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Directorial Resources

( Originally Published 1938 )



THE DIRECTOR chooses a play with reference to his audience, stage, and acting material; he casts the play; he plans a production, building up his scenes through the application of the principles of design; then he begins his four-weeks' rehearsal period, endeavoring to make his imperfect acting material express what he feels is necessary for a satisfactory interpretation of the play.

The subject matter of the last hundred pages has been the bringing of the imagined plan of the production into a reality on the stage. We shall keep to the same subject in the present chapter by investigating the various means or resources the director has at hand for securing a dramatic effect on the stage.

We may say, at the outset, that the realization of most effects—the restatement of moods, or the making of points in stage terms—is really comparatively easy owing to the fortunate fact that the director may build his effect in several ways; or, expressed differently, it is easy because of the several resources that can be used by him to gain the effect he desires.

The audience both sees and hears a play. Through the mental and, especially, the emotional reactions induced by the two sense organs, it is granted its theater experience. As we demonstrated in the Hamlet scene, the director works in the two mediums of sight and sound.

What, definitely, does the spectator see on the stage during the presentation of a play? He sees the stage setting, lighting, properties, and actors. In the setting there is a conscious use of line, mass, and color. The lighting contributes its variations in color and intensity. In respect to the actor, the spectator sees costume and make-up, but, more especially, he looks to the physical behavior, to the expression, gesture, and movement of the actor to give him information concerning what is taking place.

And what does the auditor hear during the play? He may hear off-stage sounds and mechanical noises, but, primarily, he hears the voice of the actor. If this voice is what it should be, the auditor hears an instrument of flexibility and variation capable of expressing force and weakness and emotional power, characterizing utterance, inflectional change, and diversity in pitch, pace, and pause.

The director, we say, wishes to secure a certain effect: the revelation of a particular mood, the expression of a specific emotion, the clear exposition of some important point. He cannot tell the audience what he has in mind to do save only as he tells them through his stage and actors. But he has available, for his use, acting resources and stage re-sources, any and all of which may be employed to contribute to the effect; and these, used separately, or in combination, or in various ways among his several actors, give him an almost limitless number of means for securing his effect.

Let us hold in mind two points about the director which we have already discussed: First, being sensitive to his audience's capacity and behavior, he desires to secure its response with a minimum of effort on its part; and second, being something of a creator, he has imagined just the way he would like to have the effect made in order to secure this response and at the same time satisfy his own aesthetic or dramatic desire. But, while working in the rehearsal room, he finds that he has to be a practical person, willing to take half a piece of cake, if he cannot get a whole one. He may have in mind an excellent ideas of just what he wants for his audience and just what he wants his actors to do, but since he is often working with inexperienced material, he must often be satisfied, not with what he wants in the way he wants it, but with what he can get in the way he can get it. The fact of importance, here, is that what he can get is, in the majority of cases, sufficient for his purpose.

To begin with a simple example, let us say that the di-rector wishes to communicate to the audience the emotion of fear as it affects a character on the stage. Let us say there are three actors on the stage. One has just spoken the line: "They'll get you before morning"; a second now has to speak the line: "Surely you don't mean me" and, as he speaks, show that he fears something or somebody; a third actor is upstage a bit, between the two. How may the director communicate the emotion of fear to the audience through his stage and actors?

Consider, first, the possibilities in the actor who is to speak the line. The director has among his resources the things which the actor may do visibly. He has the face of the actor which may be made to take on an expression that is the symbol of fear; he has his physical behavior, such as a drawing in of the body or a twitching and trembling of the hands; and he has the stage movement of this actor away from the person or object feared. The director has, as other resources, that which this actor can do audibly or vocally. Something of fear may be communicated by pitch: by dropping the voice below or raising it above the pitch of this actor's preceding speech; or by tone: filling the tone with a quality which bespeaks fear; or by pacing the line rapidly to suggest fear; or by breaking a nervous, rapid pace with one or more pauses.

So, in what this actor may be able to say or do, the director finds a number of possible ways in which to work for his effect. He may seek to employ several of them in combination. If several can be used by the actor, so much the better; if only one is successful—if, for instance, this actor can do but little with his voice but is able to back away from the previous speaker convincingly—the director, to some degree, will gain the effect he desires. Surely the director is very unresourceful, and his actor uncommonly wooden, if one of these methods cannot be effectively employed.

