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Organizing An Amateur Group

( Originally Published 1921 )



ORGANIZED effort does not mean necessarily affiliation with a large movement. Your dramatics may be purely local. Perhaps in most communities this is best. Then the performances will be sources of local pride. The enthusiasm will be spontaneous and concentrated. The lessons learned from defects and merits may be applied to local conditions at once. And above all, such an arrangement should arouse a valuable sense of loyalty. Frequently, movements spread widely over the entire country waste upon " causes " or " ideals " energy which should go into actual dramatic productions. The wrangling about policies, and more powerful still as a bone of contention, the collection of assessments and the disbursement of funds, consume time and attention which is necessarily taken from the stated and supposedly intended purpose of the organization to be busied with play production.

Such large projects as community masques and pageants, municipal operas and plays, patriotic spectacles and celebrations, which because of their magnitude and temporary enthusiasm present phases of organization not likely to con-front the average amateur society, will be disregarded here.

A few other declarations of fact will further prepare for the practical details which this section will attempt to offer as help in arranging for dramatics in your own locality.

It is not expected that amateur performances will replace the regular professional theater. They will merely supplement it. They will result in increased attendance at professional plays.

Amateur acting societies will never be able to include all the inhabitants of any one locality in a performance. If such an undesirable thing occurred who would remain to constitute the audience? To accomplish such a result, even were it possible, would be the reductio ad absurdum of acting. Think, too, of the level of acting in such a dispersion of the mimetic art. Certain groups of people will always want to act. Other larger groups will always want to look on. These two—the active and the passive—merely need to be drawn closely together.

Producing plays always entails a great deal of continuous hard work. This fact is fundamental, though many persons seem to disregard it whenever acting is discussed. Some persons exclaim enthusiastically, " Let's give a play," and then fold their hands complacently, as though they expected the play to produce itself.

Performances cannot be given without expense.

Let us now consider some of the details involved in dramatic ventures.

What shall your organization be called? The name you choose should suggest the nature of your attempt. There-fore you must consider very carefully exactly what you are going to attempt. Have you any special purpose? Can you expect to interest large and fluctuating bodies of individuals in a narrow or propaganda purpose? The name should be modest rather than pretentious, impressive rather than high-sounding. What would people expect of a Society for the Improvement of Dramatic Art in America? Its name would pledge it to a program almost impossible of inauguration. What will improve " dramatic art in America"? Could all its members agree upon methods of " improvement "? It would be valuable to examine the pro-grams of an organization laboring under such a name, read printed reviews of its productions, and learn how long it continued to exist. In all things dramatic, failures are as helpful to workers as are successes. The name should con-note stage-craft without, however, binding to rigidity an organization needing fluxion and adaptability. It should not antagonize audiences. It should not state purposes which it cannot carry out. If you cannot find some expression to answer to all these requirements you can get along just as well by using your local name and christening the group the Pittsburgh Players, the South Bend Dramatic Club, the Alameda Acting Association.

Do not merely adopt the name of some other club. Certain groups have tried to win patronage by calling them-selves Neighborhood Players after one excellent association in New York even though their members are not connected with any Neighborhood House, serve no limited section, and draw from no localized vicinity. Little Theaters might just as well be definitely identified also. Toy Theater Companies suffer slightly from the suggestion of trifling con-noted by the name. It would be incongruous to see Electra or Ghosts or Justice or Dregs in a toy theater. Exclusive groups should not be labeled Community Theater com parries. That word should be reserved for true community endeavors. Would any one expect a Comedy Club to present tragedies or even such a somber play as The Girl in the Coffin? The attractive equipment of the quaintly named Portmanteau Theater lost much of its significance and the value of its name when the paraphernalia was set upon the stage of a large professional theater. Such placement con-fined to a small space action which could have been with more effect spread over the full stage. It inserted its own restricted hangings where wider sweeps were desirable and available. It was at least unnecessary, even if not entirely inappropriate. " MacDougall's Barn" was a good name so long as plays were performed in a barn or some other crude interior, but the name seemed banal or worthless when the bill was transferred for an evening to the Cohan and Harris Theater in New York.

