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Theater Objectives

( Originally Published 1938 )

THE THEATER BELONGS to no one class. It is as much the legitimate property of amateurs as music is the property of a small choral society whose members have no intention of making a living through its practice.

The theater performs no single function, but many; and the specific objective of a school theater may be as defensible on cultural or entertainment grounds as the objective of a professional theater in New York. However, not all amateur theaters justify their right to present plays; many have no legitimate excuse for asking an audience to see their performances. The question of justification is often dependent upon the question of function or objective. The amateur theater justifies itself when its general objective is a creative and not an imitative one, a live and not a dead one; when its function tends to attract rather than repel an audience; when it knows what it is trying to do and has a sound reason for trying to do it.

The different objectives of the amateur groups are no secret. Many directors are reasonably sure of what they want to do and what they desire their theater to be. Many beginners, however, are not sure. Since the matter of objective affects the work of direction in important ways, it may not be out of order for the beginner to survey, briefly, the amateur field in respect to its several purposes.

Let us imagine, to begin with, a small city which supports a half-dozen motion-picture theaters and one legitimate theater which occasionally opens its doors to a traveling company. Imagine, in this city, a group that is fond of the acted play and that misses the professional theater which once visited the town. Some of this group organize a society and rent an old theater or remodel a building into a comfort-able playhouse. The group has, among its members, two or three actors with professional experience, several capable amateurs, perhaps someone who knows something about directing, and a young artist who would like to try his hand at scenery. Thus a little theater is established.

The purpose of this theater is to present a series of plays as creditably as possible, to act them well and stage them well, and so provide the group and their friends—and such of the general public as can be won over—with the opportunity to see entertaining plays creditably presented. The organization knows that it is competing with the motion pictures and with the occasional professional company; it knows that it is competing with whatever other entertainment agencies there are in town; but it accepts this competitive challenge, selects and builds its programs with these things in mind, and tries to make its own wares so attractive that they will sell in competition.

Let us look at a very different situation. Now, either the community is a small one in which opportunities for social contacts are few or is one (perhaps in a large city) in which facilities for contacts are extremely difficult. In each case we may find a social stagnancy, a monotony and dullness of spirit, which may be alleviated through fellowship, self-expression, and social enjoyment. Therefore someone interested in the social welfare of the community sees in the theater a means for bringing the community together and giving its members a needed fellowship, an opportunity for self-expression, and the enjoyment of make-believe on the stage. Some prejudice and much lethargy are overcome, and a small theater emerges which, in time, grows into an institution capable of drawing the community to it in human communion. There is nothing of competition in this venture. The plays, perhaps, are simple plays and the settings unskillfully done; the productions may lack much in artistry and thoroughness of interpretation; but the participants share in an engrossing, enjoyable task, and their friends in the audience do not find life so deadly dull since they have "their own" theater.

On the other hand, we may travel in our fancy to a locality in which, through this circumstance or that, a strong interest in the arts has taken root. It may be that an artists' colony or a school of fine arts is in the neighborhood; or perhaps some club has been successful in awakening a small group of people to the pleasure to be found in the arts. At any rate, there are several artists who, recognizing that they have a potential audience, begin putting on plays. Now these artists see the acted play not as a social force, but as a composite art form. They see the stage as a place where many arts may make their contribution in a composite ex-pression. Consequently, they start their theater. The audience that comes to their plays does not come for relaxation or entertainment, but because they are eager to see an experiment in scenic simplification and stylization or in a new acting technique or in putting an ancient Hindu play on a modern stage; or it may be that they come just to see a play done conventionally, but as beautifully as possible.

The two groups, theater workers and audience, work together as creators and critics, and both find their pleasure in the presentation of something new or beautiful, something freed from tradition, something creative, something which through artistic expression tends to widen the cultural horizon of life.

