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Amateur Plays - Rehearsing

( Originally Published 1923 )

THE first rehearsal should be "called" as soon as possible after the cast has been selected and a place chosen in which to work. If the play is to be performed in a regular theater, it is wise to block out the general action and have at least the first two or three rehearsals on the stage. It would be still better if all the rehearsals could be conducted there, but as this is seldom possible, the stage manager should take its dimensions and secure some room as near the size of the stage as he can find. A room too large or too small, or not the requisite shape, is more than likely to confuse the actors. As many of the essential props " and articles of furniture as possible should be used from the very first, in order to accustom the actors to work under approximately the same conditions as on the occasion of the performance.

If the play can be secured in printed form, each actor will have his copy, and a general reading to the cast by the director or stage manager he rendered unnecessary. However, a few remarks by him as to the nature and spirit of the play will not be amiss. It is not uncommon to hear of professionals who have never read or seen the entire play even after acting in it for many months. Unless each actor knows and feels what the play is about and enters into its spirit, there can be little chance for unity and harmony.

" Cutting ", or other alteration, is often necessary. The director should read his alterations and allow each actor to make his text conform with the prompt-copy.

When the play is not obtainable in book form, each rτle is then copied from the manuscript, together with the " cues " and all the stage business. In this case, a general reading to the cast is imperative.

The preliminaries disposed of, the play is read, each actor taking his part. This is merely to familiarize the actors with the play and show them briefly their relation to each other and the work as a whole. At this first rehearsal, there should be no attempt at acting ; that is reserved for the next meeting.

At the second rehearsal. — which should take place the day after the first — the director blocks out the action. If the play be a full-length one (approximately two hours) then one act of this general blocking out will be found to occupy all the time. If the play is in a single act, and provided it be not too long, then the entire play may be blocked out.

What is " blocking out " ? Let us take an easy example and block out the first few minutes' of Wilde's " The Importance of Being Earnest." 2 Here follows the text of the first two and a half pages:

Scene — Morning-room in Algernon's flat in Half Moon Street. The room is luxuriously and artistically furnished. The sound of a piano is heard in the adjoining room.

[LANE is arranging afternoon tea on the table, and after the music has ceased, ALGERNON enters.]

LANE. I didn't think it polite to listen, sir.

ALGERNON. I'm sorry for that, for your sake. I don't play accurately — any one can play accurately — but I play with wonderful ex-pression. As far as the piano is concerned, sentiment is my forte. I keep science for Life.

LANE. Yes, sir.

ALGERNON. And, speaking of the science of Life, have you got the cucumber sandwiches cut for Lady Bracknell?

LANE. Yes; sir. [He hands them on a salver.]

ALGERNOI. [Inspects them, takes two, and sits down on the sofa.] Oh ! . . . by the way, Lane, I see from your book that on Thursday night, when Lord Shoreman and Mr. Worthing were dining with me, eight bottles of champagne are entered as having been consumed.

LANE. Yes, sir, eight bottles and a pint.

ALGERNON. Why is it .that at a bachelor's establishment the servants invariably drink the champagne? I ask merely for information.

LANE. I attribute it to the superior quality of the wine, sir. I have often observed that in married households the champagne is rarely of a first-rate brand.

ALGERNON. Good Heavens ! Is marriage so demoralizing as that ?

LANE. I believe it is a very pleasant state, sir. I have had very little experience of it myself up to the present. I have only been married once. That was in consequence of a misunderstanding between myself and a young person.

ALGERNON. [Languidly.] I don't know that I am much interested in your family life, Lane..

LANE. No, sir ; it is not a very interesting subject. I never think of it myself.

ALGERNON. Very natural, I am sure. That will do, Lane, thank you.

LANE. Thank you, sir. [LANE goes out.]

ALGERNON. Lane's views on marriage seem somewhat lax. Really, if the lower orders don't set us a good example, what on earth is the use of them? They seem, as a class, to have absolutely no sense of moral responsibility. [Enter LANE.]

LANE. Mr. Ernest Worthing. [Enter JACK. LANE goes out.]

