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Preparation Through Study

( Originally Published 1938 )

SURELY NO ONE any longer believes that, through the study of this book or some other, or through a routine training and an experience in presenting plays, or through the acquisition of a knowledge of stage terms, methodology, and practice, a young man, even though he possesses a fine mind and an enthusiasm for the theater, can be transformed into a good director. Attending play-production classes in college, receiving dramatic-school diplomas, acting in little theaters will not produce directors. Not everyone, even though he may possess the desire, can become a concert pianist, a big league ballplayer, or a successful electrical engineer. An aptitude, a special native endowment, a knack for certain kinds of action must, in the case of each of these professions, be present. At the outset, therefore, we would be clear on this point: The person who resolves to train for the profession of director should possess his peculiar endowment of imagination, emotional capacity, social instinct, and theater sense, before he can hope for success.

Other professions ask for an initial equipment in their apprentices. We ask no more than they. The fact needing emphasis is that we have not been asking for any special endowment. The attitude has been that anyone who knows anything about the theater can put on plays. The statement quoted at the beginning of the first chapter is evidence of this.

We admit, then, that our candidate must have some active or latent aptitude for directing. We cannot communicate this aptitude to him or endow him with it through book study; yet, even if we do not speak of it again, let the prospective director never lose sight of the importance of native endowment, even if he forgets every other word we have to say. He must possess imagination, emotional- capacity, social instinct, and theater sense. If he doesn't read a word beyond this paragraph and remembers this one point about aptitude, the association of both of us with this book will not have been in vain.

Taking for granted that the candidate possesses the pre-requisites, our next step is to inquire whether or not there is a peculiar form of study he should follow, a certain sequence of facts he should master, a pedagogical method he should pursue in preparing for his work of directing. The author does not know of any; but he does know that there are several fields of knowledge with which the candidate should become early acquainted.

First, the early days of preparation should carry him through a study of the evolution, composition, significance, and functions of the theater. "Why ?" you may ask. "Can the knowledge of names and places, of when the property man first appeared, of what changes the Romans made in the Greek stage, of how Molière treated his acting company, of why Ibsen's plays could not at first gain a hearing, of what inspired the formation of the Abbey Theater in Dublin —can such knowledge make a man a better director of a Kaufman comedy or a Eugene O'Neill drama?" The answer is, for the great majority of beginning directors, yes.

Since the theater of today did not appear full-fledged in 1930 or 1910 or 1860, but has its life and roots far back in history, and since theater problems of today have their counterparts in other periods, a knowledge of the past may prove of practical assistance. For instance, an understanding of the social conditions and the audience behavior in Ibsen's day may shed light on a director's own difficulty with a modern play; an appreciation of the relation of Molière to his actors may help the director in his own rehearsals; a knowledge that such-and-such was done successfully on Plautus' stage may lend justification to his doing it now; or familiarity with a past period may aid him greatly in his presentation of a play from that period. Over and over, the theater's past is of direct practical service to the director.

But a knowledge of the story of the theater has a psycho-logical effect which overshadows its practical service in directing. Such a knowledge will tend to dispel certain feelings of inferiority and will give the director a confidence in his abilities which he so often lacks if he is ignorant of the theater. Anything that feeds his interest in the theater, that reveals its significance and demonstrates its importance, raises his enthusiasm for it; and if his enthusiasm and love for the institution he serves is grounded in clear understanding, he is likely to be a better workman.

Again, this knowledge gives him a consciousness of authority which, other things being as they should be, reacts advantageously upon the people with whom he works.

A normal curiosity and a natural pride should be sufficient to lead him to a study of the past of his theater; if they are not, we can assure him that this knowledge will be of real value to him in his directing.

A second field of study is to be found in the plays themselves. The days of preparation should fix in him the habit of play reading. He should know Sophocles' OEdipus Rex and Plautus' The Captives; Molière's Le Misanthrope and Shakespeare's Hamlet; Sheridan's The Rivals and Ibsen's A Doll's House; Chekov's The Cherry Orchard and Rostand's Cyrano de Bergerac. He should not neglect the current plays of Broadway and London; and his reading should include not only the intellectual, the literary, and the important propaganda plays, but the significant melodramas, comedies, and farces. A knowledge of plays and playwriting is directly serviceable to him in his work.

