A Career On The Stage
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
The stage, which has become such an essential part of our present-day life, exerts an influence that is as beneficial as it is far reaching. While its principal function is to amuse and entertain, it is frequently used as a medium for initiating great reforms. Its educational value in presenting historic events and in vitalizing literary classics is well known; and its influence on the public in the matter of speech, dress and manners is equally well recognized. It is true that undesirable plays are sometimes given, and that unworthy actors occasionally disgrace their profession, but these are in a rapidly disappearing minority. The average actor is a hard working artist, as devoted to his art and the public welfare as the average man in any other profession.
The stage offers varied opportunity to the new actor. The Broadway production, the road show and the stock company, all of which are classed as the legitimate stage, have openings for competent men. The actors who play on the legitimate stage are classified as straight, juvenile, heavy or character actors. The straight actor plays the part of a man of about his own age, the juvenile plays the role of a very young man or boy, the heavy usually enacts the villain and the character actor plays the eccentric characters. The comedian, who is really a character actor, plays only comedy parts. Since some actors are capable of playing in only a few types of plays, there are, besides the rough subdivisions of tragedy and comedy, the finer distinctions of high and low comedy. The actor who is clever at burlesquing his part plays in low comedy.
The actor who plays in New York or on the road has his part assigned to him, is rehearsed in it by the director and plays that one part as long as the play lasts. The man who becomes a member of a stock company has a different sort of task, for the usual stock company puts on a new show either every week or every two weeks. He is acting in one play and rehearsing another at the same time, so he must be versatile in order to play parts which may vary in type. The stock company in a thriving city is not only an excellent training school for actors, but it affords permanent work of an attractive sort. The new recruit on the legitimate stage may only walk on in a mob or a ballroom scene, or understudy a prominent character, but that may be the entering wedge for future success.
The little theater and repertory companies are now being recognized as worthy to be classed with the legitimate stage. The little theaters scattered over the country are producing plays that are of unusual caliber and are demanding more than amateur actors. The actor who finds his place in a repertory company has a task similar to the little-theater actor. Such a company produces a number of plays again and again and the actors are very well trained, as the star system is eliminated. The Portmanteau Players, who first introduced us to Dunsany, are a traveling repertory theater and have done a great deal in extending the knowledge of the one-act play.
Musical comedy actors not only play a part but must also sing or dance. Since such an actor attempts only to entertain, he is usually somewhat of a comedian. Vaudeville makes such peculiar demands upon an individual that it is impossible to consider all persons upon the vaudeville stage as actors. How-ever, the short skits or playlets do demand good actors; but be-cause of the constant repetition of the act, the actor often becomes slipshod and loses the zest of his calling. For this reason vaudeville is not a desirable opening for the aspiring dramatic actor. Chautauqua and lyceum work are gradually bringing good plays to even the smallest communities, but the opportunities for the actor in this field are as yet extremely limited.
The silent drama, or the motion picture, is the newest addition to the theatrical family. The movies reach so many hundreds of thousands of people that the opportunities of the screen actor are inexhaustible. He must be an all-around person, able to swim, ride, dance, drive a car or play tennis. His face must screen well and he must be able to act well before the camera. The motion picture is recognized as a vital educational force, and with every year of its growth this force will be of even greater value.
All actors, whether of the legitimate or the silent drama, must have a good general education. They must not have confined their education to dramatic training, although such training is of great assistance to them. They must have a thorough knowledge of English and English literature, for it will be their duty to interpret the plays of the dramatist, and only in so far as they themselves appreciate the play can they give it to the audience. To study his characters well and portray them conscientiously, an actor should have a knowledge of psychology, while a knowledge of history is essential in understanding the historical play with its difficult production. A play such as Drinkwater's "Abraham Lincoln" requires such knowledge on the. part of its actors. So many of the modern plays are being translated, especially from the French, that the ability to speak at least one foreign language, preferably French, is an asset to the actor. Since actors are notably poor business men, as a result of over-training on the artistic side, some business training would be to their advantage.