The well-deserved success of the New York Theater Guild has already induced two other cities to use that fitting appellation. Laboratory theaters may well be limited to the actual classrooms of college courses. Workshop theaters and theater workshops seem to place more emphasis upon experiment than performance, causing a reflex apathy in audiences. Would a group called The New Players dare to produce an old Greek drama, even Lysistrata, the theme of which is as modern as the play is old?

Many groups are already happily denominated. This list may suggest some similar expression as suitable for yours. The Mask and Wig Club, Sock and Buskin, Paint and Powder, Triangle Club, Hasty Pudding, Talma Club, Plays and Players, Philistine Players, East-West Players, Little Country Theater, Vagabond Theater, Campus Theater, Harlequin Players, Studio Players, Caravan Theater, Arts and Crafts, Art Theater, Prairie Players, Junior Players, Temple Players, Independent Theater, Pioneer Players, Thimble Theater, Everyman Theater.

Your choice of name should depend also upon the purpose of your society.

Do not start out with the avowed intention of reforming the American drama. Attempt something you will be likely in some degree to accomplish. If you intend merely to present plays without limiting your efforts to any one kind, and sincerely try to present them well, this is not an insignificant ambition. Better purposes are to provide performances of distinctive dramas not likely to appear upon the professional stage, to develop the acting ability of members, and to respond to a growing demand for the best dramatic literature of all times and languages. Any organization pledged to this last deserves every measure of success, for it will be satisfying a natural, worthy need. Best of all, its audience is now ready and waiting for it.

In actual organization the society may be a small acting group. In such cases the advantages are that the few members secure continuous training in rehearsal and performance. They have many chances to experiment with individualistic interpretations. As the season progresses it is fair to believe that they will advance markedly in stage behavior and characterization. Working together, they will soon develop a sense of artistic cooperation, and if they can stifle in themselves the temperamental desire for personal glorification, they should be able to offer harmonious productions. If the natural disposition to " stardom " can be neutralized, so that the performer of the lead in one production will be content to sink to a minor rôle in the next, there should result a harmony of acting as well as harmony of temperaments. In such a restricted group of actors there is always the tendency to crystallize into type rôles, making it almost impossible for the director to change conditions. Amateurs know the composition of professional companies, and will try to reproduce that arrangement for themselves.

On the other hand there is another danger, for the audience may become tired of seeing so frequently the same performers in the different casts, no matter how well they act. Professional stock companies produce this same impression of monotony. Many a spectator of every season's bills has sighed inwardly as he glanced at his program, " Oh, they use her in everything! " In one such group a certain woman was allowed to monopolize all the leads. No longer young, she was manifestly unsuited to most of the rôles. Her best experience had been gained in old-fashioned poetic drama, so that in modern situations she was decidedly out of the pictures. Having been accustomed to don costumes of the past, she paid little attention to the essentially feminine art of making a good appearance, and there-fore was never able in modern plays to " dress the part." But she was the best memorizer of the group, the most willing, the hardest worker, so she became the most prominent, even though her presence spoiled many a performance. A compromise which will produce the best results from a small group is to have it Iarge enough to allow telling variety in combinations, and then insisting upon the variety.

A large group in which any person may be called upon to participate frequently also has peculiar dangers. If some members are not used often enough to please them-selves or their friends, they see no reason for belonging; they lose interest and withdraw. To offset this feeling of non-participation a director must try to include as many members as possible. It is a matter of pride with nearly every such large organization to accomplish this. At the end of a season a company tries to prove its communism of effort by recapitulating the use made of its personnel. Such modest declarations of self-congratulation as the following paraphrased from an annual statement are frequent: "A total of eighty-eight people have assisted with the music, properties, costumes, direction, dancing, programs, advertising, business management, and sale of tickets. Of this number forty-six have not acted in the plays. One hundred eighteen different persons acted. Of this number one appeared five times, two others four times, and twenty-six have appeared twice. Thus a total of one hundred sixty-four contributed to the efforts of this organization in a single year."