ALGERNON. How are you, my clear Ernest? What brings you up to town ?

JACK. Oh, pleasure, pleasure ! What else should bring me anywhere? Eating as usual, I see, Algy ?

ALGERNON. [Stiffly.] I believe it is customary in good society to take some slight refreshment at five o'clock. Where have you been since last Thursday?

JACK. [Sitting down on the sofa.] In the country.

ALGERNON. What on earth do you do there?

JACK. [Pulling off his gloves.] When one is in town one amuses oneself. When one is in the country one amuses other people. It is excessively boring.

ALGERNON. And who are the people you amuse?

JACK. [Airily.] Oh, neighbors, neighbors. ALGERNON. Got nice neighbors in your part of Shropshire ?

JACK. Perfectly horrid ! Never speak to one of them.

ALGERNON. How immensely you must amuse them! (Goes over and takes sandwich.) By the way, Shropshire is your county, is it not?

JACK. Eh? Shropshire? Yes, of course. Hallo ! Why all these cups? Why such extravagance in one so young? Who is coming to tea?

The first point to be noticed is that the stage directions are not sufficient. To begin with, the only information we have as to the morning-room is that it is in Algernon Moncrieff's flat in Half Moon, Street, and that it is " luxuriously and artistically furnished." The next directions — " LANE is arranging tea on a table" — prove that there is a tea-table with tea things on it. We are therefore dependent on the ensuing dialogue and the implied or briefly described action to furnish clues as to the en-' trances, furniture, and " props " which will be required in the course of the act. It is, of course, the director's and the stage manager's business to go through the play beforehand, and have all these points well in mind. Let us now see how this is done, and proceed to block out the first part of the play.

The room evidently at least has two doors : one leading into the hallway up-stage Center - the other halfway down-stage Right,' let us say for the present, as in the diagram:

Before Algernon's entrance, Lane, the butler, is preparing tea. Where is the table? Some subsequent business may necessitate its being in a position different from the one first chosen, but let us assume that it is up-stage to the right:

There it is not likely to be in the way of the actors; furthermore, it is not on the same side of the stage as the sofa — which is the next article of furniture to be placed. If the table and the sofa and the door were all on the same side of the stage, it would be much too crowded, especially as the larger part of the subsequent action revolves about them.

Lane, then, is busied with the tea things for a moment, as and after the curtain rises. Then the music of a piano is heard oft-stage to the right. It stops, and a moment later Algernon enters. As he evidently has nothing in particular to do at that moment, he may stand at the center of the stage, facing Lane, who stops his work and respectfully answers his master's questions. When Algernon says : " And, speaking of the science of Life, have you got the cucumber sandwiches cut for Lady Bracknell? ", what more natural than that he should look in the direction of the table, and perhaps even make a step toward it? Lane then goes to the table, takes up the salver with the sandwiches on it, and hands it to Algernon. Here there are no other directions than " Hands them on salver." The other " business " is inferred from the dialogue. Algernon then " Inspects them, takes two, and sits down on the sofa."

This is the first reference to the sofa. The original prompt-copy must, of course, have made clear exactly where each article of furniture stood, but, for the reasons above enumerated, let us place the sofa as in the diagram:

Notice now that nothing is said of the salver. But from the direction near the top of page 3 — (Luce and Baker editions) " Goes over and takes sandwich " — we may assume that Lane takes the salver back to the table. Undoubtedly, he does this as Algernon sits on the sofa. This stage direction should be indicated in the prompt-copy, as well as in that of the actor playing Lane, as follows :

As soon as Lane has done this, or even be-fore, Algernon.. resumes his conversation, while Lane turns and listens to him. Lane stands somewhere between the- table and the sofa, at It respectful distance from Algernon. The next " business occurs when Algernon says, "That will do, Lane, thank you ", and Lane replies " Thank you, sir ", and goes out. This brings up another question which is not answered, as yet at least, in the text. Does Lane go out Right? Possibly ; or is there another entrance Left, leading to the butler's room? So far as we are able to determine, there is no good reason why the room to the right, where Algernon was playing, should not lead to the butler's room, or to wherever he is supposed to go. And in this case, there is no reason why Lane cannot, during Algernon's soliloquy, have heard the doorbell ring, answered it, and been ready to reenter, announcing, as he does : " Mr. Ernest Worthing." Jack then enters, Right. Although again there is no stage direction, it is likely that Algernon rises to greet his friend and shake hands with him.

