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General Stage Divisions

( Originally Published 1916 )

A DEEPLY religious man was required to follow Virgil into the Great Unknown. And, in much the same way—if the comparison is not sacrilegious—one must have faith before crossing the footlights into the Land of Make-Believe.

It may seem that the proper entrance for the uninformed is the stage door. But no. Even if the investigator comes in that way, he will still be compelled to learn the close relationship of stage and audience first for clear understanding. He already has a good idea of that part of the theater accessible to the general public, or the front of the house, as it is called, so his natural progress is forward into the auditorium, which he is also fairly well acquainted with, over the footlights, and through the proscenium arch which frames the top and sides of the stage picture.

The moment one crosses the boundary-line of the proscenium, or that strip of stage visible when the curtain is down, or the curtain-line itself, his entire viewpoint is reversed. One now looks from the actor's position into the audience, instead of from the auditorium to the stage. Hence, what was the right hand of the spectator is now the left of the actor, with the corresponding change of onlooker's left to performer's right.

It is assumed, for convenience, that one is now standing directly in the middle of the stage visible when the curtain is up, or stage proper, which extends from the footlights to the back wall, and approximately the width of the proscenium arch. The general term stage means every-thing back of the proscenium.

The cellar area beneath the stage, is sometimes, though not frequently any more, called the dock—from the old practice of storing scenery there. A long rack, to hold rolled-up drops in the modern Court Theater of Berlin, extends from the cellar floor to the stage level. It has a capacity of three hundred drops. A bridge elevator moves up and down beside it. In theaters devoted to vast spectacles, like the opera, the dock is often of great depth, for it must contain machinery for elevating scenery, and particularly for storage. Spaces at either side of the stage proper, to the side walls of the theater, running from front to back and upward to the flies, are the wings. The flies is that region above, over all the stage, from the top of the scene set for the play, to a height considerably more than once again that of the proscenium arch.


In the wings, and often in the dock as well, are dressing rooms, rising tier above tier. More recently built theaters have their dressing rooms outside a side wall—technically, in a distinct building—so as to be quite separated from the stage. Fire laws in large cities are very stringent about the location of dressing rooms, for conflagrations have often begun in them. They are not to be open to the stage or to auditorium. They are reached from the stage by connecting flights of stairs, or, occasionally, elevators.

Dressing rooms are ordinarily graded to the importance of the actors by their accessibility to the stage. Those nearest are for principals, while those more remote serve for those presumably of less consequence. This distinction has led to many an awkward situation; and there have been countless efforts to abolish it.

In the Little Theater, New York, this difficulty has probably been reduced to its lowest terms by having all dressing rooms on one floor, branching out from a green room, which contains full comforts for the histrionic ensemble, from periodicals to tea, coffee, cigarettes, and a full-length mirror for survey of entire costume, and reached from the stage by an elevator operated by the call-boy. Incidentally, this lift is fitted with another adequate looking-glass for final touches in transit.

There are very few green rooms in New York theaters today. The Grand Opera House has one, but that is a relic of old times. The Century Theater has one, and so has the Lyceum. In the Little Theater, as in most new theaters of better class, there is complete isolation of the sexes; and, by the director's ingenious arrangement, the policy is never violated. Two aisles from the green room passage, serve respectively for ladies and gentlemen. Those dressing rooms located between the aisles, are fitted with two doors each, to admit persons from either side, although one door is always kept locked, the open door situated according to masculine or feminine preponderance of the cast. Ordinarily there are sufficient rooms—some eighteen in all—for players to find individual accommodation; but to pro-vide for organizations of unusual size, each room is fitted with places for three and sometimes four persons. Indeed, one room is large enough for fifteen or twenty.

A large side skylight above each room, provides clear illumination in the daytime, and excellent ventilation al-ways. An unobtrusive steam-pipe, raised out of the way, radiates warmth when required, and a permanent stand, having deep individual drawers for make-up, supports a broad mirror, before which are suspended unshielded electric lamps at appropriate distances, to approximate average stage lighting. Grace George and some other prominent actresses, carry their own mirrors, outlined with bulbs, with them en tour.

Convenient wall-pockets provide for heating-irons and similar attachments, and a dust-cover over hooks, affords protection to the wardrobe. For ablutions, each room has a porcelain corner washstand, fully equipped. The floor, of course, is carpeted.

Where unusually quick changes are necessary, temporary dressing rooms are constructed on the stage itself in the wings, of a flat or two turned to screen those within from view. These are put up and taken down with the scene.


In the topmost part of the wings, scaled properly from the stage by ladders permanently placed, and sometimes from landings on the stairs leading to the dressing rooms, are the fly galleries. Occasionally there is but . one fly gallery, and in that event the side it occupies is a matter of taste. It is usually the left-hand side, from the actor's point of view. The Prompt Side is the " working " side of the stage; and the working side is that in which there must be most available room. So it depends altogether upon the physical construction of the stage and relative positions of dressing rooms and offices, which is P. or O. P.—Opposite Prompt—Side. The idea is to keep all stage workers together as far as possible, for direct inter-change of signals. Of course, counterweights are prefer-ably suspended opposite the working side.

