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Play Readers

( Originally Published 1916 )



GETTING a play to a manager for reading is not merely a matter of detail, but a matter of temperament. It involves, however, something of getting the manuscript in proper physical shape for submitting—which may mean no more than having it legible and neat. This is likely to insure prompt and patient consideration.

The accepted form in which to write the manuscript, for arrangement of the page, is illustrated herewith in a page from the acting edition of Daly's " Frou-Frou." If the author cannot afford to hire a professional typist, he ought to be able to typewrite the play reasonably well himself, following this form. Only, stage directions should be under-lined by him in red ink. He should use a plain, durable paper of only moderate weight, but with enough body for the typewriting not to show through. The size of the page should be that of the ordinary commercial quarter-sheet, about eight and one-half by eleven inches. He should put nothing on the typoscript that would not belong there if the play were published, save his name and address, clearly written on the lower right-hand corner of the title page. Each act may be clamped separately, if desired, down the left-hand margin, but not so closely as to hide any of the text when pages are turned. Personally, I prefer to have the entire play bound together.

While pages commonly average a minute each, the approximate number of minutes to the act is found by reading the script and timing it, of course making allowances for business—directions for physical movement about the stage. Eact act of a four-act play should run about thirty-three minutes in performance. It is wise to make the last act shortest, and, in the case of a four-act play, the third act longest—in the case of a three-act play, the second act longest and the last act shortest. There is nothing arbitrary about this division; many worthy and successful plays depart from it. The three acts of " A Pair of Silk Stockings " were of the same length, almost to the minute. An audience certainly does become restless when certain acts are pro-longed, even when the material is interesting; and the structure of almost any play does seem to accommodate itself to those periods of rest that come to moderns as heritages from the decline of the Roman Empire.

Still taking the four-act play as an example : Roughly speaking, the first two acts contain the conditions and be-ginning of the main struggle; the third act naturally is long because it shows this struggle at its height with centralization of the forces; and the last act is short because its common function is to settle up matters.

If a play is thoroughly interesting, it will hold its audience for any reasonable time; but public sympathy is not wasted at all on those attempts to present dramas of full length without intermissions. A modern play ordinarily runs about one hundred and twenty-five minutes, not counting periods of rest. That permits beginning the play at about 8:15 P. M. and closing at about 10:45. This has many arguments in its favor in the matters of dinner, toilette, conveyances, supper, accommodation-trains and other things that are too self-evident to require mention. Less than one hundred and fifteen minutes is too short; more than one hundred and thirty-five minutes is too long. The beginner must accommodate himself to these demands; and, if he chafes under them, he may console himself with the knowledge that established dramatists conform to them, too.

WHO READS THE PLAYS?

There is one right that the producer almost always regards as inalienably his; and that is selection of that play in production of which his money is to be hazarded. But generally he has to ask some proxy to separate the dramatic wheat from the chaff.

Who, then, reads the literary children of the Great Unproduced ?

Many a manuscript does fall into the hands of a person incompetent to judge; hut playreaders, on the whole, are persons trained in the ways of the stage. Stuart Walker, who contrived the Portmanteau Theater, long read plays for Belasco; so did Mr. Stillman, who was manager of the Republic Theater, New York, under the Belasco regime; so, it was said, did the late Acton Davies, once critic for the New York Evening Sun. Theodore Burt Sayre, author of " Tom Moore," read plays through long seasons for the late Charles Frohman; before that, Charles Klein, the dramatist, occupied the post, reading a thousand, at least, and passing on to Frohman some twelve or fifteen, of which three were produced without a single success. Helen Arthur, an ex-pert on matters theatrical, read many for the Shuberts. Samuel Hoffenstein, press representative to A. H. Woods, reads them for that office.

RELATIVE IMPORTANCE OF READERS

Even these experienced persons are not expected to be infallible. They may not recognize big ideas in reams of rubbish, but frequently they see commercial possibilities in plays having a majority of good points—even sometimes in plays they are rejecting. This successful drama, described as having been turned down by manager after manager, may not be a monument to playreaders' ignorance, but rather to their sagacity, for the very things that spell large receipts at the box office now, may be due to suggestions accompanying their rejections.