Plays are of varying mood, language, power, and appeal. There are farces and melodramas; plays of romance, poetry, realism, and dialect; plays of situation and atmosphere. As a symphony differs from a popular song and both from a solemn mass, so these plays differ one from the other. As the conductor of an orchestra brings to each type of music an individual attack, color, mood, even method of interpretation, so the director approaching a play uses either broad strokes or delicate, a swift pace or one more deliberate, an accent on character or an accent on situation, according to its kind. A beginning director learns to differentiate between the kinds of plays, learns to understand them and feel certain of the touch to be given them, not by learning definitions of them, not by reading about them, but by reading the plays themselves.

Another reason for reading plays is that playreading provides the candidate with an experience which, the chances are, he will not be able to get in the actual direction of plays. Putting on a play is a long, complex, and, sometimes, an expensive process, involving the time and labor of many others besides the director. The task is such that the candidate, working in a course in play production, will be fortunate if he has the experience of directing three or four short plays during the year. These few experiences are not sufficient. He should have either the opportunity to direct more plays or find some way to simulate the process of production.

Now, every acted play lives first in the imagination of the director. He hears the lines spoken, sees the positions and movements of the actors, visualizes the backgrounds and the lighting, feels the scenes tighten and relax, and senses what must be coordinated and stressed for the climax. Every written play provides the director with complete material for such an imaginative production. Nothing else can provide it; nothing can take its place. With no more than the book of the play before him, the director can carry through the complete problem of direction and can, to a limited degree, have the experience of working out and putting his theoretical direction to a test—granted, of course, that he possesses imagination and theater sense enough to see what he is doing.

If a knowledge of the theater's past is desirable, a reading of plays is essential. These two branches of study may be carried on wherever books and plays are available. They do not require a practical theater. There are two other branches of preparatory study that must be carried on within the theater itself: one is the study of acting; the other, a study of stagecraft.

It does not require the services of a clever logician to demonstrate that the practice of acting is an integral part of the preparation for successful directing. A man who has never played a note on a musical instrument doesn't set himself up as an orchestra conductor, nor does one who has never painted a picture attempt to instruct in painting; a professional golf teacher knows how to play golf, and a teacher of journalism generally has had some experience in writing for newspapers. The relation of each of these teachers to his students is essentially the same as the relation of the director to his actors. The director will have to teach the untrained actor how to act and must suggest to the experienced actor what he is to do, and, perhaps, how he is to do it. In every instance an art, a craft, or a sport is taught better by a practitioner than by a non-practitioner.

How can the director adequately understand the problems an actor meets, as he tries to create a character for the stage, if he has never tried to create a character himself ? How can he be intelligently sympathetic toward his actors if he has never suffered the experience the actor is going through? How can he be very helpful if he cannot speak the language of the actor and tell him, in practical acting terms, what he wants him to do?

A capable, intelligent amateur actor does not want to repeat the irritating experience of working under a director who has never acted. He probably has chafed under absurd suggestions; he has been asked to do wrong, even impossible things, and in the end, it may well be, he has lost all confidence in his director. A director cannot tell people to do things unless he can show them how to do them.

In preparing for his profession, the director's most practical study is acting. It is not necessary, of course, that he play leading parts in public performances or bore audiences by acting in roles beyond his capacity; but it is essential that he try to create characters, learn the stage from behind the footlights, and experience the discouragement and exaltation which are common to the actor.

The reasons for the study of stagecraft are briefly enumerated; and, as with acting, the prospective director should learn about this branch of the acted play on the stage and not from books.

Keep always in mind that in the amateur theater, as it is now evolving, the director is accepted as the individual who has sole authority in creating the acted play; remember also that the acted play now embraces many things besides speaking lines from a platform; and do not forget that economic necessity usually bestows the office of stage supervisor upon the director whether he likes it or not. The amateur theater is not wealthy enough to hire a staff of designers, painters, and electricians who are capable of creating the backgrounds; it is fortunate if it possesses craftsmen who can do the work when it is laid out for them. And, finally, remember that even though a complete staff were possible in every theater, the unity of effect so desirable in a play—the "form" of which we shall speak later—can be more easily attained when one imagination, rather than several, conceives the complete production for the stage.

It is not essential that the director in the amateur theater design and construct his scenery, set up his lighting equipment, and make his costumes (though in many theaters he has so few assistants that he is compelled to do these things). No one advocates that he become a skilled workman in half a dozen crafts. What we are maintaining is that he shall know how scenery is made from having studied it and assisted in its actual construction; that he shall know what kind of scenery is practicable for his stage and play; that he shall know about painting and dyeing, about lighting equipment and how to operate lights, and about design and stage effects. In brief, that he shall make a study of modern stagecraft on the present-day stage; for, as we said about acting, a director who tells people to do things had better know how to show them.

