A to a conversation and wound up touching on numerous things
- Roxanne received a photo album when she finished “Fiddler on the Roof” with Encore
- The sets we have designed in the community, they’re just as good if not better than those we’ve seen on Broadway or West End
- Photos cannot do justice to sets, there’s so much depth with a set that pictures don’t capture. There’s so much texture and life in a set that can only be realized in person.
- How important collaboration between cast and crew is on productions, everyone needs to work together in order for a production to be a success. All the way from the designers to the builders, and how the cast interacts with it all.