Even though this actor fails to make any positive contribution to the expression of the emotion of fear, the director, being a patient as well as a practical person, doesn't throw up his hands in despair. He turns his attention to the first actor mentioned—the one who has spoken the line which should create the fear in the other. In this particular in-stance, the first actor is of small help, though he may be able to speak his own line in a manner that makes the audience believe the second actor must fear; and, frequently, an actor in his situation, by his reaction to the response to his own lines, is able to make the meaning more clear or heighten the effect or create the desired mood; he can, at times, give to the audience the effect which the actor, whose business it is, fails to do.

In the specific instance we are considering, we say that the first actor cannot do much; yet, by exchanging a look or reacting to the third actor mentioned—the one in the background—he may focus attention upon this background actor who, by movement or gesture, may be able to show the audience that the speaking actor does fear, even though the speaking actor contributes little or nothing through voice and movement.

Simple though it is, this example may be sufficient to demonstrate what we mean by some of the resources that the director has at hand when he seeks to realize his desired effect. The resources may be conveniently divided into the visual and the auditory.

Visual Resources

Beginning with the visual resources, perhaps the first which comes to mind is stage movement—that is, the change of position of the actors on the stage. We might divide stage movement into two groups : the movement which is necessary because it is bound up with the progress and unfolding of the action (such as entrances, exits, advancing to the table for a book, and so on); and movement which is not absolutely necessary, but which is added to the essential business for further interest or effectiveness.

This dividing of stage business into two groups is not particularly helpful to the director, except that it calls attention to an important omission in amateur direction. The beginning director generally works out only the necessary movement and thinks his task is done; whereas the second division, as was demonstrated in the Hamlet scene, often gives opportunity for devising business that is more characterful and dramatically effective.

The working out of stage business is one of the simplest of the director's many tasks; as least, it is simple to comprehend. Of course, fresh, effective business is not arrived at without study and imaginative effort. The director is not ready to begin working out his stage movement the minute he picks up the play. He must know the idea of the author, he must know the characters, and he must know the emotions of the scenes; these determine the stage movement.

Stage movement in a particular scene must accomplish at least one thing and can accomplish several others. The one thing that stage movement must do is keep the actors out of each other's way. Since two bodies cannot occupy the same space at the same time, and everybody knows it, this needs no elaboration. The director moves his actors about so they won't bump into each other.

As we have shown, there are aesthetic laws, as well as laws of physics, which have something to say about stage movement. We repeat that the modern stage is a picture stage; the action takes place within the frame of the proscenium arch, and the audience has been trained to watch a play as well as listen to it. This fact places another obligation on the director—the obligation of composing his actors into pleasing pictures (pictures not pleasing for their own sake, but because they contribute to the interpretation of the idea). He should, then, move his actors into groups or positions which give his stage a pictorial quality. In other words, the director should apply the principles of pictorial design—harmony, rhythm, proportion, unity, and balance—to his stage movement.

Now, stage business worked out according to the rational theory of keeping actors out of one another's way, and movement designed with reference to the principles of design, is a comparatively easy task. But the director's business ought to accomplish yet another thing; it ought to be dramatically effective and, when possible, contribute to a clearer interpretation of the play for the audience. By this, we mean that movement should be something more than a series of conventional crossings and haltings and pictorial groupings; it should possess some quality that gives it freshness, differentness, and revealing drama.

In a presentation of the ever-popular fantasy The Maker of Dreams, when Pierrot was about to recite the song that was running through his head, Pierrette, on her line "Out with it then," sat on the floor downstage and at the right of the table which was center. Pierrot mounted the chair and, with one foot on the table, started his recitation of the song beginning:

Life's a ball of worsted,
Unwind it if you can, ...

and at the conclusion of the four lines (which ended weakly, you remember), he got down rather apologetically from his improvised stage. This was a simple piece of stage movement, but it was characteristic of the characters of both Pierrot and Pierrette; it visualized, for a moment, the audience in the person of Pierrette and the cocksure actor in the per-son of Pierrot, and thus was revealing drama; and it helped Pierrot in his apologetic explanation of the song which followed.

In George Pitoeff's Paris production of Hamlet, in the gravedigger scene, when Hamlet picks up the skull of Yorick, instead of sitting or holding the skull of the latter on his knee and talking about it, Hamlet stood up, held the skull level with his eyes and, with a suggestive arm movement, seemed to give the skull a body so that Yorick, in the imagination of the audience, became, during Hamlet's speech about him, a person who seemed to be present on the stage.

This fresh, dramatic quality in stage movement is often difficult to devise. As we have said, it is created after study and imaginative effort; but it is worth the effort. Our stage business will take on power and effectiveness as we think of our movement as something beyond necessary crossings and the creation of interesting pictures.