The dramatic school, while not absolutely necessary to success on the stage, is well worth consideration by the prospective actor. Since its function is to discover lack of ability as well as real talent, one or two years of preliminary study at a good school of acting is advisable. David Belasco believes in the dramatic school as a step toward the stage, and it is certain that a thoroughly trained actor avoids several years of hard work. Since the actor must have a trained body, mind and voice, the dramatic school is the logical place to acquire such training. The course of study at the usual dramatic schools includes not only training of voice and body but also courses in literature, foreign languages and oftentimes, music. The constant appearing in plays, either before the school or before outside audiences, increases the student's self confidence and develops poise.
Some of our great actors never had dramatic school training; so the young man who is unable to attend a professional school need not dispair of becoming an actor. Physical training and training of the voice can be had in almost all high schools and in night schools all over the country. Some actors are college graduates, who never had professional dramatic training, but whose well-organized study in college, in dramatics, oratorical contests and debates, fitted them for the stage.
Schools for the teaching of motion picture acting are not advisable, though the training of a good dramatic school is extremely useful for the motion picture actor. The real school for motion picture acting is before the camera, where the new actor is paid while learning, for he will begin as an extra, and be paid according to the number of days he works.
Real talent will find a place on the stage, and the actor who possesses it, although he may begin as a utility man at about $40 a week, will soon advance to $125 if he is a character man, or $250 if he becomes a leading man. Such figures are only approximate, as there is no uniform scale of wages. In the road companies, the salaries are often lower. Stock company salaries range from $35 to $150 a week, depending upon the part played. A very few actors earn $50,000 a year or over on the legitimate stage, but the much discussed salaries of motion picture stars are often overestimated. Even a good actor will rarely find work for more than thirty weeks of the year, and he may not have more than twenty weeks' work, so it is very evident that the yearly income of the actor will not often exceed $5,000. There are some reputable agents who can be of vital assistance to the newcomer, but the best way to get an engagement on the stage is to inter-view managers and get to know stage people. A study of stage magazines and attendance at current plays are of importance in order that the aspiring actor may understand the stage itself.
The person who would become an actor must possess the ability of concentration together with a trained memory, for he may have to learn a difficult part in a very short time. He must possess originality as well as a keenly developed sense of observation and sympathetic understanding of human character, so that he may properly interpret the part. Genius is not needed if one has observation and application, for hard work and careful training are the real steps toward success. A good voice and a physically fit body are an absolute necessity to the actor, for they are the instruments of his profession. The actor who desires really to rise must have a genuine enthusiasm for his work, courage to face disappointments and a sense of humor that discouragement cannot efface. Above all, he must have a large capacity for hard work and study.
For the young man who has not only the desire to be an actor, but the personality, pluck and perseverance to adhere to his purpose, the stage offers many advantages. Acting will bring out the best that is in him, but only if he is willing to work hard. He must go into it prepared to meet every situation as a man and not be daunted by any obstacles. There are temptations on the stage, but none that cannot be overcome by the man who is unafraid.
Engagements are often hard to find and they are of a more or less precarious nature; there is a constant nervous strain; a play may fail and all the hard work put into it be set at naught; the actor's working hours are while the rest of the world relaxes; and the study of his part, rehearsals and other duties make heavy inroads on the rest of his time. But despite these disadvantages, there are compensations for the person of ability and character. A comradeship exists on the stage that is rarely found elsewhere; there is opportunity for mental growth; and there is the joy of giving pleasure to others. The motion picture actor must be at the studio early and stay late at night, while the strong lights under which he works are apt to cause eyestrain. The work is hard but ever-changing, and there is every chance for the man in such a position to earn a comfortable living. Whether acting on the stage or for the screen, he must not be content to study a part, and then, thinking that good enough, relax his efforts. Good acting depends essentially on growth, and an actor must always work hard to attain a higher place. As a profession, acting is boundless in its scope; as an art, it is worthy to be ranked with the highest.
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HORNBLOW, ARTHUR: "Training for the Stage," J. B. Lippincott Co., Philadelphia, 1916.
PLATT, AGNES E.: "Practical Hints on Acting for the Cinema," Stanley, Paul & Co., London, 1921. — "Practical Hints on Training for the Stage," E. P. Dutton & Co., New York, 1921.
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