If, because of ability or friendship or social prestige, a certain few are cast several times, jealousies and envy and all uncharitableness break out virulently.

A good flexible working arrangement is to have active and associate memberships with the prospect of adding to both, or making transfers, as the need arises. Every society should determine for itself exactly what differences of standing, privilege, voting, dues, tickets, tenure of office, shall distinguish active from passive membership.

When membership is assured the usual officers of any organization should be elected. To these must be added a staff of workers and directors, each a specialist or a student of a peculiar activity. Most important of all will be the producer, the person directly and personally responsible for the working out of the details of any project from the time a play is selected until the curtain descends upon its performance. In some organizations this official is the member best fitted for this work. In this case he may be elected, or appointed to do the work for an entire season. Some-times he is a professional hired in a business-like manner upon a formal contract, and retained only so long as his services suit his employers. A great many little theater organizations in this country follow this plan. A much more enjoyable plan, though it must be admitted that it produces palpitation of the heart over some appearances, is to have a different producer for each play. In a bill of four one-act plays, four different producers would be represented upon the program. Such a method results in more active participation of more members than others detailed here. It raises the level of the methods by comparison, imitation, and emulation. It develops originality of method. Per-sons who have produced are frequently by that experience rendered better performers. Many a performer develops into a better producer. It overcomes the lethargy of non-participants, as there is always the keenness of judging a new or different producer's results. Whether these producers be elected by the entire membership or appointed by the governing board, they should be required to carry out their assignments, or pay a fine for release unless a legitimate reason is offered. Such a plan will result in exhibitions by some dozen producers during a season. The educative value of such variety to the audiences as well as to the individuals themselves is incalculable.

Writers who would pattern every amateur activity upon the model of professional companies always stipulate that a producer or director must have a stage-manager to hold the book during rehearsals, to mark business, to prompt, to make property lists, to see that the stage is set, to give mu-sic cues, to ring the curtain up and down, etc. My own observation is that most amateur producers do practically all of these things themselves, or distribute them. The necessity for such a versatile stage-manager exists in professional companies because the producer retires after the performance has been repeated a few times, when the stage-manager replaces him for the odd jobs which must still be overseen.

The stage-manager in amateur arrangements usually fills the slightly higher function of assistant director.

Around the director there should be grouped a productions committee, every member of which should be a specialist in a certain phase of theater art. One should. be the scenery designer or adapter. Closely associated with him should be the furniture and decorating expert. Working in closest accord with these should be the costume designer or maker. Another member should collect properties. In all discussions the lighting director should participate with helpful advice or practical objections. Not so deeply implicated yet important at times is the music director. There may even be an amateur make-up artist who wishes to know the play intimately in order to expedite preliminaries at dress-rehearsal and performance. These active leaders should form the working body of control over every production, themselves as individuals and as a group subject to the officers or executive board of the organization.

Then every one of these leaders should have under him or her a working committee to execute commissions and pro-duce results. The scene designer may design, but have one of his assistants finish the colored drawing to scale. The draping expert may determine color; her assistants may scour the homes of members to find the suitable lamp-shades. The furniture enthusiast may describe an ornament, but one of her assistants may be the only one who knows how to create it from glue, paper-pulp, and paints. The music director should be given exact requirements, then proceed to fill them. He cannot be allowed to provide any-thing he pleases as incidental or entr'acte music. While music may be an aid to some plays, it may be entirely out of keeping with others. In this latter case this member of the committee should be courteously instructed that he and his assistants will not be used in this production. I do not believe that the place of the best musician your society has can be adequately filled by a graphophone off-stage. Some musicians are almost adamant against pleas to furnish off-stage music, as for a street song in Sabotage or a dance in The Holiday, yet their sense of loyalty and co-operation in a worthy enterprise should be aroused for even such humble tasks.

