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Brief Encounter PLAYBILL ON-LINE'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER with Tom Pye A grove of birch trees on stage for Fiddler on the Roof? What was scenic designer Tom Pye thinking?

Tom Pye
Tom Pye

His mind, as well as director David Leveaux's, was on Mother Russia, of course, where Fiddler is set. The birch trees (or "the wood," as Pye calls it) indicates the landscape of Russia — as do other elements in the startlingly reconceived (yet faithful) 2004 production of the classic Broadway musical, at the cavernous Minksoff Theatre.

This marks the British Pye's first collaboration with Leveaux and his first Broadway musical. For his work on Fiddler, Pye earned a 2004 Tony Award nomination.

Playbill On-Line: The grove of birch trees on the stage of the Minskoff Theatre made me feel, like never before when watching Fiddler on the Roof, that I was transported to Russia. The lamps and lanterns that hang around the stage also indicate this. The tradition of the show is a much sparer scenic design...
Tom Pye: Everyone sort of warned me the Minskoff was a horrible space, a real problem space. Actually when I walked in there I was quite pleasantly surprised because it reminded me of my favorite space in London, the Barbican. It's very similar architecturally to that. The problem with the Minskoff is that it's a lot, lot wider. It sort of goes on forever. When we came to the idea of the platform, I suddenly realized we had a key there to solving the problem of the space, by focusing it. It gets very dissipated in that space...the image is so wide you don't have a focus. So coming down to an ancient platform — a storytelling platform — it gave us a big help in focus.

PBOL: David Leveaux said he really wanted to bring the company downstage, into people's laps. The planked, woody platform covers what would be the orchestra pit and the musicians are placed on stage.
TP: We looked at the idea of a passerelle, and then we came up with the idea of the platform that would deliver the intimacy of the scenes. Unlike most musicals, the scenes are fantastically well written and are as strong as the big numbers. We felt we had to honor that. We went a folky route: Why not stick the orchestra in the wood? We had this idea that the village had come together to tell a story. That made total sense, to stick to orchestra in a wood.

PBOL: Having the orchestra on stage seems sort of organic, as if they are playing at an outdoor wedding of some sort — certainly "weddings" is a major idea in the show.
TP: Absolutely. It kind of makes sense when you come to the wedding scene at the end of Act I. It's kind of where you've been all night, really. PBOL: The lamps and lanterns range from simple brass or iron lamps to more decorative lamps.
TP: There's a link with God there, with the lanterns. A lot of them are copied from synagogue lanterns. And very much like synagogues, there are rich ones and poor ones. We wanted them to be the expression of the people and their religion: There are humble, simple ones and other ones which are quite ornate. It is a sort of spiritual element.

PBOL: When I spoke to David Leveaux, we called the trees "Chekhov's trees." Did you know you wanted the birch trees from the beginning?
TP: Yeah. There were certain elements that were there from day one. The silver birch trees and the leaves were elements that came very early. It immediately says "Russia," the silver birch trees. There's also something very delicate and fragile about them that I felt was a good metaphor for this way of life. In a second, they could be snapped and broken — swept away. It also helps fill that space. It holds the space, if you like.

PBOL: One of the things I loved is a lighting effect on the branches of the trees to suggest a change of season — perhaps snow. Was I misreading that?
TP: No, I think that was absolutely [lighting designer Brian MacDevitt's] intention. He loved the way the trees took the light. Because they're pale, he could really set them a hundred different ways. He was quite keen to hold certain changes in them back to get impact. It's kind of winter by the end. We did talk about [adding artificial] snow for a long time. It seemed too much, in the end. The light — the subtle changes in color — kind of said it, really.

PBOL: Visually, the show is such an embarrassment of riches already that a literal snow effect would have been gilding the lily.
TP: It really would have.

PBOL: You have this naturalistic world — a rural and natural world — but I love visual tension of the contemporary screens sliding aside to help reveal and frame moments or exits. Is that a Tom Pye sort of thing?
TP: [Laughs.] It is quite a Tom Pye sort of thing. I like the modernity of that. I think there's an interesting tension between creating an ancient world and looking at it through the frame of something modern. It is 2004 and we are looking at it through a contemporary point of view.

PBOL: One of the great surprises in the show comes during "Tevye's Dream," when the stage platform is so dramatically raked you think the actors might tumble into the audience.
TP: We knew we wanted to really embrace Chagall [whose fanciful paintings have been a part of the Fiddler visual tradition since 1964]. We sort of did that with color but we also wanted to play with the fun that's in his paintings, that sort of folk freedom: Ladders and people flying. Suddenly, we create the perspective as if the audience has suddenly been shot up in the air — they're suddenly looking down on the scene. It was really about following the excitement you get from Chagall.

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