He should begin this work with a study of design and the principles of art. Then he should have experience in the building and painting of scenery and in the operation of a switchboard for two concrete reasons. First, in order that this knowledge of the stage and its equipment shall be clearly in his mind when, as he reads, he begins to work out the production of the play. This knowledge will tend to make the completed production, in all of its visual aspects, a natural part of his conception; and it will tend to make the conception practicable, capable of realization, for the director will take into account, as he visualizes, the possibilities of his stage and its practical equipment.

The second reason for this experience is that in case he has only a few untrained workers to assist him in staging, he will be able to suggest and demonstrate how the scenery is to be constructed or the lighting is to be worked out. Nine times out of ten the director is called upon to do this. And even if he is fortunate enough to have a capable stage staff, he still should know enough about staging to express, intelligently, the ways in which the stage is to contribute to his play.

A study of theatrical history, reading of plays, acting practice, and acquisition of practical knowledge of stagecraft: here are four definite fields with which the apprentice should acquaint himself. To these fields we would add a fifth.

A college teacher with many years of experience in teaching drama recently remarked, "I grow discouraged over the number of students wishing to enter the theater field as teachers or directors who rebel at taking any course which is not concerned directly with speech or drama. Their shallow argument is always the same, `I don't see any sense in taking these courses which will do me no practical good.' "

A prospective director who wishes to restrict his cultural background is downright stupid. A candidate preparing for the profession of play directing should neglect neither a study of history, literature, sociology, politics, nor psychology. All drama more than a generation old profits in its presentation if the director is well acquainted with the period of its original production. Historical plays cannot be adequately produced without a knowledge of history. Most of the drama being written today is concerned, not with a simple action story but with an objective expression of some sociological, economic, or psychological problem. How can a director intelligently produce an Ibsen play if he is ignorant of psychology ? How can he produce any of the plays of Barrie or Pirandello or Lenormand or Andreyev ? Or how can he adequately interpret the dramatists of the Galsworthy school unless he knows something about sociology ? Even our comedies are frequently much more than laugh-provokers; they are studies of introversion or strange mental quirks; they are shrewd satires on politics and economics.

Drama has grown up intellectually; the director must do likewise. Drama embraces a wide range of culture; the director cannot be ignorant of this. He may know his stage, his theater history, the technique of drama, but if he does not know about life, which is the material of his play, he cannot interpret the play intelligently to his audience.

Suppose, for this reason or that, he chooses Sean O'Casey's Juno and the Paycock for production. In order to direct this play intelligently, it would be necessary, or at least advisable, that he possess a general knowledge of Irish history and of the Irishman's frustrations and ambitions; that he know something of the political and economic history of the city of Dublin; that he have an understanding of the Celtic revival and the establishment of the Abbey Theater; the personalities, policies, and production methods of this theater; in some detail the political events of Ireland from 1917 to 1927; something of Dublin architecture; Irish tunes, dialect, and psychology; Catholicism and Protestanism in Ireland and the degree of the religious spirit; the dress of the people, Irish funerals, and the race in its attitude toward hard liquor and the consumption of it. All this, and more, is required apart from any theatrical and directional knowledge the director may possess.

Suppose, instead, that he has decided to produce Dan Totheroh's Distant Drums. Now it is necessary or expedient for him to know something of the terrain from what was Westport, Missouri, to the Idaho mountains; he should have a general knowledge of the Oregon migration; of what type of immigrant went and why he went; a knowledge of the kind of clothes worn in 1848 and their materials and colors; Indian drum rhythms; dialects spoken at the time; colloquial pronunciations of certain words such as horse, cholera, and there (even though he may decide not to use these pronunciations) ; popular tunes of the day; the kinds of guns in use; he should also know something of the psychology of a group traveling from disaster to disaster, enduring increasing hardships for a period of three months, and the physical effect of such a journey on the people involved.

Every play makes some such demands on the knowledge of the director. If he is not adequately prepared to meet these demands, he cannot give a sympathetic, intelligent, accurate interpretation of the play. The director without a comprehensive knowledge of life is like a man who sets out to write a book, knowing something of grammar, vocabulary, and paragraphing, but little or nothing about the subject he has chosen. The result can be foretold from the start. The book, or the production, must be shallow, lifeless, inaccurate.

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