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Stage Directors

( Originally Published 1916 )



THE stage director is the officer in charge of everything back of the curtain before the opening performance. After that time the play is supposed to be in such shape that it is necessary only to keep it running smoothly.

In years gone by, the director commonly exercised his authority with profanity and abuse; today he is a gentle-man. That is, he is expected to be a gentleman, for there are still some rough customers in the game.

Among the more distinguished stage directors in America, without reference to personal methods, there are William Seymour, formerly of the Frohman Company; J. C. Huffman, of the Shuberts; R. H. Burnside, of the Dillingham forces; Robert Milton, who " free-lances; " Julian Mitchell, who usually stages the Ziegfeld " Follies; " George Foster Platt, who was stage director at the New Theater, and George Marion, who long directed for Henry W. Savage. Winthrop Ames, David Belasco, William A. Brady, and George M. Cohan are managers who direct in person. Mrs. Fiske is one of the best directors in America. So is Margaret Anglin. Augustus Thomas, Edwin Milton Royle, and James Forbes are author-directors. Henry Miller, John Emerson, Arnold Daly, and E. H. Sothern are actor-directors.

It is the duty of the director to study a play manuscript all by himself before calling the first rehearsal. Indeed, he should consider it thoroughly before any member of the cast is engaged; and, if possible, before the contract is given out for painting of the scenery.

During this study he is usually expected to accomplish work properly belonging to the play doctor or to the author; but, assuming that little correction is needed, he applies him-self mainly to realizing all values "—interesting scenic and acting possibilities. Every ounce of value must be gotten out of every situation, line, and characterization; and means must be devised to do it. For his study of values, he particularly picks out the " high spots " in the story—the big scenes that are to carry the plot and put the message of the play " across."

When he has completed this stage of his labor, the type-written play has begun its career as a " working manuscript." Penciled here and there on its pages are little diagrams of tentative positions of characters in stage groups; lines have been added, corrected, or deleted; and fresh bits of business have been interpolated. There is nothing that more quickly creates listlessness in an audience than a play where the actors sit about most of the time. There should be plenty of physical animation, but, of course, always consistent.

FIRST REHEARSALS

The next step is usually to read the play to the assembled company, and to assign the parts. At the next meeting, the actors are expected to have read these parts and to have formed conceptions as to how they are to be played. These conceptions are discussed with the director, who has views of his own; and then the play is perused again, but this time each actor reads his own part. Then a sort of open court is held, and points are carefully threshed out by all.

The third general meeting is usually in some rehearsal hall or on the stage of some theater. For the benefit of the company, the director describes the settings, important properties, and so forth, indicates entrances and exits, and emphasizes details of period and locale. Then, at this single rehearsal, he tries to get his company roughly through the entire play, desiring to let them " feel themselves," to gain perspective for later working out of details, observing whether their personalities harmonize or conflict in team work, their relative sizes, and whether or not their combined coloring is effective. As to coloring, brunettes are generally preferred for serious parts, and blondes for comedy. At this point some of the players may be eliminated, for obvious reasons, and others engaged to take their places.

First rehearsals commonly take place about six weeks before the public " opening." They are usually held every day—rarely less than every other day—and are each some-thing over two hours in duration until the final stages, when they are apt to run sometimes twelve or fourteen hours at a time, scarcely stopping even for meals. Ordinarily, rehearsal begins about ten o'clock in the morning and lasts till about noon.

At the fourth or fifth rehearsal, the general points of business and positions are usually well roughed out, while properties, or movable objects to be used in the scene, are represented by makeshift pieces. I know of no better in-stance of makeshift props than that described by Channing Pollock—an actor haranguing a dozen empty chairs which represent as many jurymen supposedly trying him for his life.

Now the various big scenes are taken up, and each worked out in detail—each player being told where to stand, what to do, what to say, and how. All this time the actors are interlineating their parts with penciled notes ; the director, at his rickety wooden table at the curtain line, down center, is whispering comments to his secretary, who jots them down for later reference; and the stage manager, seated at the table, and acting as prompter, is making notes of all progress and changes upon the manuscript itself.

