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Mechanical Departments

( Originally Published 1916 )

THERE is no organization more smooth running than that which operates behind the curtain in a first-class theater. The idea of " a place for everything and everything in its place " is exemplified in such a house to a remarkable degree. So it is no wonder that the unitiated person who has the good fortune to see a fine theatrical mechanism first, does not suffer disillusionment, but is fascinated and impressed by the perfect correlation of the parts.

Indeed, it is in seeing the stage crew at work that one becomes entirely conscious of the dovetailing of many seemingly distinct factors in making a single play. At first, seeing the stage crew at work looks like chaos; but each man knows what to do and when, and how he may move about without getting in the way of his fellows.

As a rule, one does not see the crew in full operation until the curtain descends at the end of the first act. That is because the first act setting is generally placed at conclusion of the preceding performance. However, in larger cities, authorities compel managers to " strike " all sets immediately after the final curtain.

It is about seven-thirty at night. Players are drifting in and going to their dressing rooms—two or three in one room, perhaps—excepting in those of the more important members of the company, who have individual quarters. There is a constant murmur of voices as the actors, busily applying grease and paint and powder, talk among themselves. At about seven-forty comes a call, " Half hour! " This means that there are thirty minutes remaining before the overture.

The voice is that of the call boy—that is, occasionally, because his office is usually filled by the stage manager. This latter personage is usually an actor who has a small or " bit " part. He receives an extra weekly consideration for his work. In the profession he sometimes is known as the " dog," on account of the variety of obligations he is expected to fulfil.

In practically every case I have encountered, the stage manager is a studious young man, anxious to learn his art to the full, and undertaking this mainly because of the executive experience in it. One finds him of keen technical knowledge as a rule, and frequently with ambitious ideas which he hopes to execute some day in an ideal theater of his own. His office has been the responsible, if humble, position in which most of our great stage directors have served their apprenticeships. The circumstance explains why one frequently finds a small part in a production played with rare skill. The stage manager is the actor. It may be a " bit " like the apothecary in " Romeo and Juliet," that should be well done or not at all; and the stage manager assumes it rather than permit some untrained extra person to stumble through it.

The stage manager—who must not be confused with the company manager or house manager—oversees every-thing that is carried on in connection with the mechanical production, and artistic effects as well. The first is his obligation; the others represent his personal efficiency. If performance is unsatisfactory, actors forget their lines, overplay their effects, try to " hog the show "—which means to appropriate all the sympathy or applause by tricks of various kinds—or yet " kid " their parts with " ad lib." matter—which means to interpolate lines and business of their own not provided in the manuscript—he is vested with authority to call rehearsals—notice of which is posted on the " call " or bulletin board in a conspicuous place—and so make them act properly.

In well-regulated companies the stage manager keeps a " time sheet " for each rendition. This is a record which gives, under name of play and the date, the number of the performance, whether matinee or evening, time of the overture, when the curtain rises and falls on each act, the running time of each act and scene, length of any " waits," number of curtain calls, and pertinent remarks.

During performance, either the stage manager or his assistant, who probably is another actor playing a bit part in the company, is the prompter. He is expected to be " up " in all the lines and business of the play, himself ready to understudy certain parts if necessary, and familiar with all working details backstage. He keeps a " working " manuscript, or prompt copy of the play, before. him in his place in the wings, and reads it a line or two ahead of the performers to be ready for emergencies. This script contains all cues for " working the production."

Rehearsing the company does not mean directing. It is assumed that the play is now in working shape, rehearsal being merely to insure even performance. In addition to rehearsing the company, the stage manager must maintain discipline back of the curtain line, must provide Herr Di-rector with his table of orchestra cues; " Juice," the electrician, with a light plot; " Carp," the carpenter, with a scene plot, and Props," the property man, with a list of the properties to be used in the play.

" Hand props "—that is, properties like knives, decanters, revolvers, fans, and so forth, that are to be handled by the actors during the action—are kept by the stage manager on a table in the wings, and gotten by the actors as required.

