The Director Takes Charge
( Originally Published 1916 )
THE play has been accepted; the scenic artist has received his commission, and time of production draws near. The producer must cast his play with actors.
To get actors the producer has many sources of supply. The simplest method is to apply to some reliable actors' employment agency for persons having such-and-such qualifications. Probably very soon a steady stream of players in search of engagements will present itself.
Likely enough, the producer has been preparing for such an exigency for a long time past, and has, in some corner of his office, a stack of programs from various theaters, with names of worth-while players marked in them. He has seen them act, and has made an estimate of what they can do. And, while passing these names in review, if he comes upon one of a likely player, he endeavors to get in touch with him at once to ascertain whether or not he is " at liberty "—which means not " signed up " with some other manager—and, perhaps, to come to terms about an engagement.
Reputable managers are always seeking good actors. They are quite as scarce as good plays; and when one hap-pens along, he must be placed under contract if possible. The constant search for actors is still another reason why producers are forever attending each other's plays.
Many producers look for their people in the stock companies. Others avoid stocks because a merely fair actor in a " scratch " organization, will sometimes appear so relatively good that he seems excellent.
Throughout the year actors call at the manager's office to see if he is projecting any production likely to concern them, and, in all events, to leave their names and addresses. If the manager feels the slightest interest in any applicant, he usually asks a number of questions, the answers being recorded with notes for future reference.
There are various systems of filing these notes; but most managers use the card index. Frederick Stanhope, when one of the Liebler Company stage directors, had to examine from seventy-five to a hundred actors and actresses a month. Details about each were recorded on a separate card. The name, post-office address, and telephone number were, of course, given whenever possible. Then came a record of previous performances, height, weight, color of hair, type of looks, and broadly, the kind of character he believed the applicant might portray. These cards were filed in two main sections, one for men, the other for women, and then subdivided into " lines of business "—leads, second business, ingenues, and so forth, terms which I shall describe presently. If he had ever seen the applicant act in another play, he wrote down the program number, keeping all programs, with penciled comments on individual work in each cast, numbered and in a separate file. At the end of the month he sorted out his cards for the preceding thirty or more days, destroying about eighty per cent. of them because the persons they represented seemed to him to be negligible. To be sure, each producer has his own method of keeping such records; but this method is representative.
The stage director is usually the person who selects the players, granting interviews to applicants, and examining their credentials, although the ultimate decision usually rests with the producer. Adolph Klauber does the engaging for Selwyn and Company; Mr. Masson makes preliminary selection for Belasco; Bruce Edwards and R. H. Burnside do much of the engaging for Dillingham; Sam Forrest is the touchstone for Cohan and Harris; Herbert Gresham acts for Klaw and Erlanger, and George H. Trader for the Charles Frohman Company. In most cases, the stars, or leading man and woman, are picked by the producer, while minor players are selected by the director. Methods vary in different offices.
Great tact is involved in application of tests of any kind to players under consideration. Actors of standing are inclined to resent being classed and catechized as though they are utterly unknown, even though the director and producer may never have seen them upon the stage.
One frequently sees, in a printed review of a play, that it is " miscast,". meaning that the players are ill adapted to the parts they have been called upon to portray. It is a free criticism, frequently made by facile writers who are not informed in ways of the stage, and who really do not know how to consider an actor separated from his part, or from the ensemble. The careful producer, however, knows the meaning of the word full well, and does every-thing in his power to get the right actor for the right part.
In this connection there at once comes up the question of " types." Actors find difficulty in securing engagements because they do not " look " their prospective parts. They complain that a manager wants a banker to play a banker, a bootblack a bootblack, an apple-woman an apple-woman, and so on, he completely ignoring the fact that the player on the stage must first of all know something about the art of acting. The average actor will tell you that he can make himself up to represent almost any age or condition; but managers, he will continue, decline to admit it.
I do not think that this is altogether true of most reputable producers. The director says to himself not, " Does this actor look like a senator? " but, " Will he be able to create the impression of a senator? " Certain externals cannot be disguised. For instance, it is not likely that any amount of make-up would make Thomas A. Wise a convincing Mephistopheles in " Faust," or Constance Collier a plausible Lydia Languish in " The Rivals," although both are splendid players. It is not altogether the individual appearance of an actor that has to be considered; there is also his appearance in relation to that of others in the cast. A tall actor may be ever so well fitted to a minor part, but be excluded because his height above the principals would cause him to dominate all scenes in which he appeared with them.
