Artistic Amateur Settings
( Originally Published 1921 )
IT is perfectly possible—as some amateur enthusiasts assert—to present plays without any scenery. Several years ago almost a dozen directors advertised performances of Shakespeare, emphasizing as a decided feature that the productions were in " the Elizabethan manner." This usually meant without scenery. So far as it involved a stage almost entirely free from built sets, the manner was Elizabethan. The great difficulty today is that no one can say with certainty exactly what the method of presentation was in Shakespeare's time. It is incredible that at the time Inigo Jones, court painter and architect, was devising and constructing the elaborate mechanical and picturesque settings demanded by the masques of Ben Jonson, the professional playhouse—always quick to adopt court manners and interests—did not follow as close as its financial resources would allow. Sketches and descriptions of court entertainments prove that elaborate equipment and scenery were employed. The stage after 1603 must have reflected this great advance in stage decoration.
Most modern attempts to interest theater-goers in these self-denominated antiquarian revivals always overlook this possibility of late Shakespearean settings. A mistake more serious than their attempt to cover poor acting and amateurish characterization by bare scaffolding is their disregard of the cardinal fact of Elizabethan professional stage record—a single fact which removes forever any wide appeal of an accurate repetition. The women's rôles were enacted by boys.
In colleges—whether in fairly serious drama or howling musical comedy—we may look upon raw youth disporting itself in feminine lingerie, and if it doesn't have to speak too many lines, and if it remembers to take short steps in walking, and not to pull its skirt up when it sits, we may at times drop into a voluntary illusion. But a restoration of Elizabethan casting to a beautifully poetic play of Shakespeare's is horrible even to discuss.
A compromise setting may be made quite beautiful, even when reduced to such simplicity and exercised with such flexibility as the settings shown many years back by the New Theater of New York, and more recently by Walter Hampden, E. H. Sothern, and Alfred Hopkins. When reduced to their simplest equipment, old plays need draped stages.
Modern plays may be presented with not even that much decoration. For certain dramas the end of a room which is large enough to accommodate the audience will serve admirably. If the actors can be plainly seen, not even a platform is needed. In many large houses three or four plays have been offered in a single evening with entirely different sets. This has been managed by having the spectators pick up their chairs and move from the bare billiard room after seeing Augustus Does His Bit by G. Bernard Shaw to the large hallway to watch a short play such as Fancy Free by Stanley Houghton presented on the stair landing, then to the conservatory to see, perhaps, Sutro's A Marriage Has Been Arranged. M. Maeterlinck had his Pélléas and Mélisande so produced in the old buildings of St. Wandrille, his home in France. But a series of such peripatetic productions would cease to be a novelty and become a bore. Also, a large number of most attractive plays and effects are barred entirely by such methods.
The natural beauty of outdoors will frame a host of other plays more adequately. Volumes of them have been written, although more recently the more practicable and sensible form of spectacular pageantry has almost usurped the earlier popularity of al fresco performances. Such surroundings determine the material of the play. They preclude delicate effects, precise shadings. They preclude stories turning upon or developed by involved dialogue, or nice points of characterization. The more action depends upon broad movements, the more nearly the theme permits of pantomimic interpretation, the better for both performers and audience. Add to these drawbacks of outdoor acting the always impending inclemency of American weather, the summer open-air noises, the behavior of an outdoor crowd, and you will gain an adequate idea of all the elements to be considered in undertaking such risks. Also keep clearly in mind the difference between plays on one side and processions, pageantry, masques, spectacles, and such related entertainments, on the other.
With all disadvantages counted at their true cost, there are always recompensing delights about open-air productions.
The mere terms " play " and " production " connote at least a stage of some size and scenery of some sort.
So far as scenery is concerned the best starting point entails only four elements—the producer who knows exactly how he wants the play to be set, enough space to erect a good set, artistic ability to create the design or model, and enough material means to complete it.
