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Amateur Plays - Organization

( Originally Published 1923 )

A GREAT many more factors go into the making of a successful dramatic production than may at first be apparent. To organize a staff whose duty it is to furnish and equip a theater, hall, or schoolroom ; to arrange and efficiently run rehearsals ; to supply "props'', costumes, and furniture; to manage the stage during the performance -- all this is next in importance to the acting itself.

Of late years especially it has been made clear that the art of the theater, although it is a collaboration of the brains and hands of many persons, must be under the supervision of one dominating and far-seeing chief. That is to say, one person and one alone must be responsible for the entire production. Except in rare instances this head cannot know of and attend to each detail himself, but it is his business to see that the whole organization is formed and managed according to his wishes. The function of this ideal manager has been compared with that of the orchestral conductor : it is he who leads, and he should be the first to detect the slightest discord. While the foregoing remarks are more strictly applicable to acting and staging, it will readily be seen that if the same leader is not in touch with the more practical side of the production, there is likely to arise that working at cross-purposes which has ruined many an amateur as well as professional production. While a great deal of the actual work must be done by subordinates, it should be clearly understood that the director has the final word of authority.

Much in the matter of organization depends upon the number and ability and experience of those persons who are available, but the suggestions about to be made as to the organization of a staff are based upon the assumption that the director is a capable person, and his assistants at least willing to learn from him. As a rule, he will have plenty of material to work with.

The Director. The producer, the head under whose guidance the entire work of rehearsing and organization should lie, is called the director. However, since this position is often held by a hired coach or by some one else who cannot be expected to attend to much outside the actual rehearsing, there must be elected or appointed an officer who is directly responsible. This officer is :

The Stage Manager. As the director cannot always be present at every rehearsal, and as oftentimes two parts of the play are rehearsed simultaneously, it is evident that another director must be ready to act in place of the head. It is chiefly his duty to " hold " the prompt-book and keep a careful record of all stage business, cuts ", etc. At every rehearsal he must be ready to prompt, either lines or " business " -- action, gestures, crosses, entrances, exits, and the like and call the attention of the director to omissions or mistakes of every sort. In the event of the director's absence, he becomes the pro tem. director himself.

It is advisable though not always possible to delegate the duties of property man, lightman, curtain man, costume man (or wardrobe mistress) to different persons , but even when this is done, it is better for the stage manager to keep a record of all " property plots " light plots ", " furniture plots etc.

It is also the stage manager's business to arrange the time and place of rehearsals, and hold each actor responsible for attendance.

On the occasion of the dress rehearsal and of the actual production, it is the stage manager, and not the director, who supervises everything. His position is that of commander-in-chief. He either holds the book, or is at least close by the person who actually follows the lines; sees that each actor is ready for his entrance; that the curtain rises and falls when it should; that his assistants are each in their respective places ; and that the entire performance " goes " as it is intended to go.

The Business Manager. This person attends to such matters as renting the theater or arranging some place for the performance printing and distributing tickets ; in short, everything connected with the receipt and expenditure of money. It is not of course imperative that he should have much to do with the director ; the only point to be borne in mind being that every one connected with the production of a play should be in touch with those in authority. The business manager ought to have at least a preliminary conference with the director, and report to him every week until a few days before the performance, when he should be within instant call in case of emergency. The property, light, furniture, and costume people must naturally keep in close touch with him, although no purchases should be made without the permission of the director, who in this case must be at one with the club or organization.

The Property Man. The duties attaching to this position are definitely and necessarily limited, but of great importance. Working under the stage manager, he supplies all the objects such as revolvers, swords, letters, etc. in a word, everything actually used by the actors, and not falling under the categories of " scenery ", " costumes ", and " furniture.

It will be found necessary in some cases to add to the staff one person whose business it is to attend to the matter of furnishings : rugs, hangings, pictures, furniture, and so forth; but in case there is no such person, the property man attends to these details himself.

