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Some Questions And Answers

( Originally Published 1938 )

1. Question: Do I have to pay any royalty for this play if I don't charge admission to it?

Answer: If the play is to be given any sort of performance which may be called public, you do. Generally, on the page following the title page of a play, there is a printed statement concerning the royalty: "this play must not be performed by amateurs or professionals without written permission"; or, "do not make any arrangement for presentation of this play without first securing permission and terms in writing"; or, "no performance, representation, production, recitation, public reading, or radio broadcasting may be given except by special arrangement"; or, "no performance—either public or private—may be given without written con-sent." In other words, any play for which royalty is asked—or any performance, whether or not admission is to be charged—is subject to royalty payment. However, plays, or scenes from plays, may be used for work in classrooms with-out the payment.

2. Question: I have an actor who is fearful of forgetting lines. It affects his work. Is there any way to help him overcome this fear?

Answer: There is. One of the most certain ways to drive the thought of forgetting from your actor's mind, and to actually keep him from forgetting, is for him to listen to the other speeches and not think at all about what he has to say next.

3. Question: Should I ever cast a play according to type ?

Answer: Casting depends upon the objective of your production. If you are giving a play, not so much for the pleasure of your audience as to give your actors training, you need not, and in most cases you should not, cast for type. If your objective is to give the best presentation possible, you should cast with some sense of the relationship between the physical, vocal, and temperamental qualities of your character and those of your actor. This is only sensible. The director of athletics does not place a wiry, 135-pound football player at center; he uses him at quarterback or end.

4. Question: Should there be a reading of the play for the cast, or should the director put the play into rehearsal immediately and explain it as rehearsals proceed?

Answer: By all means have a reading of the play, and perhaps more than one. An actor must understand the whole play and his own part before he can begin to work intelligently.

5. Question: What different kinds of work is the director called upon to do?

Answer: The director of amateurs, trained and ready for his work, generally has to be not one man but five; for he has to be a psychologist, creative artist, businessman, fore-man or overseer, and teacher. He will find it necessary to use the talents of each of these individuals during the days when the play is in the process of creation. In attempting to be a combination of these five men, the director will be well occupied. More than this, he will be an overworked man. But if it is any consolation to him, his work will not be lacking in variety and interest.

6. Question: Is the making of a prompt book necessary?

Answer: It is not necessary, but it is advisable. The prompt book should contain the acting version of the play, stage business and comments, floor plans or sketches of the sets, property lists, designs or descriptions of the costumes, light plot, and so forth. The prompt book will then hold complete information about the production (which is useful to have at hand during the rehearsal period) and will also form a permanent record of the production for future reference.

7. Question: I went to The Dark Tower, given by the So-and-So Dramatic Club last week, and it seemed awfully long. We didn't get out until after eleven o'clock. Couldn't something have been done to speed it up ?

Answer: I would wager that the length of the presentation was due to a combination of three things: First, the actors talked too slowly and were not quick enough on their cues; second, the play should have been cut for amateurs; third, the waits were too long between the scenes and acts, because the stage crew either wasn't organized or wasn't properly rehearsed, and the actors were too slow in changing make-up and costumes. A full half hour could probably have been cut from the playing time.

8. Question: Would you state what you think is the greatest difference between a professional performance and an amateur performance?

Answer: In my opinion, the professionals play to please the audience, and the amateurs, much too frequently, play to please themselves.

9. Question: I sometimes have trouble getting my inexperienced actors to work up a love scene. Is there any suggestion which would be of help ?

Answer: The first suggestion is to rehearse the scene privately, perhaps at the end of a rehearsal when the rest of the cast has left the theater. The second suggestion is to go into the scene in a matter-of-fact manner or nonchalantly or in some way which will remove or lessen the self-consciousness of the two actors.

10. Question: Is it better to give my actors a copy of the whole play or just their own parts, with only the cue lines of the other actors?

Answer: By all means give them a copy of the whole play. They need to have the other speeches at hand when they are working out their own lines so that they may become acquainted with the contents of these speeches and understand the meaning of their own; and often they are given business to do during others' speeches, which, if they have the whole play, they may write down in their books in the proper place.

11. Question: Just what should I tell my actors to do when, in a rapid scene, a line gets a good hearty laugh from the audience?

Answer: Tell them to "hold everything," that is, to stop movement and speaking and remain in character until the laugh begins to die down. It might be wise, if the actors are inexperienced, to rehearse, once or twice, this business of holding the scene for the laugh.

12. Question: Should I advertise my play blatantly and extravagantly like the picture theaters do, or by simple announcements?

Answer: Nobody believes the extravagant advertising of the picture theaters, and people would be even less inclined to believe such advertising of the amateur play. Inform your public, yes; use every legitimate means of getting be-fore them the knowledge that you are giving a play. But don't announce an "all star cast" or any such absurdity. Modesty in publicising amateur plays is not a bad policy. And, after all, the "mouse trap" theory does hold true; if you give good plays, people will find it out and come to see them.

13. Question: How is it that a six-course dinner may be fully represented in a scene on the stage which lasts only fifteen minutes?

Answer: Because on the stage we do not have to represent everything. If we allowed the same time for a six-course dinner on the stage as we do in actual life, it would be as dull to watch from the auditorium as it would be to watch from a corner of the dining room. On the stage we deal with the essentials. We select the essentials necessary to the representation of a six-course dinner. We create the illusion through the use of significant details. A man on the stage picks up his coffee cup two times and drinks from it; that is enough, though in life he would perhaps raise it to his lips a dozen times. As soon as the illusion is created, we are ready to go on to something else—to the next course, in this instance. The illusion of all the essentials of a six-course dinner may be easily established in fifteen minutes.