Having worked out the big scenes to reasonable satisfaction, the director endeavors to get his players naturally from one to another. All the connective scenes are handled with greatest possible economy, making everything occur-ring in them almost sketchy. Everything is built up to the next scene; then from that scene to the next, and so on to the end of the play, always avoiding anticlimax, but every second paying for itself in immediate interest.

FINAL REHEARSALS

Development of the play is carried on an act at a time. Now, most of the necessary properties have been provided; and for the first time the setting shows signs of life. The first positions of all objects used are carefully noted by the property man and his assistant, who place the objects the same way at each new rehearsal.

When the play has been developed to the point of intelligible performance, the director moves the stage manager and his table into the wings, and himself takes position at about the fifth or sixth row of the orchestra, where he may converse with the actors without overstraining his voice—or theirs. It is interesting to note that, as rehearsals progress, he gets further and further from the scene until he sometimes stops in the gallery—trying to get full range of all effects.

Scenery is usually in place throughout the last week of rehearsals; and here the carpenter, electrician, and property man come in for their share of instruction. Music is not ordinarily rehearsed with the play until everything else has been attended to, excepting, of course, in a musical piece, when there is at least a piano from the first rehearsal on. Costumes are not usually worn, or make-up applied, until about the second rehearsal before the last.

GROUPING

Much of the director's proper work—and by this I mean when he is not fulfilling obligations of authors and actors—has to do with grouping players. There is to be considered first, however, that operation which is called " dressing the stage "—that is, keeping it " balanced "—with furniture well placed, and actors well distributed over it. This is a pictorial quantity as well as a practical necessity. The balance is one of significance rather than of people. Romeo and Juliet, seated at one side of the stage during the festivities at the house of Capulet, have no difficulty in outbalancing the crowd of merrymakers that fills the remainder of the space.

The director handles this problem much as he does his play—by working out the big situations first. And each situation is contrived to bring out a single big idea. Only one thing happens at a time on the stage, for interest must not be scattered.

Big dramatic scenes are almost invariably dominated by some one person. Consequently that person must be so placed that he is both well seen and well heard by the audience. For the time, all other characters are subordinate, and are to be so arranged that they will afford physical relief to the central figure. Presently the group must be redistributed, for interest has shifted to another figure. And so it goes throughout the action, the players moving from one important grouping to another.

Difficulty will be experienced in separating individuals from groups. Persons grouped together often seem to lose their individuality. This usually means that they are grouped too closely. It will not help much to have each person in the group doing a different thing; that will not only modify the effect, but will also diffuse the interest.

Take this common problem : Two important characters stand close together, quarreling. They seem to neutralize each other, and the scene does not get over. How is it to be corrected? They neutralize each other because, together, they constitute a group. Put a table between them and note the difference. Attention shifts from one to the other as challenge and retort follow each other in quick succession. They are individuals now; and each has his share of undivided interest.

DOMINATING THE SCENE

An old rule says that the person upstage dominates the scene. This is frequently true because the person upstage usually faces the audience, while the other characters face him; but the rule is by no means invariable. Always speaking generally, the important zone is downstage-center for the biggest point, and either to right or left for the others. Effort is made to vary the greater number of important scenes by staging one first down right, and the next down left, and so on. This also gives each side of the audience a direct view of something important.

Important points are given, when possible, directly toward the audience, but as it is destructive to illusion to have the audience directly addressed, the actor makes his point by addressing some other character, the latter so placed by the director that, in talking to him, the actor is really addressing the audience without their being aware of it.

There are many methods of making an actor dominate a scene, among them, placing him upon some elevated point —as the top of a stairway—or merely having him sit on a table when the other characters are seated on chairs; or building the group in the form of a triangle, with the leading actor at the apex—upstage.

Isolation is generally necessary to dominance. That is why important entrances and exits are usually made with plenty of clear space. Variable illumination of the scene is still another way—subtle, but decidedly effective.

