Photo Shoot: From the Archives of Boris Aronson
Friday September 6, 2013
New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, 40 Lincoln Center Plaza
Theatre designer Boris Aronson has been my constant companion for the past six months. Oh, certainly, any lover of American theatre in general and Sondheim musicals in particular is well acquainted with his set design work. If you’re like me, you cut your teeth on your physical presence in (or intense study of original cast recording production photographs from) Sondheim productions of the 1970s. A Little Night Music was my first big Broadway musical as a visiting Midwestern adolescent in 1973 and I have never recovered from the experience. The 19th century Scandinavian world created by Aronson’s plexiglass country estate trees still haunts me. I soon devoured that cast recording as well as the recordings for Company and the preceding and subsequent Sondheim riches. And as my second Monograph for Chance Magazine I have the privilege of exploring the handmade artistry of Aronson: collaborator, rabbi’s son, observer, and painter, and “great theatre mind” according to his old friend Garson Kanin — designer of shows ranging from I Am a Camera to Bus Stop to The Diary of Anne Frank to The Price to Fiddler on the Roof to Cabaret. Sondheim is but part of the story, I have learned. And I am happily awash in his creations.
I have reviewed a wide range of published works for the Monograph (to be published the second issue of Chance currently being assembled) ranging from The Theatre Art of Boris Aronson by Frank Rich and Lisa Aronson to biographies of Aronson collaborators to documentary histories of the development of productions Aronson designed. Equally as important, I spent several months visiting the archives of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts — at the Theatre on Film and Tape Archive where I transcribed a 1975 conversation between Boris Aronson and his old friend and colleague Garson Kanin, and at the Billy Rose Theatre Division where I reviewed over 20 boxes of selected production materials in the extensive Boris Aronson Papers and Designs. The designs inspired my prose, and the collection inspired the photo shoot to generate images to illustrate and communicate with his story.
A few snippets of Aronson’s own words in that 1975 conversation with Kanin:
- “The thing is to get the essence of a place.”
- “They asked me once what is your greatest achievement in the theatre. I said: the shows I refused to do.”
- “The thing which is fascinating in this medium is the make believe. The hamminess and the bluff and the illusion, in the higher sense of the word, is fascinating.”
- “I have no system. I start like I never did anything. Great art to me is a synthesis between what you’re trying to say as an artist and the method you apply.”
In June 2013, photographer Plamen Petkov photographed a range of set models by Ming Cho Lee and the Follies set model designed by Aronson. I captured some reflections about that shoot in an earlier post, and have now seen the glorious resulting images that will be used in a range of ways — Ming Cho Lee images will be used in an exhibition at Yale this fall as well as appear in the next Chance issue, and the Aronson model image will be featured in Chance. This day, with colleague Fitz Patton behind the cameras, we choose from among the many boxes I have reviewed for several months to photograph designs, set plots, production photographs, set model photographs to augment the text-based story I have drafted capturing part of the story of Aronson. Here are a few images of mine — of Fitz setting up his own high quality photographs, and a few cell phone images of my own (snapped with all permissions granted to researchers) of a selection of items in the Aronson archives.
And a few favorite images of my own that were appropriately photographed using the set up featured above — here I offer my humble cell phone photos to present a hint at some of the treasures that await in these boxes and in our upcoming article in the pages of the next issue of Chance. My tastes run to the linear and it seems that Aronson explored simple sketches in his designs for almost every production. A sample offered here.
© Martha Wade Steketee (September 13, 2013)