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Backstage: Broadway Behind the Curtain

The many faces of the theater are on view in Backstage: Broadway Behind the Curtain. logo

The backstage precincts of theaters are generally off-limits to those not employed there, except during the few minutes just after a performance when audience members are permitted to pay homage to performers in their dressing rooms. Even outsiders with invitations can be discouraged by the solemn guards at the stage door, the labyrinthine passageways, narrow staircases, windowless rooms, and many levels. In these close quarters, sometimes reminiscent of Lower East Side tenements at the start of the 20th century, actors don their costumes, make up their faces, perform bodily functions, warm-up, cool down, and amuse themselves between appearances on stage in such proximity that concerns of modesty are out of the question.

Rivka Shifman Katvan has been photographing thespians in their backstage habitats since 1978 when, as a student at New York's School of Visual Arts, she took her camera along to visit a friend appearing in The Magic Show at the Cort Theatre on West 48th Street. In her arresting new coffee-table book of theater photos, Backstage: Broadway Behind the Curtain (Harry N. Abrams, 136 pages, $35.00), Katvan captures the varied moods of what Moss Hart (in the backstage comedy Light Up the Sky) called "magic time"--those hours before and during a performance when seemingly anything can happen.

Katvan, her editors, and book designer Raymond P. Hooper have wisely kept to a minimum the text of Backstage: Broadway Behind the Curtain, allowing the photos to speak for themselves. Taken in Broadway and Off-Broadway venues and at industry events such as Gypsy of the Year, Broadway Bares, and the Tony Awards ceremony, the photos depict the sui generis routines of backstage life and pronounce, more potently than words, how much theaters differ from other workplaces.

Heather Headley, Nothing Like a Dame 2000
(Photo: Rivka Shifman Katvan)
Katvan's photos have an enigmatic quality reminiscent of the grotesqueries of Diane Arbus, though without Arbus' emotional dreariness. Some of Katvan's subjects are famous--Elizabeth Taylor, Liam Neeson, and Angela Lansbury, for instance. Others, such as Christiane Noll, Tsidii le Loka and Karen Trott, will be recognizable to regular playgoers. Captured with the famous and the familiar are their colleagues in mufti: dressers, hair stylists, stagehands, musicians and technicians, who, despite being unknown, exude considerable glamour and individual style in Katvan's shots. Theater-lovers may be tempted to attribute the mysterious allure of these ordinary people to some magical quality possessed by all of Broadway's denizens; more likely, the credit should go to Katvan, whose seasoned eye is drawn to curious composition, fetching angles, and odd juxtapositions.

Most of the images in Backstage bear the marks of candidness and genuine informality. The actors, in sundry stages of dress and undress, peer into mirrors, primp at sinks, wield implements for making-up their faces, huddle over playing cards and crossword puzzles, relax with needlework, and scrutinize newspapers. They sit, slouch, stretch, relax, stand, bend, reach, pout, stoop, meditate, juggle, exult, and peer into space. Singly or in groups, Katvan's subjects are always among their own kind--except at the book's end, where the editors have included a handful of photos of stage folk greeting members of the audience after the performance. Some of the photographs are posed, but brazenly so, with no pretense otherwise. What's most impressive is how Katvan manages to move, practically unnoticed, through cubbyholes and subterranean corridors, recording activities before, during, and after the show without upsetting the ecosystem of players, technicians, and musicians.

In a foreword to Backstage, Harold Prince mentions the striking contrast between the bright finery that actors sport on stage and "the necessary grubbiness of backstage accommodations." Katvan's photographs illustrate that disparity but accentuate the inviting aspects, the charm, the coziness, and the sexiness of the off-stage squalor. As Prince says, "there is something wondrous and dynamic in the contrast between what [actors] show the world and where we put it together."

Alan Cumming, Cabaret, 1998
(Photo: Rivka Shifman Katvan)
In the first 81 pages of Backstage and the final 40 pages, the illustrations, text, and borders are entirely black, gray, and white. Tucked in the middle, however, is a 10-page burst of color, with pictures in rich, dark hues plus splashes of scarlet, all somehow appropriate to the shadowy world behind the scenes. The photos in these middle pages don't differ in subject from the ones in the rest of the book; but, placed where they are, they have a refreshing effect like the shift from black-and-white to color film in the long dream sequence of M-G-M's The Wizard of Oz. The color section of Backstage features, among other things, two cerulean butterflies with opalescent markings covering the nipples of Anna Wilson's pale, otherwise-naked breasts in The Donkey Show; the boldly painted faces of Bill Bower and Tom Hewitt in The Lion King; and the foliage, red brick, and fairy lights of an eccentric garden that Alan Cumming tended on a rooftop outside his dressing room window during the run of Cabaret at Henry Miller's Theatre. By interpolating this series of colorful images, the photographer and her editors force readers to pause and look anew at the world under examination. Going from black-and-white to color and back again ensures that, despite the large number of images, one isn't inured to the exotic qualities of Katvan's backstage world.

Backstage: Broadway Behind the Curtain offers a multitude of insights about the craft and culture of American theater. There's the collaborative nature of the enterprise, the almost-familial affection forged among company members by the rehearsal process, and the burden (or blessing) of the downtime actors face between exits and re-entrances. A discerning observer may learn from Backstage about the high level of concentration that the performing arts demand, or the awkwardness of straddling every-day life and an alternate universe of make believe. One might spot the nervous energy that precedes and follows a turn in the spotlight, or have an epiphany about the alchemy that transforms even the tackiest corner of a 100-year-old theater into a captivating dreamscape. There's no end to what imaginative readers can draw from the work of Rivka Katvan.

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