As we consider the matter of stage movement, we must never forget that, as with the inflection of a line or the expression of an emotion, there must be a reason back of it. Movement must be motivated. If a person comes into a room and seats himself in a particular chair, there must be a reason for the action. If he runs up a flight of steps before he delivers a speech, there must be a reason. If he walks down right, turns, and walks back left, there must be a reason. If there is no motivation for the movement, it becomes meaningless; it will convey little sense and may even be destructive to the scene.

And we must also keep in mind that different types of plays require that we take different viewpoints in respect to the movement. If a play is a tragedy or a comedy, the business has to meet the test of reality, whereas in melodrama and farce the business may be exaggerated.

All in all, the devising of stage business is not difficult. Business may be used to clarify a scene and to add to its dramatic power. Stage movement becomes a visual resource which the director will find useful in many ways.

The second visual resource is the bodily language of the actor which includes gesticulation and facial expression.

At several times during the history of the theater, this bodily language has been developed very highly and has even been employed to reveal the action of the drama with-out the use of vocal language. Today pantomime is some-times employed without language, but more generally it is used to augment and enforce the spoken utterance. An actor will speak the word "No!" and will strengthen the meaning conveyed by striking his fist on the table. Or he will exclaim "Oh!" and, at the same time, raise his hand to-ward his face, which takes on an expression of fear.

The amateur actor does not possess a body sufficiently trained or under complete enough control for the speaking of much bodily language, but he does possess a body that is capable of a simple and effective expression.

The eyes are expressive of character, thought, and emotion. The narrowed eye suggests a doubtful, scheming nature; the squint indicates near-sightedness;. the open eye expresses blankness or puzzlement; the staring eye, fright; the eye with half-opened upper lid, laziness or sleepiness. Almost any untrained actor is able to use his eyes effectively for expressing these simple symbols of emotion and characterization.

The mouth, when drawn into a straight line, expresses willfulness and firmness; when slightly open, surprise; when twisted, disgust or churlishness. Thin lips in a straight line suggest meanness or stinginess, full lips denote coarseness and an animal nature, the corners of the mouth turned up suggest optimism, the corners turned down, sadness and sorrow. (In these last instances, the actor is aided in giving the expression through make-up.)

The hands, too, are very expressive and are easily used. We may distinguish the relaxed hand; the hanging hand; the heavy, the clenched, the tense open hand; the twisted hand; the weak and the strong hand—all of which can be used satisfactorily with a little practice.

The shoulders may also strengthen the expression of emotion or add to the characterization; they may be straight, thrown back, drooped, sagging, or crooked. The pelvic region held upright may denote strength and youth, or break and suggest the weakness of age. The knees may be straight or bowed out, stiff or loose. And the feet may touch the floor with a light or heavy tread, with a springing or a shuffling gait, while the toes may point inward, outward, or straight ahead.

It goes without saying that the emotion, thought, or characterization is generally expressed, not through just one part of the body, but through several parts used simultaneously. An actor, even a beginner, can narrow his eyes, sag one corner of his mouth, droop his shoulders, let his hands hang loose, bend his knees, and walk with a shuffling gait; or he can open his eyes wide, straighten his lips, throw back his shoulders, tense his hands, hold his knees straight, and stand with his heels together and his toes pointed out. Thus, with little practice, he may speak two entirely different characters through his body. Many subtleties of mood and thought may be revealed more clearly and more quickly through the body than through the voice by a master of pantomime; but the ordinary actor, even though he is not a trained pantomimist, possesses in his body a means for expression far more useful than his director frequently recognizes.

A third visual resource which the director may occasion-ally call upon is one to which we have already alluded in the example at the beginning of the chapter: the reaction of the other actors when the actor who should express himself is unable to do so adequately. The same means of expression—movement, gesticulation, and facial play—are used; in fact, this is no more than a transference of the expression from an actor who is inadequate to one who is adequate. Attention is directed to this resource only because the di-rector sometimes does not think of employing it.

A fourth visual resource is found in the scenery, costuming, and lighting. This resource is rarely applicable to the details of a scene or to some effect which needs to be built up during the progress of the scene; it is very useful in establishing the mood or character of an entire scene.

An instance in which this resource proved helpful was to be found in a recent school comedy. In the play a young actor had one short, comic scene. He evidently did not possess any flair for comedy acting, and, all in all, he was a forlorn looking figure who dropped the comedy mood of the play upon his entrance. At the first dress rehearsal he was attired in somber clothes. The director frowned, thought a moment, and had an idea. On the night of the performance the actor appeared in a gay, badly-fitting costume, and the mood which he could not express vocally or bodily was kept intact by his clothes; at least the mood was not allowed to disappear from the play. The resource of costume made the scene slightly funny, in spite of the boy's solemn acting.