A play-reading committee is frequently a time and labor saving arrangement for executive boards. There will every season be specifications of certain kinds to be fulfilled. One season may have shown the need of a lighter touch in the plays. The members of the play-reading committee then search for that kind of material. A bill in prospect is too light; it needs a stabilizing item. A search is made for that. Readers should meet frequently and discuss freely. Their written recommendations giving full explanations should be sent to the executive board or to the producer frequently, so that these persons may have leisure in which to examine possible material.

The business or finance committee is almost entirely separate in function from the preceding. Its chairman may have to confer with other chairmen at times, but once the policy is adopted, the play chosen, the producer instructed, the budget estimated, the work of the business committee is entirely distinct from the activity of the productions committee. In theatrical parlance the latter is concerned only with the " back of the house," that portion behind the proscenium; the former committee controls the "front of the house."

The composition and duties of all other committees will take form from the three chief bodies just outlined here—the officers or executive board of the entire organization, the productions committee, the business or finance commit-tee. For instance, a membership committee springs from the executive board. A stage model committee would be an outgrowth of the productions group. A printing or advertising committee would spring from the business organization. Others might be concerned with suppers, guests, lectures, publicity, photographs, library, building fund, nominations, cooperation with other groups, or circuiting performances.

Quite as important as membership is money. No play, I venture to say, however simple, can be produced without at least buying the copies. This is the fundamental first expense. To it many others are added. Play production costs money. Your club may start on nothing a year, and, if you can secure credit, may pay the bills you incur with the proceeds of the first performance, if you are successful in attracting a paying audience. Some organizations charge dues of varying amounts up to say ten dollars annually. In cooperative plans the members advance enough to cover the first performance, and are repaid at the end of the season. A feeling of security and independence alike is afforded by the pledges of guarantors, who should be called upon to redeem their pledges only when all other resources are exhausted. There is one danger in this scheme. An over-enthusiastic director feeling that the guarantors are bound to cover any deficit may plunge heavily and so instead of creating loyalty, may arouse antagonism.

It is more artistic to insure, permanency and solvency by being careful about money than to be a fly-by-night producer cleaning up on one splurge. In estimating your total income try to be moderate. Do not count every available seat as sold until it has been paid for. Provide for the deduction of every legitimate expense. If your income is from dues, collect early in the season. Remember that not every person listed as a member will pay dues. Estimate the usual loss by resignation and removal. With a knowledge of your entire resources plan the number of performances and allot the available funds. With two hundred members at five dollars each you may reasonably count upon nine hundred dollars to spend. If one program is to be made up of modern plays for which costumes can be secured for nothing, or if a play entails no royalty, you will be able to shift money to other undertakings.

On paid admissions always discount anticipated receipts.

One of the most fascinating features of such dramatic work as this chapter is discussing is the realization of remarkable effects upon limited means. Perhaps the best aspect of the non-commercial theater is this willingness and skill in securing remarkable results with economical and inadequate resources.

The one item which will have the most direct bearing upon your expense sheet will be the equipment of the stage you use. Whenever you rent be sure to know exactly what the terms include. Ask especially about extra time. Learn whether the dress rehearsal will require a union stage crew. Be clearly informed upon the relation between union stage hands and union musicians. Look carefully over the house scenery, furniture, and properties to determine how much you can use. Know exactly how much of the material available you will want to use. The general rule is that the rental of a hall with stage, or of a theater, includes all the standing scenery and any that may be hanging. In many instances it turns out that other amateur organizations have left their material in the custody of the theater, and it may happen that unless you take special care in finding out such things, you may be prevented from using what you contemplated. At the last crowded minute you may have to secure the consent of several people to utilize the black curtains or the old gold screens you had counted on for your best effects. Yet with all allowances made, the amount of valuable assistance which amateur directors are able to en-list is amazing. Nearly every one is generous when amateur productions are impending. Owners of professional theaters and members of stage crews are more frequently extremely accommodating than the reverse. But it is wise not to depend too much on last minute round-ups. In all affairs dramatic, preparation is always better than regret.