Material means does not signify money only. It includes scenery already built, paints, lumber, canvas, blocks, draperies, rugs and carpets, and the thousand and one things which accumulate in theaters and houses. In daring exhibitions of artistic ability in stage settings, amateurs far outstep professionals, who just now are adopting 'de-vices heralded ten years ago by enthusiastic amateur art directors. The most crying need of all amateur stages is space—space to the right, space to the left, space to the rear, and space overhead. Every producer must know exactly how he wants every play set, for every play presents problems of its own. The same kind of settings through an entire season would result in that reducer of the size of all audiences—monotony.
Never—if you can prevent it—allow any stage which you control to be loaded with the four conventional sets produced by professional scene builders acting on their own initiative to provide your theater with equipment suggesting the country town's " op'ry house." These regular stock pieces include always a nondescript woodland, a park with a struggling putty group painted on the back drop, a " drawing-room " with a wide archway, two doors, but never any windows, and fourth, usually painted on the rear side of the preceding, a kitchen. There is no denying that these sets may be needed at some time. But if you are connected with a school, college, club, or community center, block every attempt to get this " stock " when the building is completed. Have the money put into income-bearing securities which can be promptly converted into cash to buy scenery as occasion requires. Or take part of it and drape the entire stage with beautifully colored curtains which will serve as attractive backgrounds for lecturers, musicians, dancers, yes—and many plays as well.
Do not be led by over-enthusiastic praise in books into fixing upon your stage those devices, which though excel-lent for houses needing them, may be merely extravagant white elephants for you. I have been told that the revolving stage in the Little Theater of New York was before the most recent alterations used mainly to convey furniture from the front to the rear at a speed easily equaled by the usual manner of handling, yet you will find scores of books and magazine articles glibly talking about the value of such a modern appliance. Very little is said of the mechanical structural aspect, or of the expense in supplying power to operate such devices. Do not have a permanent plaster cyclorama built until you have carefully considered all its possible interference with tackle for borders, border lights, ceilings, foliage, etc. For the number of times you are going to need it, consider whether a canvas drop will not do as well. In other words, keep your stage space as free as possible from all permanent encumbrances.
A draped stage will serve for hundreds of plays. If the hangings will take tints in lighting, almost any effect can be secured. Furniture, decorations, hangings, costumes, will fix the period and kind of place being represented. Curtains permit entrances at all points. If many sets are hung upon wires they should be arranged to move easily for quick changes. The business manager of the Benson Company of Stratford-on-Avon in 1914 discussed with me the production of The Merchant of Venice entirely before draperies. Some such device was used in part in the production of this play in London, with the New York actor, Maurice Moscovitch, as Shylock. In the Shakespeare Festival at Stratford-on-Avon, in 1920 many quick changes of scenes were made by drawing curtains and tapestries strung upon wires.
Plainly colored curtains hanging clear of the floor in vertical folds may serve as modern drawing-rooms or sets for costume plays. Suggestions of decorations will give almost endless variety. A landscape broadly painted, with knightly figures in it, may serve as tapestries for either modern rooms or medieval chambers. If Shakespearean producers years ago had known a little more about historical accuracy and beauty of effects, even Hamlet and Lear could have been decorated more effectively and economically. Instead of displaying crudely painted stone walls, any bare framework might have been hung with genuine curtains in modern imitation of the medieval arras. Not only would this have been more beautiful but it would have allowed more rapid change of setting. In one scene in Hamlet it would have permitted a vivid reproduction of what Shakespeare intended, instead of a mawkish makeshift. In the closet scene Polonius should hide behind the arras, always hung a foot or more away from the damp stone walls, instead of stealing off into an alcove or door-way.
Practically any play of the past may be set within curtained spaces, while not a few more modern ones—not demanding too finished realism—can be thus set much more beautifully than by means of the usual old-fashioned interior flats. Every school which has been wondering whether it had better repaint its interior set, or have a new one built, can spend the money to better advantage in draperies. Tapestries will set nearly all French plays and many English ones as well. For any Molière interior you need merely cover your canvas walls with hangings. A few hangings flanking a monumental fire-place will carry you back to any indeterminate or definite period particularized by the furniture, the costumes, and the dialogue of the characters. Even Italy may be thus simulated.