At the proper moment the stage manager signals the orchestra leader, rings the curtain up and down, and notifies the carpenter when to strike the set. But before considering these we must return and begin from the cry of

Half hour!"


Fifteen minutes before the overture—at which time the asbestos curtain usually rises—the stage manager notifies the company a second time, and then again five minutes before. But the buzzing of conversation continues until the act is " called," when his cry is " Overture ! " Then the performers who are to appear in the early part 0f the act, go to the stage.

But the manager, himself, has been on duty for some time. " Clear ! " he exclaims. The electrician, who has been connecting the lights for the scene, and other persons who have no immediate business upon the stage, scurry off into the wings. " Places!" cries the manager. The actors who are to be " discovered " get into position; those who are to enter at once stand at their entrances. The manager signals the orchestra to conclude the overture; the electrician lights the foots and turns out the house lamps; the manager turns the switch or rings the bell, and the curtain rises.

A couple of minutes before the " tag," or last line of the act, is spoken, the manager warns the curtain man to be ready by usually two pushes on the signal, and then, at the proper time after, gives the one signal that rings down the " flying wall of canvas." Perhaps he takes an encore or two. If the play does not receive encores enough to satisfy him, he may resort to trickery.

He keeps the curtain down, but the footlights remain lit, and the house lamps out. The audience, expecting another rise of the curtain, applaud. When the applause has gathered enough volume to seem real, the curtain goes up. The second time, the manager may do the same thing, save that, after the curtain has been down a moment, he shakes the edge of it gently, creating a ripple across its surface that seems to presage another rise. The rise not readily forth-coming, the audience is inspired to a more insistent demonstration that, nine times out of ten, evokes not only the ascent of the curtain, but a grateful speech by the star. It is just another advantage taken of human nature.

At last the manager decides to keep the curtain down. " Strike ! " he calls. After that word is spoken, no more encores are taken—that is, rarely, because for an audience to see an " undressed " stage is quite properly held to be destructive of stage illusion—and this, although there have been plenty of examples before Sheridan's " The Rehearsal " and since Belasco's " Zaza."

Before anything is done to strike the set—which is here assumed to be an interior—all persons not having business on the stage proper, must be off. Then the electrician disconnects the lighting fixtures at the connectors, and removes the portable lamps.

Now the stage carpenter assumes command; and under his direction three or four "grips," or stage hands, take the wing and back flats apart and stack them in "dead" or used packs, usually in the wings against the back wall—" running " the packs, as it is called. These flats have been lashed together while in position upon the stage; but a grip is as dextrous as a cow puncher in snapping the light lines off and on the cleats above his head. There are also stage braces to be removed, and wooden props to be turned in. The flats now being out of the way, the flymen lower the back end of the ceiling piece, and raise the whole vertically into the flies.

After this, the center door fancy is lifted up, and also, perhaps, some of the larger flats, like the entire back wall of a room; and the stage is clear for the new command of " Props."

" Props," as I have remarked before, is the property man. He is in command of usually four or five " clearers " —the New Theater that was, had thirty-two—who carry off the furniture, rugs, and so forth, and place them in convenient but unobtrusive positions at back or in the wings.

In some of the older theaters, a trap was opened in the middle of the stage, and through this the properties were passed below; but the practise was generally abandoned in favor of leaving space for the property man and clearers to go on and off the scene while it is in course of erection or in course of dismantling. I have seen a property man with an armful of china, walk nonchalantly through a door-way to the stage, while the doorway, as part of the scene, was being slid into place from a distance.

The next set may be an exterior. The ground cloth is spread first, or the cloth of the preceding act may be removed revealing the new one already in place beneath it. Then the property man brings on the movable objects in his charge, benches, rocks, flower-beds, and so on, and piles them in the middle of the stage so that the grips may build the scene without interruption. He works from the middle outward, usually completing his work at about the time the grips do theirs. Flymen are occupied, mean-while, in the lowering of drops and borders, and the grips in placing the flats, representing houses, perhaps, or walls.

