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Dress Rehearsal And Performance

( Originally Published 1938 )

SURELY OUR EXPOSITION of the director has not represented him as one who can loaf along during the rehearsal weeks and then, about the time of the first dress rehearsal, suddenly stir himself into energetic action and pull out of the unreadiness and chaos something resembling a smooth performance. We have proposed a plan in which the very reverse of this sort of procedure will be necessary. Not that the director will find no unreadiness on the first night of dress rehearsal. He will not be at ease on this night. But by the end of the second dress rehearsal, details should be adjusted, order restored, and the whole production moving along without interruption. And if a third dress rehearsal is held, which is advisable, he should be able to sit back and watch it without need of commands or comments.

The director should complete all of his work by the time of the period of dress rehearsals, except that which is unavoidably left over. If it is within his power to bring such a condition to pass, he should have organized and overseen his work so well that no important changes are necessary in anything—acting, scenery, lighting, costumes, or properties. No disrupting last-minute admonitions should be made to his actors. He has had four weeks in which to admonish them, and these weeks should have been sufficient. No long final rehearsal period should be tolerated. The last dress rehearsal should be an enjoyable, hopeful period, not a strenuous, hectic one.

If the director is to have a smooth, easy final rehearsal, he must plan for it almost from the first day. He has to keep people at work and insist, over and over, that things be done on scheduled time. He cannot depend on the old proverb, "A bad dress rehearsal means a good performance." The proverb isn't true. It doesn't make sense. A good rehearsal is much more apt to be an omen of a good performance than is a bad rehearsal. Doing a thing incorrectly in rehearsal does not guarantee that it will be done correctly before an audience; and, psychologically, success puts the idea of further success in the minds of the actors, while failure gives them the fear of failure rather than the confidence of success.

The director, as well as the actors, needs rest before the first performance. He should come to the performance relaxed and refreshed and not in a state of exhaustion. In most communities, he will have to be his own best critic of his work. He cannot depend upon expert critical opinion of his efforts, for such opinion generally is not to be had. If for no other reason, he needs to be in good mental condition in order to make a sound judgment of his production.

On the night of the performance he should see his cast, every member of it. They have worked for him, depended on him; now he is deserting them, and they must go their way alone. They deserve from him a final word. Surely it is clear that a kind word, a cheerful wish for success, is much more helpful at this time than a temperamental out-burst or a pessimistic speech full of threats or warnings.

Then the director should leave the cast and the stage crew and go out into the auditorium. He can be of little or no use to the cast backstage. He can be of use in the auditorium, watching and feeling the reactions of the audience. Let him return backstage between acts, if he likes, but let him try, as completely as he can, to get the viewpoint of the audience on this first night. When the play is over, let him not take the warm praise of his friends as too sure an indication that he is a genius, or, on the other hand, the harsh criticism of the town or school newspaper critic as proof that he is a fool. He should have warned himself and his cast against both praise and dispraise.

In fact, unless they are warned, a smart-aleck school re-porter may do great damage to the morale of certain actors who are not ready and prepared for strong adverse criticism. An actor in a college play was completely demoralized and could not give a good account of himself during the last two nights of a three-night run of a play, because he took to heart the sharp criticism of an amateur reporter who knew nothing about either the theater or acting.

The director, of course, has spent imagination, energy, and many weary hours of labor on his play; he has tried hard and conscientiously; and it is only human that he wants to like his production. But after the excitement of the performance has died down, when he can reflect and think clearly again, then, with the aid of the prompt book, pictures of the performance, newspaper reports, and comments of his friends, he ought to take inventory of his accomplishment. Perhaps this can best be done in conversation with a friend whose judgment he trusts and who has had no close connection with the production. At any rate, he now tries to determine just how good or bad the production has been; just wherein he and his cast succeeded and wherein they failed; how this or that error could have been avoided; how he should have done a little better here or there.

The director of amateurs, especially the beginning director, who sits down placidly and revels in his triumph is in danger of becoming a bad director. Very, very few amateur performances are as good as they should be. How many really first-rate, thoroughly fine productions are given by amateurs in the whole of America during a season? A half dozen? A dozen? Whatever the number, they are not many; and the director is running a great risk of self-deception when he pats himself on the back and announces to himself that his performance is good enough to be classed with these few. Let him not lose a sense of perspective or a sense of honesty, which permits him to see both his strengths and his weaknesses. Let him never be completely satisfied with the production he has just finished, but anxious, rather, to make the next one better. We need directors of this sort in the amateur theater today; we need them very badly.

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