Again we change our locality. We journey this time to a college or to a dramatic school. Here, as elsewhere, we find an adequately equipped theater, with switchboard and scenery; we find many play texts and an audience and a director. But here our interest is focused upon the group of young people who are endeavoring to interpret the play, that is, upon the actors. A play has been selected, not so much because it will have exceptional entertainment value for the audience nor because it offers interesting staging opportunities. The audience, in fact, has been given only the most general consideration, and the staging will be of the simplest. The play has been chosen because it provides six or ten good acting parts for six or ten student actors who need acting experience and training. Eventually the play is presented before an audience, and the performance may achieve a measure of success; but the real success, in the eyes of the director, is to be found in the fact that the play has provided an excellent vehicle for the development of his actors. The stage has been a classroom, and the objective of the production has been almost entirely educational.

For a last imaginative journey we go to one of the large rooms beneath the auditorium of a church, or it may be to the little theater in the parish house adjoining the church. Here a director with yet another main objective is working on a play. The play is written around the character of Peter, the apostle, and seeks to present him as a strong, inspiring, attractive figure. The play, indeed, is little more than a sermon written in good dialogue and containing sufficient clash and action to make it reasonably dramatic. Attention may or may not be given to clever staging, the actors may or may not measure up to the standards of good acting; the important matter is the play and the lesson it teaches. When the play is in readiness, it is presented in place of a sermon before an audience that is an unchallenging, sympathetic congregation.

We could journey to other places and discover other amateurs who are working toward different objectives; but if we have shown the diversity of objectives in the field, our examples are sufficient. We need not attempt to place one objective higher than another. We want only to point out that the amateur theater may seek to entertain, may be a social center, may become a studio for creative art, may utilize the play for educational purposes, or may disseminate propaganda. Even though we tell him nothing new, we would remind the beginning director, first, that the objective of the theater with which he is associated should be known and acknowledged by him; second, that play production in some of its important as well as its minor aspects is definitely influenced by this matter of objective.

If, for instance, his theater is a community enterprise in frank competition with other amusement agencies and operated for the general public, the alert director is highly sensitive to his audience, understands it, and, to a degree, respects its prejudices and its capacity for appreciation. He recognizes the danger he would run if his stage were used as a laboratory for experimentation in stagecraft, since he knows his audience is little interested in experimentation, but comes to the theater to see an amusing play. Again, respecting the temper and mood of his audience, the director will be wary of deep tragedy, translations from the foreign intellectual writers, and fantastic and highly imaginative pieces; nevertheless, he does not make his theater a palace of hokum or select plays that are cheap and vulgar. He sees entertain-ment as a significant function of the theater; he remembers that some of the great playwrights—notably Aristophanes, Menander, Plautus, Molière, Goldsmith, and Sheridan—have held that the supreme purpose of the theater is to entertain; and with no lowering of pride or feeling of dishonor, he accepts his objective enthusiastically, chooses the best plays available, and produces them in the best manner his facilities and his working personnel will permit.

Upon what different bases are his choices made in the theater whose objective is social service to the community! In such a theater the director wishes to replace the indifference of a group with active inerest; he seeks to give the people something to do; and he desires to develop a community spirit. He knows that human beings will grow more interested in one another through the habit of working together; he believes that through self-expression the individual often develops himself and finds himself; he recognizes that a common interest grows into a common spirit. In the theater he finds a means for cooperative work, for self-expression, and (since both workers and audience, through participation, will desire success) for the creation of a strong community spirit. The watchword of our first director was entertainment; the watchword now is participation. He puts to work as many people as possible in acting, building, painting, hunting properties, devising costumes, ushering, and serving coffee and cakes between acts. He encourages the writing of original plays and, when possible, presents them. In all his effort the thought—creation of a common spirit through participation in the play—does not leave his mind.

It is seen in these two instances that objective affects choice of play, selection of personnel, and extent of staging; it does not, however, affect, to any marked degree, the creative ideas and the production form he may bring to his presentation.

We need not continue our exposition. If it is clear that the director, final authority though he may be as he prepares the play for presentation, is nevertheless subject to the specific objective of his theater, our point is made. This objective may be of the director's own choosing or may be fixed by certain conditions over which he has no control; it may be simple and obvious or difficult to discover; it may even be a composite of objectives. Whatever it is, the director discovers it and sets out toward it with a clear under-standing of where he is going.

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