Of course, there are many incompetents passing upon submitted plays. Too many managers entrust such work to persons who have been closely associated with some other important phase of play-production in the past, and are supposed, consequently, to be qualified as readers. There is a tendency, too, to underrate playreading responsibility —probably because it makes little noise.

Too many readers work by " hunches," thinking a situation in a given successful play—like the famous door-slamming in " A Doll's House," which was effective largely through its position in the action and by virtue of happenings that went before—may still be effective in different circumstances.

Now and then in past has appeared the super-reader, dignified by the title " dramaturg." In theaters of Europe the dramaturg also issues statements of the management to the press, although he is not a press agent in the American sense. A. R. Cazauran, author of " A Parisian Romance," was dramaturg for A. M. Palmer. So was Augustus Thomas in his salad days. These men were given the task of revamping and salving plays deemed of value but not in acting shape. The dramaturg exists to-day as the " play tinker," or " doctor "—Willard Mack and Max Marcin for A. H. Woods; George Broadhurst for William A. Brady; Bayard Veiller and Roi Cooper Megrue for the Selwyns. Details of the peculiar profession will be dealt with in subsequent pages.

Reputable managers are commonly sincere in considering submitted scripts. Here or there may be found one who affects dislike of unsolicited plays; but he is not representative of producers as a class.

Playreading is rarely regarded as a distinct profession. If a manager employs a man for reading and for nothing else, he regards him as a mere sieve for the stream of scripts that pours in, and rarely calls him into consultation on the siftings.

Managers frequently find it expedient t0 appear to have done the reading themselves, and at times are so careless about it that their frankness to a playwright who expected and perhaps was assured he would receive direct managerial attention, often gets his enmity only.

The careful producer makes his reader turn in a report on everything, accepted or rejected. In the first place, the re-port is evidence that the reader has done his work, for that functionary is human after all, and in the material—which is a synopsis of all important facts in or about the play—the producer may find basis of disagreement with the reader's recorded opinion. Secondly, it enables the producer to meet the playwright face to face, if necessary, ready to talk familiarly of his composition. Finally, it preserves a record for reference in questions of plagiarism, or non-receipt, or other difficulty involving the manager.

It is frequently possible to comprehend much about a play in brief examination, provided judgment is trained. Generally speaking, too protracted consideration blurs perspective, while a few moments' glancing at glaring faults such as that once remarked by Sir Herbert Tree in a play the action of which began one Christmas Eve 500 years before Christ, suffices to throw a piece into the discard.

Daniel Frohman maintains that in judging a play, a manager should remember his first impression of the manuscript and stick to it, because his second reading and repetition of the scenes at rehearsal have removed from his sense the elements of surprise, suspense, and anticipation.

PLAYREADERS' REPORTS

Carefully drawn reports, brief, concise, yet covering the salient features of the work submitted, are perhaps the greatest time-savers in the routine of the manager's office. A form of report that has been pronounced unexcelled, gives these points:

Beginning at top, it provides title of play submitted, number of acts, the author, his address, the plot of the play, and a criticism that gives first, the chief objections—if any—points of merit, a line—precluding correspondence or argument—to be quoted in the rejection slip, and the statement that the play will or will not do, the whole calculated to acquaint the manager at a glance with the availability, and at the same time make him familiar enough with the play to discuss it to the point.

The report is completed with the approximate acting time, by minutes, of each act, with a total for the play, the number of characters, male and female, the date of reading and the reader's signature. A card-index, maintained else-where, shows an individual record of names of play and author, date received, date delivered, and position of the report in the file. Advantage of the arrangement to the manager may be appreciated in knowing that more than fifty of these reports may be read comfortably in the time usually devoted to perusal of a single play.

Reasons for rejection are grouped under three general heads : material, construction, and treatment.

In practically every case where poor treatment—which is to say, manner of handling details—is the main fault, the reader's recommendation is strong enough to arrest the manager's attention, for such plays frequently are remediable without superhuman effort.



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