The orient may be brought upon a large stage by draping most of it in black and gold, then showing through tall, straight openings, towers, peaks, domes, and minarets against the brilliant blue back-drop, or against the purple of night. There is absolutely no limit to the use, effectiveness, and beauty of draperies upon both large and small stages.
If you can purchase only one set of hangings you must be careful of the color. No general rules for choice can be given, as so much depends upon the frame of your stage pictures; upon the color scheme of the auditorium walls, seats, ceiling; upon your lighting equipment; upon the frequency of its use. Expert advice upon the spot is worth a score of haphazard opinions at long range. Browns, grays, blues, are more likely to prove satisfactory than any others. Beware of decoration or ornamentation such as gilt borders, clusters of fruit, metallic lines, corner pieces, conventionalized designs, period applications, art nouveau, symbols, faddist propaganda. Try to put repose, charm, distinction into your backgrounds. Let everything else be added as individual plays require.
For period, poetic, romantic plays, draperies serve admirably. Difficulty arises as soon as modern, realistic material requires dressing. Windows and doors—at least mod-ern ones do not seem congruous in such unusual surroundings. Though enthusiasts may declaim, it is impossible to produce without realistic scenery such plays as Trifles by Susan Glaspell, Riders to the Sea of J. M. Synge, In the Zone by Eugene O'Neill, The Cat and the Cherub by F. C. Fernald, You Never Can Tell by G. Bernard Shaw, the first act of Doctor in Spite of Himself by Molère. So the producer and his art staff will have to turn to built scenery.
A built interior can be made just as beautiful as a curtained or tapestried one. If you have money build each interior as you need it, and make it exactly right for, its purpose. If you are not affluent, do not be too pronounced in colors, style, architectural detail, and ornament. Let the built scenery merely suggest possible kinds of walls. Let your treatment by rugs, furniture, pictures, hangings, do all the rest. Build your sets always so that they may be used again and again, even without repainting. Producers who use and recommend screens for scenery will enforce this advice. Remember that rearrangement of pieces will produce new sets.
Your art staff must know much of the practical construction of stage scenery. The first principle is that all scenery should be so constructed that it can be worked from the stage floor. Pieces which have upon their edges two halves of hinges which are to fit together and can be fastened by having a long wire. nail pushed through the parts may be practicable, provided the highest hinge can be reached from the stage. If a ladder or box or chair is needed, that scenery is badly constructed. Any pieces taller than ten or eleven feet will likely not fit closely together at the top if this kind of fastening is used.
Some amateurs provide grooves on the floor and ceiling. Into these grooves are fitted or slid the pieces of scenery until they meet edge to edge. In successful result such scenes should give an impression of well-constructed solidity. If edges are straight and junctures are at exact right angles there should be no yawning gaps in the meeting lines. But this is a poor method because it makes all stage spaces the same size. All rooms and open spaces have to be the same distance to the rear, and right and left. The slope of side walls has to be calculated beforehand and all interiors shaped exactly alike. Practically no alcoves, corners, arches, can be set without pulling up and renailing the grooves. Exteriors are especially ungainly in this make-shift. Wood wings or tree side-pieces usually look best if they almost parallel the footlights. As grooves for these nailed to the stage floor at each side would project into any room which might be set during the same bill, and as these grooves parallel to the stage front would have to cross, intersect, or interfere with the grooves for side walls, there would be endless toil and trouble.
There seems really not a single thing to be said in favor of such a hardened stage manipulation. It harks back to the days before the eighties when grooves above the stage were provided to support scenery. Those methods are antiquated. Only ignorance of real stage methods can be the reasons for the retention of any such outworn device. When a groove has no scenery fitted into it, it is a certain stumbling block for performers. The entire floor of the stage from one side wall to the other and from the foot-lights clear to the rear wall should be absolutely level. Not the slightest projection should mar its surface. Even electric light plugs should be sunk beneath little covering trap-doors or plates.