Once more, the stage directions, or rather the want of them, are apt to confuse. On the top of page 3, we read that Jack pulls " of his gloves." He wears a hat, of course, and probably a coat. He carries his hat in his hand, but presumably still wears his coat, and certainly his gloves. Lane, before he leaves, would undoubtedly take Jack's hat, help him off with his coat, and take them out with him. Then, before the two men shake hands — if they do — Jack pulls off his gloves. Jack's line, Eating as usual, I see, Algy," is sufficient indication to prove that in one hand Algernon holds a sandwich. Algernon then sits down. The dramatist would surely have mentioned Jack's sitting down if that had been his intention ; therefore Jack may stand. Now comes the direction about Jack's " Pulling off his gloves." What does he do with them? For the present, at least, let us allow him to go to the tea table, and lay them on it. A moment later, Algernon "Goes over and takes sandwich." He stands by the table, eating, and this attracts Jack's attention to the somewhat elaborate preparations for tea. Algernon then says : " By the way, Shropshire is your county, is it not? " But Jack, too engrossed in the preparations; scarcely hears the other, and answers: " Eh? Shropshire? Yes, of course," and so on. Then he evidently goes to the tea table.

This is the general method of attack to be pursued. It may be that later in the same scene it will be necessary to go back and undo some of the " business ", because the only available text of this play - and this is almost always true of printed plays - is not in prompt-copy form. The making, therefore, of a prompt-copy is a slow process. First, the director goes through the play and plans in a general way what the action is to be, but only by rehearsing his cast on a particular stage and under specific conditions, is he able to know every detail of the action. By the time the actors are letter-perfect, the prompt-copy ought likewise to be fairly perfect. It is always dangerous to change business after the actors have memorized their parts.

During this preliminary blocking-out process, little or no attention need be paid to details : the mere outlining of the action, together with the reading of the lines by the actors, is sufficient.

Sometimes printed plays suffer from too many stage directions, and occasionally even the careful Bernard Shaw, as the following extract will prove, is far from clear. Here are the opening pages of " You Never Can In a dentist's operating room on a fine August morning in 1896. Not the usual tiny London den, but the best sitting-room of a furnished lodging in a terrace on the sea front at a fashion-able watering place. The operating chair, with a gas pump and cylinder beside it, is half way between the center of the room and one of the corners. If you look into the room through the window which lights it, you will see the fire place in the middle of the wall opposite you, with the door beside it to your left; an M.R.C.S. diploma in a frame hung on the chimneypiece; an easy chair covered in black leather on the hearth; a neat stool and bench, with vice, tools, and a mortar and pestle in the. corner to the right. Near this bench stands a slender machine like a whip provided with a stand, a pedal, and an exaggerated winch. Recognizing this as a dental drill, you shudder and look away to your left, where you can see another window, underneath which stands a writing table, with a blotter and a diary on it, and a chair. Next the writing table, towards the door, is a leather covered sofa. The opposite wall, close on your right, is occupied mostly by a bookcase. The operating chair is under your nose, facing you, with the cabinet of instruments handy to it on your left.

You observe that the professional furniture and apparatus are new, and that the wall paper, designed, with the taste of an undertaker, in festoons and urns, the carpet with its symmetrical plans of rich, cabbagy nosegays, the glass gasalier with lustres, the ornamental, gilt-rimmed blue candlesticks on the ends of the mantelshelf, also glass-draped with lustres, and the ormolu clock under a glass cover in the middle between them, its uselessness emphasized by a cheap American clock disrespectfully placed beside it and now indicating 12 o'clock noon, all combine with the black marble' which gives the fireplace the air of a miniature family vault, to suggest early Victorian commercial respectability, belief in money, Bible fetichism, fear of hell always at war with fear of poverty, instinctive horror of the passionate character of art, love and the Roman Catholic religion, and all the first fruits of plutocracy in the early generations of the industrial revolution.