MOVEMENT ABOUT THE SCENE

There should be little movement about the stage other than that called for by the play. Even these vital necessities of shifting from one group position to another, should be invested with other than mere technical reasons. One of the commonest methods of bringing this about is to let the actors walk about the scene as they feel impelled by their parts, and then to correct them as they depart from the exigencies of the case.

If an actor has nothing to do, he should remain still. This is particularly true when some other player has control of the scene. The function of the actor at such a time is generally to listen. Nothing whatsoever should be done to distract attention from the principal. And no actor should stand or sit so that he " covers " a principal—cuts off the view.

This brings up the subject of "crossings "—one actor crossing before another during progress of the scene. If the character is to be noted particularly by the audience, he usually crosses on the downstage side; if he is unimportant, he crosses above. If unavoidably managed down-stage, the person beyond moves, at the movement of crossing in the opposite direction. This tends to relieve awkwardness.

MISCELLANEOUS CORRECTIONS

The director often has to keep sharp lookout for selfishness of certain members of the company. One player will frequently utterly ruin another's scene by not " playing up " to him. When he is trying to " build up a scene " by growing emphasis of tone, the rival may keep answering him just a tone lower, and so spoil his crescendo.

An actor may spoil his own scene by pitching his voice so high that he can go no higher. Or his sense of contrast may be dulled by unconscious absorption of another's spirit. If he is supposed to enter joyfully upon a scene of sorrow, his work may be found wholly lacking in buoyancy because, while waiting in the wings to make his entrance, he has absorbed the sorrowful atmosphere.

Getting players to listen is no mean problem. Almost always it is necessary that they concentrate upon a single point of interest. Their attention must not waver. If it does, it will mean a corresponding shift in the attention of the audience.

Entrances are always made in the spirit of the character. Exits are generally handled in conventional manner, whereby the actor makes a feint of going, then returns, pauses, and at last goes out.

Each entrance and exit should have a specific reason assigned to it. There is more to be done than just to get the character on or off the scene. In " Kitty MacKay," produced in New York several years ago, characters were seen to go off left when it had been made manifest that the exit door was off right. Madame Simone did much the some thing in " The Paper Chase," produced in New York a couple of seasons before that. She opened locked doors by merely turning the knobs, and made her " big entrance " in an impossible place just because it was the most effective point for the purpose—center entrance. Characterizations are neglected with still greater frequency. In " Jerry," produced in New York in 1914, the English cousin (from Kansas City) develops most unaccountably, from a theatrical ass and nincompoop, into a fellow of spontaneous wit, with but a single entr'acte intervening.

There is a general spirit, or consistent tone, in which every performance should be given. The entire character of a play may be changed by varying this. The day before " Officer 666 " opened in New York, it was a serious melodrama with little prospect of success; at the first performance the actors played it in flippant style, and it became a farce of great popularity.

For farces and melodramas—plays depending more upon situations than lines and characterizations—most directors work hardest upon situations; for comedies and dramas, where the condition is reversed, they work upon lines and character.

TEMPO

Nothing more quickly destroys the interest of an audience than monotonous reading of lines, or monotonous playing of scenes. Therefore the director seeks variety in having the players read each new scene in a different tone, and in tones of varying volume. Comedy scenes, and scenes of hurry and bustle, are quickened; scenes of sentiment are commonly played slowly.

These are the broad problems of the stage director.

There is no final statement of the infinite detail in the work of the stage director. As far as his professional obligations are concerned, he is compelled to assume them virtually single-handed, while he is looked upon as the court of last resort in many problems that are by no means properly within his province.

Frequently a producer recognizes the need of having a technical expert to establish the correctness of decorative periods, or a super-electrician to achieve a psychological triumph in lighting, but is forced to forego them because his exchequer will not sustain them all. It is then that the director has to step into the breach and do the work ideally intrusted to assistants.

Almost all great American stage directors have passed through this embarrassing time in professional life; and I venture to say, with little fear of contradiction, that they have become better craftsmen in consequence. But, rather than go through the mill again, many of them have moved, like Reginald Barker, who was once making some of the best native productions on the speaking stage, into the field of motion pictures, where they have peace of mind, and, some say, greater opportunity for creative work.



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