If ceiling and stage are not exactly parallel as is more than likely true in schools, churches, halls, converted theaters, etc., there are troubles in fitting. This scheme seems totally bad.
Another device if the stage is so small that scenery is not too far from the walls of the building is to have screw-eyes in the scenery frames. Between these and other screw-eyes along the walls at the same height are placed strips of wood with projecting nails at the ends. These are not too high to be reached easily but are high enough to allow unrestricted passage of persons under them. As the sides of sets always slope and the building walls are straight, the length for every point must be accurately calculated.
Unless carefully placed, these projecting screw-eyes will push holes through canvas when the flats are stacked. Although once used at the Provincetown Theater, this method seems cumbersome compared with the best one. Pieces of interior scenery (flats) should be laced together with a rope which should be fastened to the right side near the top of every piece of interior scenery made. Every left edge should have below this point a cleat or nail behind which the rope is caught. About a yard from the bottom of the scenery are two long nails parallel with the canvas, around which the line can be fastened. A person can do this without even stooping. If the set be quite tall the lacing may pass across more times than this.
When a box set of this kind is put up, its angles will make it stand. Large sets can be made more stable by inserting alcoves, or by cutting off corners at sloping angles, or by providing for a projection into the end or middle of a wall. More stability is secured by using regular stage braces at various points. These are adjustable supports with at one end a hook which catches a hole in a cleat fastened to the frame about eight or nine feet from the bottom, and at the other a large flat eye through which a stage-screw is put into the floor. Not many—perhaps none—are required for small box sets, for they will stand by themselves. If there are reasons why the stage should not be marked by the holes made by the stage-screws it is easy to nail down at certain points with long thin wire nails, a few blocks of soft wood about two inches thick. In these the screws can be fastened. One screw will hold two or more braces. When the block of wood is removed at the end of the performance no marks remain except the small holes made by the few nails. Braces help in rapid changes, for the stage is really set and the acting may begin before all the braces are in place.
In some arrangements, instead of using the stage-screw through the metal foot of the brace, a heavy weight is placed upon it. While practicable for light pieces, or those needed for only a short time, this weight is not so secure as the screw. A director can frequently make use of sand bags to anchor braces.
In order to facilitate changes on the professional stage there has recently come into use a device which will be a great boon to little theaters in making changes—if they ever have the stage space to accommodate it, and the money to carry it out adequately—both conditions doubtful of realization. Low platforms upon rollers or small wheels are constructed. If the space required for acting is quite small, one such platform is sufficient. In other cases several must be provided which when fitted together cover the floor space of the stage opening. Upon these platforms are erected the pieces of scenery, which then remain upon them. The scenes are " struck " or taken apart only as necessity requires. All of the scenery which can be kept intact and all properties and furniture remain upon the small platform which is rolled off to one side out of the way.
A large amount of off-stage space is needed for such arrangements. I was told that in The Masquerader clearance between platforms in many of the changes was only about an inch. This device made possible the changes in Eyes of Youth and A Voice in the Dark. It was also used, with-out the same necessity of rapid change, in Keep Her Smiling and Tea for Three.
As these platforms raise the scene floor above the regular stage level, an inclined section has to be permanently installed across the front of the stage, sloping up from immediately behind the footlights to behind the curtain line. The moveable platforms are pushed tight up against its rear, so that no rough edges are perceptible.
While this device would solve the ever-annoying one of stage waits and clumsy scene shifting on amateur stages, there is little chance of its being used widely because it demands space and money. And these two things are exactly what few if any amateur organizations ever have in sufficient amounts.
In planning for some modern interiors in plays it is possible to have certain sections hinged so that fitting and lacing are unnecessary. A long straight back wall may be built in two sections hinged, so that the entire side of a room may be set in a few seconds. As a door usually has wall space on both sides another combination of three hinged flats may be evolved. This triple piece will serve as a single wall with the door in the middle, or the door can be brought close to a corner by turning one flat down or across stage to start the adjoining wall. An arch, or wide doorway, may be combined with two wall flats in exactly the same manner. If practicable two pieces to serve as room corners might be hinged.