The examples we have chosen are simple, perhaps crude ways in which the director may employ his visual resources. These same resources may be used in the same manner and with equal effectiveness in more worthy productions.

In a presentation of Shaw's Candida, Morell was delivering himself of his long harangues in Act I, while Marchbanks lay on a couch completely out of sight of the audience. The couch was right; Marchbanks, hiding his head and burying his ears in the pillows, was perfectly right; but the scene would have been flat and tiresome had not the director used one of Marchbanks' hands, which hung over the edge of the couch in sight of the audience, to register the boy's shifting emotions during Morell's speeches. The hand gave every reaction—annoyance, boredom, anger—with perfect clarity and kept the scene on a plane of entertaining drama.

In Scene I Act III of Barrie's Mary Rose, Simon Blake suddenly realizes that he has seen his wife, Mary Rose, on the train and did not recognize her. A short time later, on the line "Mary Rose is coming across the fields," he leaves the room to meet her. Simon is in the room with Mary Rose's parents. Dialogue continues from the moment of his realization of who the person on the train is, until his exit; but Simon's speeches have very little to do, dramatically, with the parents, for his thought is elsewhere. Dramatically, the audience should be elsewhere. They should be outside the room, looking for Mary Rose! The scene was dead in rehearsal until Simon, on the line "My God! I saw her but I didn't recognize her," walked from the old couple and faced the outer door. There he stood motionless, his gaze toward the door. During his speeches he did not once direct his lines toward those in the room, and not only did this simple stage movement alienate him and give the scene the desired mood and emphasis, but it gave Simon a more dramatic, better motivated exit on his exit line.

Auditory Resources

The auditory resources of the director are the sound effects, such as wind or sea or rain which help to create the mood, and the voice of the actor. We shall hold our discussion to the voice as a resource for securing the desired effect.

The necessity for a good speaking voice is readily admitted when we recognize that a modern play is written in dialogue, through which perhaps nine tenths of the story is imparted to the audience; when we find that fully one half of the emotion is expressed in the speeches and projected through the tone and inflection of the voice; and when we see, further, that perhaps one third of the characterization is revealed through the speeches as delivered by the amateur actor.

The several uses of the voice are suggested in these statements. It communicates information and reveals the greater part of the story; it expresses emotion and arouses emotion in the audience; it reveals and projects character; and it can be useful in another way when, through its tone quality and its musical cadence, it gives the auditor an aesthetic pleasure. We cannot expect to find many full, beautiful voices among our amateurs, but we can hope to find one at rare intervals; and, when we do, we have reason to rejoice as we contemplate the enjoyment the voice is going to give our audiences.

This is not the place to offer instructions for the building of a good voice. Such instructions are available to the di-rector in a dozen books on play production and acting. We might, however, take time for a word concerning those vocal characteristics which are desirable if the actor is to use his voice successfully in the ways indicated above.

The voice which we would like to have in our actor is, first, one that possesses a personality, a tone character that gives the actor some vocal distinction. Without attempting a further exposition of what we mean by personality, we might say that such a voice would not be weak or uncertain and would possess some authority and attractiveness.

Second, we desire an expressive voice, one that has the capacity for "vividly representing the meaning or feeling which is meant to be conveyed." The most important quality of expressiveness is flexibility. Moods, meanings, and mental processes often have to be conveyed through the medium of the voice; therefore, the voice must be responsive to the mood or meaning and must be capable of conveying it clearly to the listener. Another quality of expressiveness is range. While range is akin to flexibility, it is not the same. Flexibility may be accomplished through the use of no more than a half dozen notes on the scale. We may have variety within a very small compass, but the repetition of the same few notes, the utilization of only a part of our range, tends to strain the voice and make it monotonous, especially if that voice is heard throughout an hour and a half or two hours of the play. Louis Calvert (in Problems of the Actor) suggests that the actor's voice should have a range of two octaves. Expressiveness should also include resonance. We have been taught, in our elementary speech courses, that there are resonating chambers in the head and chest which increase and prolong the vocal tone. Resonance takes away a flat vocal quality and gives the voice a greater carrying power.

Third, we desire a voice with sufficient technical proficiency to speak the sounds of our language clearly and accurately, to enunciate the words so they shall be under-stood, and to pronounce the words correctly.

Since we are proceeding in this book on the supposition that the director is trying, within the space of a few weeks, to build his play, and that he has selected the best and most experienced actors available, we must take for granted that he has some adequate material with which to work—some voices of personality, power of expressiveness, and clear enunciation; certainly he has no time to train a voice between the first rehearsal and the public performance.