It cannot be too strongly urged that from the very first as many "props", as much furniture or as many set pieces as possible (de-pending on whether the set is an indoor or outdoor one), should be used by the actors. In this way they will be better able to associate their thoughts, words, and gestures with the material objects with which they will be surrounded on the fatal night. If this is impracticable, that is, if most of these objects cannot be secured from the first, then at Ieast suitable substitutes should be used. The presence of such fundamentally important articles as the wall in Rostand's "The Romancers", and the dentist's chair in Shaw's "You Never Can Tell ", when used from the first rehearsals, always minimizes the danger of confusion of lines or business at the last moment.

The property man must keep a list of everything required ; this should be a duplicate of that in the possession of the stage manager.

The Lightman. Sometimes even nowadays called the "Gasman." He is not indispensable, because almost always the regular electrician attends to the switchboard. How-ever, some one should be with the electrician at the dress rehearsal and on the evening of the performance to give him the necessary light cues. Usually, however, the stage manager who holds the prompt-book where all the light cues are indicated can fulfill this function.

The Costume Man (or Wardrobe Mistress, as the case may be). Again the duties are simple. If the play is a classic - Shakespeare, for instance, the costumes, in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred, had better be rented from a regular costumer. The costume man, then, together with the business manager; attends to the details of renting, and sees that all costumes are ready for the dress rehearsal. If the costumes are made to order, the matter is supervised by the costume man. But, as with everything else connected with the best amateur efforts, there should be some expert adviser, not so much one versed in history and archeology as an artist with an eye for color and style. The director in any event must be consulted, so that lights, scenery, and costumes may harmonize. Details as to costumes are to be found in many books, and need not here be discussed. In spite of a good deal that has been written to the contrary, historical accuracy is not of vast importance : so long as there are no glaring anachronisms, Shakespeare may be presented with actors wearing pre- or post-Elizabethan costumes, provided they are beautiful, and harmonize.

Among the thousand and one minor details of producing, there are some which in large productions might be assigned to specially appointed individuals, but most of the duties to be briefly enumerated below may easily be given over to the stage manager, property man, or costume man, or even to the lightman.

Handling and Setting of Scenery and Furniture. This is usually taken care of by the property man and his assistants, under the direction of the stage manager. As in every other branch of the work, all details must be planned beforehand, and recorded.

Music. The music cues should be marked in the stage manager's prompt-book. Incidental music, whether it be on, behind, or off-stage in the orchestra pit, ought to be rehearsed at least two or three times. On the. occasion of the performance, the stage manager gives directions from his prompt-book for all music cues.

Crowds or Large Groups. The management and rehearsing of crowds or large groups is considered under "Rehearsing" (p. 58). Here it will suffice to state that it is well to have an assistant whose duty it is to see that the " supes [supernumeraries] are conducted on and off the stage at the right time.

Among the further details which must be looked after are the duties which are sometimes left to the stage manager : the ringing of bells, calling of actors at the regular performance, etc. A " call boy " may be delegated to do this.

Understudies. Trouble is always likely to arise, especially among amateurs, because there is no effective method of holding the actors to strict account. Often, one or more of the cast finds, or thinks he finds, good reason for leaving it, and a new actor must sometimes be found and trained to fill the vacancy on perilously short notice. Sickness or indisposition invariably give rise to the same problem. If possible, an entire second cast should be trained, so that any member of it could at a moment's notice be called upon to play in the first cast. While this second company should be letter-perfect and know the business " in every detail, it is not necessary that their acting be so finished and detailed as that of the others. Understudy rehearsals are under the direction of the stage manager, although the director should witness at least two or three.

Since the performance depends almost wholly on the knowledge, sympathy, and taste of the director, the greatest care should be taken in choosing him. Needless to say, the ideal director does not exist ; still, his attributes should be constantly borne in mind. If he lacks the artist's sense of color, rhythm, and proportion, then an art adviser must be called in to suggest color schemes as regards costumes, scenery, furniture, and lighting. Nowa-days, great attention is being paid to these matters, and the subtle effect of background and detail is much greater than is commonly supposed. The play is of first importance that must never be forgotten but these other matters are too often neglected.

Similarly with costumes, music, scenery, it is never amiss to consult authorities. But once more be it repeated, the whole production should bear the imprint of the director's personality, because only in this way can we hope for that essential unity of effect which is a basic principle of all art.

Cooperation with, but, in the last analysis, subserviency to, the director, is the keynote of success.

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