At this point the electrician becomes active. He must adjust his border lights, place his wing lights, strips and bunches. After connecting the plugs, he places an assistant at each open lamp, as the law requires, and tests the entire arrangement to insure smooth operation. This over, the scene is ready.

Props, Juice, and Carp notify the manager to that effect, and the second act is called. " Clear ! " and " Places ! " bring the actors into position. A red lamp, winking of the musicians' lights, or a buzzer, tells Herr Director to conclude his entr'acte music. The foots go on and the house lights out. The bell rings, or the switch is turned, and the curtain rises.


It will be observed that the stage crew is divided into three departments, Carpentry, Property, and Lighting, each independent of the others, but all three working harmoniously toward a common end. Largely for purposes of publicity—although the stage manager declared he did it for convenient identification—the three stage departments of the Punch and Judy Theater, New York, were once out-fitted respectively with red, white, and blue caps.

At the Metropolitan Opera House, New York, where the change of bill is frequent during the season, day and night crews are maintained. The night crew takes down all the used drops and carefully packs them with reference to their numbers, and next day the day crew places them in the storehouse.

The force at the New York Hippodrome is frequently as many as two hundred men—about sixty electricians, sixty property men and clearers, twenty-five grips, and thirty-five engineers who attend the pumps that fill and empty the big tank. All properties and scene pieces there, are numbered to correspond to the men who are to handle them, while cues, on a darkened scene, are given by lights placed high in an alcove on one side of the stage. All men in the crew are rehearsed in their parts as thoroughly as the actors; consequently few changes of scene there—and there may be nineteen or twenty—take more than thirty seconds each.

It would require many pages to do more than indicate the duties of the various members of the stage crew, for they are constantly being confronted with new problems. A stage hand has little time to loaf, and full opportunity to build himself up from trade to profession.

Occasional disagreements are about all that inform the great theatergoing public that such occupations exist. It is at such times that one hears talk of " unions " and " associations " that sound singularly inappropriate concerning attaches of Fairyland.


When one hears of union stage employees, he should remember that there is a distinction between their union proper—the I. A. T. S. E. (International Association of Theatrical Stage Employees)—and their fraternal order—the T. M. A.'s (Theatrical Mechanics' Association). To join the first, one must have worked in a theater two years, and, before going on the road, been in the union two years. It is a powerful organization, and has settled, as an instance of its value in arbitration, what was formerly a prolific cause of argument—what is property, and what is scenery? Say a fountain is used in a set. What is it to be called? The union calls it property; so Props and his clearers are compelled to set and to strike it.


On the road a special crew is carried with the company, and works in conjunction with the house crew at each stand. Both crews see that scenery is put on and off transfer trucks, and, before that, that it is properly packed. Furniture is carried in crates, although there has lately been invented a wooden base with a laced padded cover, which has advantages that may not be detailed here. The electrician sometimes carries a special switchboard, in addition to his lamps, with dimmers and all complete.

One of the most remarkable touring arrangements I know of is the Portmanteau Theater, contrived by Stuart Walker, the stage director and author. It is a completely equipped stage, proscenium, curtains, and all, which may be taken apart, placed in ten large boxes of varying sizes, and shipped anywhere. It has a complete lighting installation, including dimmers and effects of color, and a horizon. For ready shifting of scenes, it uses the simple Elizabethan principle of alternate stages. It carries a professional company and full stage crew. The crates in which the scenery is carried, form the stage floor, and there are many other interesting economies. The theater is intended particularly for exhibition in clubs, colleges, and schools—nearness no object.


I have neglected to mention the wardrobe mistress. She may scarcely be called a member of the stage crew; but, for that matter, neither may the manager nor his assistant. She usually belongs to the company, as they do. She is frequently an actress who, like the stage manager, for an incentive of some few dollars in addition to her salary, undertakes to defy the instability of warp and woof. She, or her assistant, gathers the costumes from various dressing rooms at conclusion of each performance, examines them to see that they are in good condition, mends them if necessary, and then redistributes them in time for their next appearance.

At this point, having seen all the various parts of " back-stage " set into motion, we may proceed into the other great division of the theater known as the " front of the house.

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