However, for many years there have been broad types of actors, specializing in certain kinds of part—" lines of business," as the players call them. These are particularly evident in the modern stock company. There are the leading man and leading woman, who play, respectively, all male and female " leads," or two roles of chief importance—like Camille and Armand in " Camille." Then comes the second man, who plays all male parts next in importance, called " juveniles." Ordinarily these are debonair young men with boyish qualities, although some-times villainous. The second woman plays all female parts next in importance to leads, and may do " adventuress " roles. A heavily built man usually plays " heavies "—or villains—exclusively. Then there is the ingenue, who really plays opposite the juvenile man, and whose part is one of girlish naiveté and saccharine inconsistence. Then there is the comedian, who plays the broadly humorous males, and who is frequently assisted in his campaigns for laughter by the character man. The latter is commonly a mere youth, with a deftness in making-up and playing tottering old men. Opposite the character man is the character woman, who is generally retired by middle age from greater triumphs, and plays hags and voluble domestics—in rare instances she is also able to play grande dames, like testy dowagers, duchesses, and, in a good social sense, militant mothers-in-law.
Most companies have this complement of players, bringing in " extras " as needed, one extra—they don't call them supernumeraries any more—ordinarily being played by the stage manager.
It is unfortunate that there is seldom time for exhaustive tryouts of actors; virtually the only guide to ability in most cases is brief recollection of what they have done. This encourages the " type " evil. Still, there is much to be said in favor of casting by physical appearance and resonance of voice, for these are what impress the audience first. Many an actor of unprepossessing manner, appearance, or voice, has to spend the better part, of his performance to breaking down prejudices created at his first entrance. Physical defects, such as stammering, deafness, or lameness, militate seriously against an actor's chances, although in each instance there have been men whose genius has lifted them beyond. Undersized players, who are not so fortunate as to have a company selected to fit them, are generally confined to youthful, immature parts, or eccentric characters. Players who are moderately tall are usually imposing, and therefore better qualified for elaborate characterizations.
FIVE LEADING QUALIFICATIONS
Franklin H. Sargent, head of the American Academy 0f Dramatic Arts, once told me in connection with judgment by past performances, that most actors play by extremes—that is, that the man who plays the best villain is likely also to be an excellent comedian. Mr. Sargent says there are five important points to be found in an actor of reasonably unlimited range : a good physique, including a good voice; a nervous emotional temperament—in other words, a responsive nature—for acting in general is more emotional than intellectual, despite the fact that intellect always governs emotion; an active imagination; theatrical instinct—which is the ability to interest by being interested; and dramatic intelligence—the power to reason out the constructive meaning of a situation, together with characteristic causes and effects and their evolution. Technical skill, he says, has nothing to do with dramatic ability, and may be learned by anyone with proper guidance.
CONCEPTION OF THE PART
A more important actor may be given the prospective part to read and see what he thinks of it, and to form a conception of how it should be played. The producer does not always expect a correct conception, because the actor has not been made familiar with the rest of the play; but he does expect it to be reasonably consistent, unless it chances to be one like that in Oscar Wilde's comedy, " Lady Windermere's Fan," where a young girl says nothing but, " Yes, mama," with varying inflections, throughout performance.
Correct conception of a part is generally based on the purpose for which the character was created. As remarked, a character is conceived mainly to fit some given situation. Thus, if a man is to kill another in a fit of jealousy, jealousy will probably be the dominant note in his character, with all other traits subordinate to, but consistent with, that. In this way the actor's conception is made to fit into the scheme of the play as a whole.
In appearance, an actor's typewritten part is just a series of " cues," speeches, and directions as to business. A cue is constituted by the three or four last words of the immediately preceding speech—this to be memorized that the actor may know when to begin his lines—and then the lines themselves. The cue may be a bit of business, in which case a brief description is given. Each page of the part is the size of half a sheet of manuscript paper, about five and one-half inches upright, and eight and a half inches wide. This is called a " side." An actor describes his part as being so-many sides. The size is small for convenient handling in study or at rehearsal.
In make-up, actors are provided with descriptions of characters, but are usually allowed some latitude for conceptions of their own. Shown on the next page is a sketch, by Augustus Thomas, of Emile Bergeret, the leading character in his play, " The Model," to guide William Courtleigh in making up. The inscription reads, ` Dear Bill—I see him this way ; " the note implying that Courtleigh was not expected to follow it rigidly. However, Courtleigh did make up an accurate resemblance. Details of costume are pointed out—if not actually provided--by the management.
Mechanics of make-up cannot be entered into here; but the routine—exclusive of wigs, crepe hair, face putty, and so forth—may be indicated briefly. The work of making up is done before a mirror, which is usually lighted to approximate the illumination of the stage. First comes application of some cold cream preparation to the features, to facilitate subsequent removal of make-up.