14. Question: What should I do about drinking on the stage? or smoking? or the use of profanity?

Answer: We will not go into the discussion of whether or not plays need to be written with oaths and obscenities and drinking scenes; we will answer the question solely from the standpoint of whether or not the director should have his amateurs do these things for the play's sake. Remember, the director is trying to give the audience an emotional experience; he is trying to create and hold an illusion for them. Now, if Johnny Brown can swear without breaking the illusion, well and good; but if, when Johnny swears or drinks, the mind of the audience is diverted from the character Johnny is playing to Johnny himself and begins to think about what Johnny, the young student, is doing, then the line or the business should be cut.

15. Question: Should I insist that my actors feel the emotions they seek to portray?

Answer: No general answer can be given to this question. As Louis Calvert says, "Whether one should actually feel the emotions he portrays, or merely simulate them, has always been a debatable matter." During the early days of rehearsals it may be a good thing for the actor to feel the emotions; later, he may be able to simulate them. Certainly an actor who loses himself in the emotion is not going to be of much use in the teamwork that is demanded in a modern play. In a last analysis it is the illusion of emotion that we are after; and if the actor can give this illusion without feeling the emotion, not a thing is lost.

16. Question: Should I keep the stage clear of outsiders during a performance?

Answer: You should. Only the necessary stage crew should be permitted back stage. The actors should remain off stage until they are called for their scenes; and, if the dressing room situation is such that they have to be on stage throughout an act, order and quiet should be maintained. Stage discipline, however, should not begin with the first night of the performance, but with the first rehearsal.

17. Question: Don't you think that music between acts is a needless expense and aesthetically wrong?

Answer: If you can afford it and the music is appropriate, you'd better have it. Music has become a part of our theater experience, and we miss it when it is absent; it furnishes relief from the tension of the play; it can preserve or build toward the atmosphere of the play during the intermissions; it is not aesthetically wrong; and it is certainly preferable to the gloomy silence or the funereal mood of whispered waiting that sometimes fills an auditorium between the acts when there is no music.

18. Question: Can't you suggest a list of plays from which directors can make a choice?

Answer: Too many diverse conditions enter into the choice of a play to make any list very serviceable : acting material, audience personality, theater equipment, temperament of the director, budget available, time of the year, and so forth. A play well suited to one community may be a poor choice for another community twelve miles away; a play that is appropriate one season may be inappropriate the next. The list from which the director chooses includes hundreds of plays, almost every play he has read or knows about; taking into account all the specific conditions surrounding a specific time and place, he selects from his list a play which most nearly meets all his conditions.

19. Question: Of how much value is a complete organization of the departments of a production from director down through heads of each stage department and on through their assistants?

Answer: Of just as much or little value as the human factors who make up the organization. Organization for the sake of organization is valueless. If, however, the director has people with a capacity for real assistance, such a complete organization may be very helpful and relieve him of many details; but if such an organization is in name only, and the people assigned to positions have had very little training or have very little inclination to be of help, then, beyond looking impressive on the printed program, such an organization will be more of a liability than an asset.

20. Question: What shall I do about dialect plays?

Answer: This is true about dialect: It cannot be learned from books; even if the pronunciation of the dialect may be approximated, the speech tune cannot be transcribed to the printed page, and the speech tune is important. Dialect can be learned only through hearing the dialect spoken; therefore, if the actors have direct access to the dialect, they may employ it in the play; if they have no opportunity to hear it, they should not attempt it. Incidentally, if the actors don't know the dialect and can't learn anything about it, the audience won't know anything about it either—in which case, it would better remain unspoken and some corresponding American speech substituted.

21. Question: I tell my actors to enter on the cues, as indicated, and they do; but the timing never seems right.

Answer: Perhaps the trouble is that the actor enters on the last word of the cue speech and arrives too late; he takes the author's request that he enter at this moment, too liter-ally. Begin working out an entrance from the moment when the entering actor comes into the scene; then work backwards to his start from the wings. It may be that the actor will have to get ready and start for the door a full sentence before the suggested cue, in order to be in position in time.

22. Question : Should I ever permit actors to ad lib. a scene?

Answer: Yes and no. In a scene in which, for a few moments, the conversation of several characters is a background for some other dialogue or an undertone to some piece of business or is used deliberately for transition or to create a mood, the actors may make up for themselves their bits of conversation. But these little speeches should always be in character, and once they have hit upon something appropriate, the actors should hold to it and not change from night to night.

23. Question: What should I do about the mumbling or murmuring of a crowd ?

Answer: Give your actors words to say, not just sounds to make. A "mumble-mumble-mumble" does not sound real. The actors should speak words under their breath that make sense.

24. Question: How can I get the effect of building up in a dialogue and of one speech rising above the other?

Answer: By having your actor begin his speech with a change of attack, with a little more life and force, and by not taking the same tone and attack of the preceding speaker; in other words, by having your actor always "top" the preceding speech. The tone and force with which an actor tops a previous speech should not (in general) be increased or even maintained throughout his own speech, but should be given variations which, during the speech, diminish some of its initial force or loudness. Unless this is done, the two actors are soon shouting and screaming at each other. It is the attack of a new speech over one just spoken which gives dialogue its effect of build and rise toward a climax.

25. Question: What sort of a person should I select as a prompter?

Answer: A prompter should have the power of concentration, a good timing sense, be reliable and controlled, and not mind a tedious job. A prompter should be somewhat like a good stenographer—sensitive instantly when anything is wrong with the machinery, but not interested in the content of her work; attending solely to the machinery of the presentation and unaffected by the emotional life of the scenes. Good actors usually make poor prompters; and so do directors.

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