There is no shadow of this on the two persons who are occupying the room just now. One of them, a very pretty woman in miniature, her tiny figure dressed with the daintiest gaiety, is of a later generation, being hardly eighteen yet. This darling little creature clearly does not be long to the room, or even to the country; for her complexion, though very delicate, has been burnt biscuit color by some warmer sun than England's; and yet there is, for a very subtle observer, a link between them. For she has a glass of water in her hand, and a rapidly clearing cloud of spartan obstinacy on her tiny firm mouth and quaintly squared eyebrows. If the least line of conscience could be traced between those eyebrows, an Evangelical might cherish some faint hope of finding her a sheep in wolf's clothing — for her frock is recklessly pretty — but as the cloud vanishes it leaves her frontal sinus as smoothly free from conviction of sin as a kitten's.

The dentist, contemplating her with the self-satisfaction of a successful operator, is a young man of thirty or thereabouts. He does not give the impression of being much of a workman : his professional manner evidently strikes him as being a joke; and it is underlain by a thought-less pleasantry which betrays the young gentleman still unsettled and in search of amusing adventures, behind the newly set-up dentist in search of patients. He is not without gravity of demeanor; but the strained nostrils stamp it as the gravity of the humorist. His eyes are clear, alert, of sceptically moderate size, and yet a little rash; his forehead is an excellent one, with plenty of room behind it; his nose and chin cavalierly handsome. On the whole, an attractive, noticeable beginner, of whose prospects a man of business might form a tolerably favorable estimate.

THE YOUNG LADY (handing him the glass). Thank you. (In spite of the biscuit complexion she has not the slightest foreign accent.)

THE DENTIST (putting it down on the ledge of his cabinet of instruments). That was my first tooth.

THE YOUNG LADY (aghast). Your first! Do you mean to say that you began practising on me?

THE DENTIST. Every dentist has to begin on somebody.

THE YOUNG LADY. Yes: somebody in a hospital, not people who pay.

THE DENTIST (laughing). Oh, the hospital doesn't count. I only meant my first tooth in private practice. Why didn't you let me give you gas?

THE YOUNG LADY. Because you said it would be five shillings extra.

THE DENTIST (shocked). Oh, don't say that.

It makes me feel as if I had hurt you for the sake of five shillings.

THE YOUNG LADY (with cool insolence). Well, so you have ! (She gets up.) Why shouldn't you? it's your business to hurt people. (It amuses him to be treated in this fashion; he chuckles secretly as he proceeds to clean and replace his instruments. She shakes her dress into order, looks inquisitively about her; and goes to the window.) You have a good view of the sea from these rooms ! Are they expensive?


THE YOUNG LADY. You don't own the whole house, do you?


THE YOUNG LADY (taking the chair which stands at the writing table and looking critically at it as she spins it round on one leg). Your furniture isn't quite the latest thing, is it ?

THE DENTIST. It's my landlord's.

THE YOUNG LADY. Does he own that nice comfortable Bath chair? (pointing to the operating chair).

THE DENTIST. No : I have that on the hire-purchase system.

THE YOUNG LADY (disparagingly). I thought so. (Looking about her again in search of further conclusion.) I suppose you haven't been here long?

THE DENTIST. Six weeks. Is there anything else you would like to know ?

THE YOUNG LADY (the hint quite lost on her).

Any family?

Shaw's stage directions here are more than sufficient : they are intended not only for the director, stage manager, property man, scene painter, and actor, but for the reader as well. His directions are always stimulating and suggestive, and should be studied by the actors; but, from the point of view of the director and stage manager, they are bewilderingly diffuse and sometimes confusing. The fact, for in-stance, that the action takes place precisely in 1896, can be of little interest to the manager. Nor can a clock indicate twelve o'clock " noon." In such stage directions as these the director will therefore have to separate the purely mechanical elements from the literary and atmospheric. Let us now apply ourselves to the rather difficult task of making a diagram of the stage and its settings.

