It’s the epicenter of theater in America: Broadway and its 41 legendary theaters. It’s hard not to be dazzled when strolling through Times Square at night or not to be wowed when thinking of all the giants of the stage who have trod its boards. When an actress friend offered one day to come and see her perform in the musical The Magic Show, and then take a backstage tour, Rivka Katvan knew it would be a night to remember.
A student at the School of Visual Arts in New York, she initially majored in design before developing a passion for photography. As soon as she stepped backstage at the illustrious Cort Theater to congratulate her friend after the show, she also instantly knew what her graduation project would be: “I was struck by the contrast between the glamour of the stage and the banality of the premises: it was an old theater, over 100 years old, and backstage the paint was coming off the walls. And in this very average setting, the actors walked around with their sequins and their costumes. It was wonderful.” The year was 1978, and Rivka Katvan had just found her favorite field, to which she would devote three decades of photography: backstage on Broadway.
Behind the Curtain
All it takes is a brief conversation with Rivka S. Katvan to understand why this America-based Israeli was welcomed with open arms backstage on Broadway, an area that is typically closed to the public. She has an unbelievable friendliness. “When I take pictures, I develop them and show them to my subjects. The actors are delighted, they ask me to come back!” This is how she got permission to continue her work behind the scenes. Soon, she was acclaimed by the actors who, as they moved from one from theater to the next, would insist that she follow them for their new shows: many of them appreciated the tender way in which she documented their daily lives. “You have to know the right people to do this job. I became friends with the actors!”
Rivka Katvan’s work is unique in many ways. Few photographers have had the privilege of covering the backstage of famous theaters: “You might find a few backstage shots here and there, but no other body of work about it is this extensive.” The photographer gives us the impression of stepping into the actors’ private lives, of capturing a glimpse of their stage fright, their concentration, their period of rest. A familiarity that does not detract from the magic of the theater, on the contrary: it reinforces our admiration for those who take to the stage every night. For them, Rivka is not a photographer, she’s one of them.
Rivka Katvan’s remarkable Broadway-themed work has only been published once. In 2001, the book Broadway Backstage, with a preface by Hal Prince, was published by Abrams Editions. “The publishing house used to contact me for permission to use a particular photo. One day, their publisher stopped me as I was walking down the street to tell me that he wanted to do a book of my work. I asked one of my former college teachers for help with the selection, because you’re not very objective when it comes to your own photos!”
Backstage with Elizabeth Taylor
It’s easy to find, among these deeply intimate photos, famous faces that have been admired on the big screen, like Liam Neeson and Elizabeth Taylor, for example. Rivka S. Katvan recalls: “Elizabeth Taylor was such a professional! She dressed very simply, was nice to everyone, be they big stars or cast members. She would allow me to photograph her in her dressing room as she rehearsed. She felt so comfortable with me that she would change right in front of my lens: obviously, I always kept the most intimate photos to myself, out of respect for my subjects. I don’t want to take advantage of the trust of the people I work with. Maureen Stapleton too, let me spend time in her dressing room, as much time as I wanted. She used to say, “Rivka, leave your stuff in here, make yourself comfortable!'”
“I was discreet, slinking along the walls. The one thing you couldn’t do was disturb them.”
Of this intense experience she had, the photographer has vivid memories. “I took pictures of the actors every step of the way. When they were ironing their clothes, getting their makeup done, or doing their vocal exercises. I was discreet, slinking along the walls. The one thing you couldn’t do was disturb them.” Her sense of discretion is what enabled her to catch historic Broadway moments on the sly. While actor Len Cariou dazzled many onlookers as Sweeney Todd, Rivka Katvan saw him backstage, scary even then, as the famous London serial killer: “I would hide among the costumes and shoot him during his vocal exercises. As Sweeney Todd, he was supposed to be scary, and it worked. He was terrifying!”
Rivka Katvan pulled off the incredible feat of immortalizing the good-natured backstage atmosphere without sacrificing any of the spectacular dimension of theatre. The fun times are transformed, through her lens, into finely composed paintings. Alan Cumming‘s private garden, for example: “I think Cabaret is my favorite show. Alan Cumming is such a beautiful person. He had a very small dressing room, but it opened onto the roof of an adjoining building. Alan had taken over the space and made it into a sort of private garden. We had a great time there, with Natasha Richardson, who loved photos so much! It was thanks to her that I was able to photograph her husband, Liam Neeson, in The Judas Kiss.” She pauses, visibly moved at the mention of Natasha Richardson, who died in a tragic accident in 2009. Then she regains her cheerfulness: “We always had a great time backstage!”
From Broadway to Sing Sing
When Rivka Katvan evokes how Broadway has evolved over the past thirty years, she regrets the demolition of some of the legendary theaters, which were replaced by more modern constructions. She prefers the old buildings, which have more character: “When I take pictures in a new building, I focus on the actors rather than on the place itself. But generally speaking, every show is different. It also depends on the size of the troop. There are only seven actors in the cast of The Magic Show, while there are forty in Sweeney Todd.” All this influences the way she works: the grandiosity of the costumes, the glamour of the makeup. Some photos, in color, bring out the glitz of the accessories, while others, in black and white, push us to seek the emotion beyond the glitter.
This visceral love for Broadway didn’t always make it her only artistic project. When her first child was born in 1985, she took a ten-year break, only returning when her daughter, now old enough to appreciate her photos, asked for new ones. She also has other passions: street photography, for example, which she has never stopped doing, and jewelry design. She also helps her husband, a commercial photographer, and is involved in other visual art projects. But her love of the theater is a constant that also led her to Sing Sing.
She visited the New York prison for Theater Magazine and to photograph a performance put on by inmates. She was just as impressed walking through those metal doors as she was slipping behind the curtains of Broadway: “I thought to myself: I’m a girl from a small village in Israel and here I am in the most famous prison in the world.” Rivka Katvan had the same attitude towards the inmates as she did towards the stars of the stage. She listened to their stories, shared their meals, answered their questions. They took her to visit the prison cinema and their places of worship. “To take real photos, you have to bond with your subjects, you have to get accepted into the group.” That, perhaps, is the secret to Rivka Katvan’s photos, which are always so full of humanity and compassion.
By Joy Majdalani
Joy Majdalani is a Paris-based editor and content creator. She specializes in technology, art, culture, and social issues.
More information on Rivka Katvan here.