Amateur Plays - The Stage
( Originally Published 1923 )
A GREAT deal more attention is being directed — in this country, at least - to the improvement of the physical requirements of the stage than heretofore. During the past few years, numerous writers have made a systematic study of theaters abroad and at home, and revealed the fact that on the whole our theaters, both before and behind the curtain, are antiquated, ill-equipped, and fall far short of the infinite possibilities which have been made realized in certain cities of Germany and Russia.
Revolutionary experiments in lighting, as well as in the disposition of stage settings, have, during the past ten or twelve years, opened up fields formerly undreamed of.
It is not the purpose of this chapter to de-scribe at great length these innovations ; the reader is referred to the books of Moderwell and Cheney mentioned in the footnote above. A few elementary suggestions, however, which may be used by skilled and intelligent amateurs, will prove suggestive to the average director and stage manager.
It is likely that by far the greater number of amateur plays will be performed on a stage which is already built and equipped. In such cases, all the stage manager can do is to use his own scenery and at least have a voice in the matter of lighting. Still, many plays are performed on improvised stages, in private homes, clubs, or schoolrooms, or out-of-doors. This allows the stage manager a little more leeway, and often he may modify the size of the stage to suit himself, and introduce some innovations of his own.
To those who are in a position either to build or temporarily construct their own stages, this chapter is primarily addressed.
We shall now proceed to a consideration of a few of the more important innovations on the modern stage. The first of these is undoubtedly:
The Cyclorama, This is " a white or tinted backing for the stage, built in the form of a segment of a vertical cylinder. It may be constructed of canvas or of solid plaster... Now, if made of canvas, it is more usually kept, when not in use, on a vertical roller, at one side of the stage, near the front, and carried around behind the stage, unrolling from its cylinder the while, until it connects with a similar cylinder at the opposite side of the stage. It hangs from a circular iron rail, and almost completely encloses the stage, rising to the required distance. . It can be rolled up on its original cylinder when it is not needed, leaving the stage once more approachable from all sides. . . . The chief uses of the cyclorama are evident. It presents a continuous dead white or tinted background, which, when played upon by the proper lights, gives a striking illusion of depth and luminous atmosphere. . . But perhaps the chief value of the cyclorama, from the standpoint of the stage artist, has not yet been mentioned. For the new device changes altogether the problem of lighting. Ordinary sunlight is, as we know, not a direct light, but an infinitely reflected light, bandied about by the particles of air and by the ordinary physical objects on which it strikes. The mellowness and internal luminosity of ordinary sunlight is wholly due to this infinite reflection. It was the lack of this that made the old stage lighting, with its blazing direct artificial glare, so unreal. The cyclorama, and especially the dome cyclorama, permits the stage to be lighted largely or wholly by crisscrossing reflection. The mellow and subtle lighting which makes it possible was altogether unknown under the older methods." 1
The construction of a cyclorama, either of cloth or of plaster, is rather difficult, but there are certain simple substitutes which may be used to secure some of its elementary effects. The following system has been used by some amateurs with signal success.
First take a wooden rod, or better, iron pipes, curved to the desired shape.
Fasten this framework either to the ceiling of the " loft " or, if that is too high, to the wings. On the rod hang curtains of burlap, or some similar material, or else two or three thicknesses of cheesecloth, so that they fall in simple folds. The color will depend on the sort of play to be produced and the kind of lights used. As a rule, dark tan, green, or dark red are the best colors, and can be used on many occasions and for nearly every sort of play. Whether the " cyclorama " thus improvised be permanent or temporary, this is one of the best possible backgrounds. In out-of-door scenes, it gives a suggestion of distance.
In Constance D'Arcy Mackay's book on " Costumes and Scenery for Amateurs " the author describes how a " desert and oasis " scene can be made from the simplest means :
" A plain sand-colored floor cloth. A back-drop or cyclorama of sky-blue against which very low sand mounds appearing as if at great distance, with palm trees, also made small by distance. These mounds and palm trees should be painted low on the backdrop, since a vast stretch of level sand is what is to be suggested. It would even be possible to use a plain blue sky drop, and run some sand-colored cambric into mounds across the back of the stage, so as to break the sky line."
It is not necessary, though, to paint the cyclorama : darker cloth, made to represent mounds, thrown across the lower part of the cyclorama, would be equally effective. Further examples of what can be done with the cyclorama will be cited in the chapter on "Lighting.
Another of the recent innovations which is of "particular value to amateurs is the system by which the proscenium opening can be made large or small, according to the demands of the play. Usually the proscenium looks like the following diagram.
Suppose one scene of a play calls for a large courtroom filled with people. Obviously, all the stage space is required. But suppose that the next scene is a small antechamber. On the average stage the discrepancy is at once observed, and the effect is more than likely ridiculous. Even if the sets used are " box sets (that is, with three walls and not mere conventional screens or curtains), the effect of great size can easily be obtained in the first scene, and smallness in the second, by means of the device about to be described. This applies, of course, to plays where the same set must be used for both scenes. If, however, a different set is used for the antechamber scene, the new device is imperative.
First, construct two tall screens (on a wooden framework), made either of painted canvas or draped cloth, of some dark and subdued tone, and place them on each side of the stage, just behind the proscenium arch, as in the diagram :
These screens can be easily set closer to the center of the stage, thereby diminishing its size on the sides. Then the grand drapery " above, which hangs down from behind the top of the proscenium arch, and which should be of the same color and material as the side screens, is lowered. This process makes, from the inside, a smaller proscenium arch. Many of the German and some other stages have added a fourth side to this frame, by " boxing" the footlights :
This last, besides giving the effect of a detached picture to the set, prevents the direct rays of the footlights, when they are used, from shining up into the gallery.
To return to the smaller scene made by the inner proscenium arch, it will readily be seen that the cyclorama — if there is one or back wall of the set, or else the curtain, must usually be brought forward a little. The advantage of the inner proscenium becomes apparent when such a play as The Merchant of Venice" is performed, and the absurdity of using a stage of the same size for the Portia-Nerissa scene in the first act and the casket scene, is forcibly brought to our attention.
The Revolving Stage and The Wagon Stage. These are fully described in the books which have been referred to. They are both extremely valuable, but as yet too complicated and expensive to be seriously considered for amateurs.
The introduction of simpler scenery and simpler lighting does away with much that was difficult to manage under the old system, and a few well-trained amateurs should be able to set and attend to almost any production without having recourse to the revolving stage and the " wagons."
As much space as possible should be kept clear behind the curtain ; occasions are likely to arise when the entire stage may be used, and manipulation of scenery on a full stage is a difficult task.
A few suggestions as to lighting and its relation to scenery and color and action will be set forth in the next chapter.