In planning for your finances prepare a budget, even though you know at the time that the final bills will go higher. They always do. In financial phases of organization and control nothing makes advice so impressive as do figures. A few excerpts from expense accounts of societies in various sections of the country, with an analysis of some of the items, will make concrete the general recommendations already given. These tabulations will also indicate how different bodies of actors emphasize different aspects of productions.

The subjoined list attempts to include all the possibilities which may be present under varying circumstances. If you are able to eliminate many of these you are peculiarly fortunate.

POSTAGE. This varies greatly with the nature of the organization and the performances.

PRINTING. In your stationery make modest claims. Let it make a good impression. Don't promise too much. Advertising may come under this heading.

RENTAL. This is usually, the largest item. Reductions can be secured by contracting for a number of performances. Possibly you can have rehearsals at odd times when the stage is not engaged. Professional houses are more likely to grant you this privilege than private halls. The rental for a dress rehearsal is always less than for a performance. If you are obliged to engage union stage hands and musicians you may sometimes save money by having the dress rehearsal the afternoon of the same day as the performance. Of course this complicates other matters, but it does save money.

ROYALTIES, AND COPIES OF THE PLAYS. Copies of a single play for a cast may cost as much as ten or fifteen dollars, either in typescript or book form. Scores of the best plays are either out of print or buried in issues of little known and locally circulated periodicals. It is next to impossible to secure copies of some plays. If you doubt this, ask your book dealer to supply you with ten copies for your cast of Molière's Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme. I doubt if he will be able to supply you with four copies of any one good translation. Always pay royalties for modern plays, unless authors offer them for nothing. You would not ask a stationer to give you envelopes, nor a grocer tea for an English comedy. Don't then, expect authors to give you the only thing which makes your organization possible—good plays.

SETTINGS, SCENERY, FURNITURE, PROPERTIES. Here the artistic ingenuity of your art staff will be requisitioned.

COSTUMES. YOU may be able to operate an entire sea-son without expending much on costumes. Don't allow some enthusiastic designer to swamp the plays with oddities and the treasurer with bills. One art director spent so much money for costumes of a one-act play in the first bill that the season was almost wrecked on that single production. By eschewing period and romantic material for the remainder of the winter the season was just successfully financed.

LIGHTING. If the equipment of your stage is good, this will cost practically nothing. If you use a non-professional stage, you can easily accumulate simple but effective lighting apparatus.

MAKE-UP. Hiring a professional make-up man usually saves money and annoyance. His stock of wigs is always better than an amateur collection. In many plays adequate make-up is required. A company make-up box is a great saving if individuals know how to use its contents. If an active member can make up the performers he should be pressed into participation.

HAULING. Scenery, properties, furniture, costumes may have to be moved. Costumers do not pay transportation charges.

MISCELLANEOUS. Perhaps this division should have been placed first, for though this heading is indefinite, it always covers a large amount. It may include anything; flowers, ropes, electric bulbs, unusual properties, telegrams, porter service, labor, lunches, beverages, damage to property, taxi-cab fares, insurance on borrowed property, music, wiring, tacks, broken dishes, doorman, delivery boy, expressage, hardware, window panes to be shattered, cigars, cigarettes, drinks, animals, birds, tips.

The following are copies of actual expense sheets of productions in various parts of the country. Inspection and comparison of the items will indicate what matters must be considered and provided for in advance. Notice that costume hire and rental may be entailed or not incurred. The entries for scenery deserve thought. The sundries further illustrate the remarks made in the preceding paragraph on miscellaneous expenses.

We shall assume that it is early autumn. Your organization is perfected. Your officers and committees have been working during the spring and summer if possible, or at least during several weeks, and reporting. Your funds are assured. The public is sympathetic in approval of your project. With all your thoughtful allowance for enthusiastic overstatement and optimistic credulity, indications of large, appreciative audiences are heartening you. Only one detail now remains to engage attention and time before your season opens.

What kind of plays will you offer?



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