We return to our question of the trained voice as an auditory resource. We remember that the director has to make a point clear, establish a mood, or reveal an emotion. Just how may he seek to accomplish this end through the voices of his actors ? Our simplest approach in answer to this question may be through several definitions and examples.

The voice is capable of inflection, and by inflection we mean a bending, slurring, or twisting of the vowel sounds. The inflection may be applied to a single word, a phrase, or a speech. We may experiment on inflection with the simple three-word sentence: "I need you."

First we speak the sentence without a noticeable inflection, "I need you," and convey a simple statement of fact which does not suggest a very important need. We may bend downward the vowel sound of the second word as "I need you," and change the meaning from a plain statement to something of a plea. We may bend this vowel sound up-ward instead of downward as "I need you?" and the statement becomes a question in which doubt appears. Or, the slur may come on the "I" and again on the "you." In each case, with each varying inflection, the sentence changes its meaning and its emotional content from the original, uninflected statement.

The voice is also capable of a change in stress. Stress de-notes the force with which we speak a word or phrase, the amount of emphasis we give it. Taking our same sentence, we may stress the first word: 'I need you," and we have a strong statement of fact with the emphasis placed on the speaker. We may stress the last word: "I need u," (inflecting the vowel sound of the stressed word slightly downward) and emphasis is reversed from that of the preceding sentence. We may stress the second word, "I need you," and the emphasis now shifts from persons to the idea of need. Or, we may combine emphasis with inflection for still different meaning as in the following: "I need u ?" I need

you!" The combinations we could make are many. Again, the voice is capable of varying its pace. With little practice and effort we may speak rapidly, at a moderate rate, or slowly. We may speak our sentence rapidly: "Ineedyou!" and convey the idea of excitability or the part of the speaker; or, we may speak it slowly: "I ne ed yo ou" and the effect gained is that of the speaker thinking care: fully and with determination.

Pause is closely allied to pace. As everyone knows, it denotes a rest, a temporary cessation of speech. Notice in our same sentence how the pause can change both meaning and emphasis: "I need you; I need you; I need you." Pause, of course, is more effective when used in combination with pace, inflection, and stress.

Lastly, the voice is capable of varying its pitch from a level that is high and penetrating to one that is low and resonant. Therefore, we may speak our sentence in a high-pitched voice, and it will convey a light and frivolous meaning, or we may lower our pitch until the sentence becomes a strong, earnest statement.

So we find the ordinary voice capable of variation in inflection, stress, pace, pause, and pitch. Obviously, these variations may be used separately or in combination. It is also clear that several may be used to attain the same end, and it is this last fact which makes of them a resource which the director finds very serviceable.

For instance, if he wishes emphasis, he may possibly attain it either through inflection, stress, pace, or pause; if he wishes surprise, he may try pitch or inflection or pace; if he needs to create the mood of awe, he may experiment with pitch, pause, and pace; if he wishes to designate a change in mood or thought, he combines pause with inflection as in the sentence: "If he did this well, we'd better not go into that."

In A. E. Thomas' Her Husband's Wife, a popular farce-comedy of some years ago, there occurs a line, spoken by Irene, the hypochondriac wife, in reference to Emily Ladew, who has chanced upon Irene's husband and has driven him home. The line is, "She happened to be driving by." Several times during the play Irene speaks this line. Once it is spoken as a puzzled question, again it is charged with anger, on another occasion it expresses disgust, and, lastly, it is full of forgiveness and understanding. The line remains the same; but in each case—through a different inflection, stress, and pitch—the mental and emotional condition of Irene is epitomized admirably.

We have endeavored to point out those resources which the director finds ready at hand; those means through one or more of which he may be able to secure some effect he de-sires. They are means, not ends. The director, however, should not permit his idealism to make him stubborn and close his eyes to the practical task before him. Often the production must be ready in four weeks; often he has no time to train his actors in technique. He has to use the material at hand. He has to manipulate his actors toward a practical end. A conscious use of these resources helps him toward the achievement of a satisfactory total effect.

It is the inexperienced or the unresourceful director who explains a bad production by saying, "We had no actors, no lighting equipment, no costumes, no good stage settings. What could I do under such circumstances?" Only a bad play or a bad director (or both) can make an utterly bad performance. A good play, a few sincere, though inexperienced, actors, and an intelligent, ingenious director can make an acceptable production if little else is at hand.

Direction cannot take the place of good acting; but good acting is often dependent on direction, and direction can sometimes succeed in giving the audience its experience in spite of bad acting. With the many resources at his command, there seems but little reason why the intelligent director should not make his meanings clear and his effects dramatic.



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