It is a " fine August morning." The sun is shining out-of-doors and, as the room looks out over the sea, the stage must be lighted through one of the windows. The dramatist goes on to say that the room is " Not the usual tiny London den, but the best sitting room of a furnished lodging." By inference, it is a large room. The operating chair is "half way between the center of the room and one of the corners." Which corner is not designated. Let us try to plot out the stage on the assumption that we are looking at it through a window halfway down-stage on the left (the actor's left, of course). The window which lights the room is placed thus:

Looking through this window, " you will see the fireplace in the middle of the wall opposite you, with the door beside it to your left" :

The next article of furniture mentioned is the easy chair " on the hearth" :

Then come " a neat stool and bench " and, near them, a dental drill:

Near it" is not definite, but for the time being, let us allow it to stand up-stage near the stool and bench, but a little toward Center. Next, you " look away to your left, where you can see another window." The direction here is not practicable, but the window may well go above the fireplace, instead of below, thus:

Underneath this window stands a writing table and a chair:

"Next the writing table, towards the door, is a leather covered sofa." To add another article of furniture to this already crowded side of the stage would not only make the room appear unnatural to the audience, but would render it impossible for the actors to move about with ease. The director will therefore have to use his ingenuity and judgment as to where to put the sofa. Some subsequent " business " may necessitate a change of the disposition of more than one chair or sofa or stool, but the process here outlined is the first step. To proceed : the sofa, then, must be placed somewhere else. But where? By moving the drill to the left, in the corner, the sofa can be placed next to the table, as follows :

" The opposite wall, close on your right, is occupied mostly by a bookcase. The operating chair is under your nose, facing you, with the cabinet of instruments handy to it on your left."

It is at once observed how necessary it was to move the drill from the other side of the room to this : over by the table, it would be out of convenient reach of the dentist.

The difficulty of arranging the stage in this case will at once prove the imperative need of going through the play with the utmost attention to stage directions and lines, in order to make an accurate series of stage diagrams, property, light, and furniture plots.

Notice that in the preliminary stage directions the center entrance is not designated. It soon becomes evident, however, that a center door (or one, at least, at the back of the stage) is taken for granted.

This elementary diagram will serve as a working basis. A very little rehearsing will soon make it necessary to arrange the furniture, and so on, in a manner more pleasing to the eye and more convenient to the actor.

There is one more kind of text with which amateurs have to do it is the reprint of actual prompt-copies, and is usually accurate in material details. The following extract is from the opening pages of the fourth act of Henry Arthur Jones's The Liars (in the special edition published by Samuel French):

Scene : Drawing-room in Sir Christopher's fat in Victoria Street. L. at back is a large recess, taking up half the stage. The right half is taken up by an inner room furnished as library and smoking-room. Curtains dividing library from drawing-room. Door up-stage, L. A table down-stage, R. The room is in great confusion, with portmanteau open, clothes, etc., scattered over the floor; articles which an officer going to Central Africa might want are lying about.

This is merely a skeleton, as it were, of a diagram, but first, the preliminary stage directions — quoted above — and the detailed and full marginal and other stage directions in the text, make clear every, crossing, entrance, and exit, and designate at least the important articles of furniture and " props." For ex-ample, it is learned from the text on the first and second pages of the act, that there is a uniform case " up-Center " — up-stage, that is, in the center of it; a folding stool by the table ; a trunk to the left of Center ; and a sofa on the extreme left. Unlike the quotations from the Wilde and Shaw plays, those of Jones supply all necessary information to the stage manager and the actors. Of course, as always, modifications must be made to meet the exigencies of certain stages and certain actors, but these are minor matters.

The fundamental principles of this preliminary blocking-out having been laid down, we shall now proceed to a consideration of the infinitely varied problems of grouping and detailed stage business.

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