Your idea of what you want should be discussed with a builder of professional scenery. He will show you or invent for you ingenious methods of carrying out your projects of which you would never dream.
Scenery frames are most satisfactory when they are built by professional scene builders who work accurately from drawn plans or scaled models, or when they are built by good carpenters in exactly the same manner. Joints must be firm, angles must be right angles, edges must fit, doors must swing and close freely, the frames must last. Even for small stages the cost of lumber is an item to be kept low.
Unless you are forced to, do not use the old-fashioned painted borders to represent ceilings. If your stage has a permanent ceiling so low that the audience can see it, build pour sets so that they almost touch it. There may be a small space between the scenery and the ceiling, but if you make the gap small, and treat properly the tops of the walls, that opening will not jar upon spectators. If the stage slopes until the spaces on each side increase towards the front, that is, if stage floor and' ceiling are not parallel, set the side walls to point off-stage towards the front, and these gaps will not be so apparent. They will not disturb any ,one even if -they are seen. Audiences accept worse things in every professional performance. If your space above the stage will let you hang a ceiling, by all means, have one made. Have it painted a color not to attract attention.
Many scene designers in the endeavor to make a stage look like a room have the rear wall built as a single piece so that no junctures are visible. The drawback about such a piece of scenery is that it is rather heavy to move, bulky to stack, and too long to use anywhere else. For small stages the best rule is to have all scenery made in sections. Determine upon some unit of size, then have all pieces related to that same scale. Make all the large flats the same width; then have a few smaller sections (called jogs) to provide alcoves, angles, projections, etc. For in-stance, if your stage space permits, decide upon twenty-one feet as width and fourteen feet as depth-of the usual full stage space. Keep this size as the unit of the largest three wall interiors you will set. Then design all your scenery with relation to this standard size. Make all doors the same size. Make arches—wide doorways—twice the size of a single door. Make the rear wall in three sections each seven feet wide, the side walls of two sections each of the same size. Two or four narrow jogs one-fourth the size of the larger flats will provide for rearrangements. Extra sections can be added if unusual doors and windows are needed as for instance doors with transoms or windows with real glass to be broken. Carry this same system of unit or related sizes into all the scenery you construct. Have your steps, platforms, cubes, columns, pylons, if any are needed, bear some mathematical relation to the other parts of your settings. But do not buy or build anything until you need it. Even then, see if something you already have will not serve. Thus, your scenery will be practicable for many purposes.
Learn by other people's errors as well as by their achievements. An enthusiastic club director told me of the remarkable dining room interior she had just had finished by professional scene builders in which the plaster was gone from parts of the walls, leaving the laths beneath ex-posed. She had actually had those holes painted upon the newly made scenery, rendering it useless for any play except the one in rehearsal. When I suggested that the room should have been finished properly, and then those marks of decay painted upon pieces of canvas and attached to the walls for this one time only, she nearly fainted. No idea of future uses of that large set had ever entered her head. A productions committee ordered an interior set for an English comedy. An idea of spaciousness was to be secured upon the small stage by designing a deep box set. The rear wall was built of three flats with a door in the middle one. That was good. Each side wall also was of three pieces. The two nearest the footlights were each seven feet wide; the one joining the rear wall was six. If there had been a necessity of economizing, two of these flats could have been dispensed with easily merely by increasing the width of the two front ones from seven feet to eight feet or even eight and one half. The three or four feet cut off the depth of the room would not have impaired either the acting or the appearance. Reducing the number of pieces to be handled also makes for better stage manipulation in amateur productions. Another di-rector with one set which had served in several plays al-ready, added Greek shields to give a classic tone, and at another time stretched a decorative Chinese border painted on paper around the top to secure an oriental effect.
Remember always that arrangement, furniture, hangings, and costumes will help amazingly in securing effects.