Then a body color, of grease paint, is applied—a color provided in all shades from the blonde and brunette of youth to the parchment of old age. Rouge, or deep red grease paint, is used for local coloring on cheeks and ears. Lips are shaped and colored with carmine. Eyes are made up with great attention to detail. Shadows are simulated usually with blue or brown. Brushes are rarely used, " lining-pencils " being preferred.
As make-up must be clear to the most distant spectator, it is usually handled in broad masses, although I recall one time, interviewing Cyril Maude in his dressing room while he was making up as Grumpy, that when I shook hands good-bye, it was difficult to throw off the impression that I was confronted, at close range, with a very genuine old man. And his make-up was quite clear at any reasonable distance.
An actor's voice is highly important, and should be cultivated with care—although there have been many great actors, notably Charles Kean, whose vocal powers have been negligible.
First, the actor aims to be heard to the last row in the auditorium. Old actors say that if he keeps this constantly in mind he will always pitch his voice correctly for the size of the theater in which he plays. He must next enunciate clearly; and this means that he may be heard every-where without shouting. He must open his mouth on vowels, and properly shape the consonants. If his training has been thorough, he has learned, through various exercises, to speak with slightest expenditure of breath, to lend flexibility to his voice—thereby avoiding monotony—and to keep his voice constantly under control. The certain artificiality of crisp and careful stage enunciation, when consistently handled and not brought into contrast with sloven speech of others in the company, soon becomes pleasantly attuned to the ears of the audience.
Under these conditions, rapidity of speech is not easy; but it is then accomplished by selecting the significant words in a line, emphasizing these, and hurrying over the others. Correct pronunciation is a necessity, for most persons accept that of a gentlemanly or ladylike character in a play as authoritative. Still, unfamiliar pronunciations, however correct, frequently distract from more important issues.
In Percy Fitzgerald's " Art of Acting," the author points out the necessity of apparent spontaneousness in stage speech: There is the speech of actors as though things have occurred to them at the moment, he says in essence, a sort of hesitation before speaking. He supplements this with a quotation from Raymond Solly, " Before beginning to speak, some feeling or idea should be indicated in advance." Pauses, carefully employed, are valuable aids.
Gesture, like body movements in general, is carried on only at significant moments, partly because reserve conveys the idea of a storage of force, as Fitzgerald says, and partly because the audience always attaches importance to the slightest change in attitude or position. In this regard there is a tradition that the action must always precede the spoken word, speech being merely to supplement and amplify action. " Anticipation of the utterance by the gesture," says Fitzgerald, " gives the effect of rising in the passion of the scene."
Particular attention is given to grace. The actor occupies an elevated, detached, and conspicuous position; and, in adapting himself to the exigencies of that position, he must employ art—art, which, like that of every other division of the theater, aims not at the representation, but the illusion of reality. His gesticulations are rounded, his walk erect and clean-cut—unless he is striving for awkward effect—one stride on the stage being equal to many in real life.
I have heard actors of the " modern " school, decry this conception of grace; but it certainly seems to me a deal better for given types of play—for romantic drama and comedy, for examples, than the terse, angular movements that seem well adapted to grim, " realistic " plays. Like everything else in the theater, gracefulness has a time and a place.
To consider ideas of grace further, the center of gravity is maintained as far as possible on the downstage side of the actor—all perpendicular lines being kept toward the audience. Emerson Taylor, who wrote " Stage Directing for Amateurs "—a book which should be read by all professionals—provides examples. " At entrance from either side," he says, " the upstage foot should take the first step in; in kneeling, let the upstage knee sink to the floor last." This principle holds as good in the making of the stage picture as it does in draughtsmanship.
In spite of a widespread fallacy, an actor does not often submerge himself in his part. He rather keeps his faculties constantly on the alert to play his points with best effect. Of course, he brings to his role a certain physical enthusiasm, or deep personal interest, that invests it with a living quality; but the moment he "lets himself go," he is either over-playing or under-playing—if, indeed, he is playing at all.
He aims to convey what the character is thinking and feeling; and, if he is sincere in his work, aiming for unified effect of the play as a whole, his personal success will take care of itself.
One of the most vital points in this sort of cooperation is " listening "—being interested in whatever is said and done about him. To be sure, listening always enhances another's work; but it has been demonstrated many times that the minor player who survives disruption of an organization is usually the " feeder " or the " listener." He exists by himself, asking little from others, and, while making his effort the foundation upon which some other player rears his superstructure, his contribution has greater permanence. It will endure when the other has long been forgotten.