The fly gallery is where the free ends of ropes, or " lines," by which scenery is hauled up into the flies, are made fast upon cleats, or belaying-pins. A stage uses a deal of rigging like a ship. Indeed, sailors, accustomed to dizzy heights, adjusted the awnings in the great amphitheaters of ancient Rome.

Once in a while windlasses are used at this point; but ordinarily the scenery is so counterweighted with sand-bags and iron blocks, or the makeshift counterpoises such as coupling-pins, sash-weights, or chain-links, that one man may raise and lower them with ease and no need of further mechanical assistance.

The fly gallery is frequently employed for portable lights; and, as this sometimes limits facility in working lines, a few theaters have supplementary, modified galleries some six feet below, for lights alone. The hanging of fly galleries requires much care, for this not only affects the handling of scenery, but also the number of men needed to operate the equipment.

The lower a fly gallery is hung in a theater where practically none but manual labor is employed, less effort is needed at the free end of the rope to lift a weight at the other. But there is an arbitrary level below which a gallery must not come, for a certain height is necessary for stacking scenery in the wings.


Each piece of scenery suspended has a set of usually three lines—four, and sometimes five, in manipulating an unusually cumbrous piece—attached to its upper edge, one line to the middle, another to the remote end, and a third to the near one. They are called, respectively, the long, middle, and short lines. A number distinguishes each set. The enormous stage of the Metropolitan Opera House, New York, uses five lines to each piece. In tying lines, the stage-hand has his own special kind of knots, just as the sailor has his.

Before electricity was employed to run the lines at the Metropolitan, twenty-eight flymen were necessary to handle the sixty-three sets of ropes. A veritable set of books is kept there under supervision of Edward Siedle, the technical director, to indicate the lines to which each drop is to be fastened, the act the drop is to be used in, how high it hangs from the stage, when it is to be taken up or down, and other details.


Blocks and pulleys through which lines operate, are fastened to what is known as the gridiron, a great horizontal iron frame—nearly always of iron or steel--divided into a sequence of parallel bars that run from side to side across the top of the flies. This is a convenient arrangement, whereby the blocks may be hooked or bolted to any desired point above the stage.

Gridirons have proven a source of considerable difficulty to theater architects. Curiously enough, these craftsmen, expert in auditorium design and arrangement, are not al-ways familiar with needed facilities of stages themselves. Thus, it happened, within the first decade of this enlightened century, that a theater was erected in New York and completely equipped, only to reveal upon test that the fire curtain, which screened the entire proscenium arch, could not be raised vertically out of sight because the gridiron was in the way. Consequently, a slot was cut in the grid, and the necessary accomplished.

The architect felt that he had made a useful discovery, and, forgetful that there are sometimes scenes towering quite as high as the fire curtain, produced a sequel in a subsequent theater by slotting its gridiron after the precedent established, although on this second stage the grid-iron was high enough to do without slotting at all. I am not naming these theaters because I do not care to mar the reputation of a generally excellent designer.

There have been numerous attempts to make a combination roof and grid; but I know of no successful examples. Some of the theaters of Europe have two grid-irons, one above the other, the lower having greater space between its bars, and sometimes the lower covering only the front half of the stage, with the other to the rear, but much higher, to accommodate itself to sight lines from the orchestra chairs. At the former New Theater, New York, the gridiron is I20 feet above the stage.


Looking directly upward from the stage through the bars of the gridiron, one may see daylight. The opening in the roof through which this is admitted, is the large ventilator, ordinarily adjusted by lines or a mechanical worm on a long handle, for regulating the exit of those currents of air which keep backstage atmosphere clean and fresh, and for smoke from mimic battles on the stage, and the like, but automatically worked by means of fusible connections in case of fire, to kill draughts and prevent the usual mushroom of flame which has gutted so many theaters.


Where there are two fly galleries, they were formerly often connected by a fixed bridge, or " paint frame," where scenic artists might work. Just how useful this bridge may be is appreciated in hearing the story of an artist employed by a stock company that was long in ingenuity but short in the financial sense. The play was " The Two Orphans." After the actors had performed before the canvas upon which was painted the snowy day, it was hoisted out of sight of the audience to beside the bridge, and from that position he transformed it so that it could be lowered later, in the same performance, as a picture of budding spring.

This curtain, he relates, was so treated twice a day for a week.

Then there are " flying bridges," bridges that may be raised and lowered like painters' scaffolds. Sometimes there are two or three tiers of these, and perhaps three in a row from front to back. Of course, this multiplicity of bridges is found only in very large theaters.

But the movement for fire prevention which has been steadily growing since the early eighties or before, has banned the paint frame, with its little stove for melting size—from stages in many larger American cities at least—together with all scenery not needed for actual use during performance. Casual permission is given, however, to touch up scenery with the brush, on the stage, before or after the play. The paint bridge now appears in modified form, but for another purpose—and made altogether of iron, while adjustable up and down—the purpose being to support lights and men to operate them. This is one form of the " flying " bridge.

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