The Director And His Stage
( Originally Published 1938 )
THE SUBJECT of stagecraft does not fall within the limits of our study; but since stages vary so much in size and equipment, we will say a few words about the stage in its relation to direction. We have stages with proscenium openings ranging in width from fifteen to seventy-five feet, stages equipped with flexible lighting instruments and machinery for changing scenery, and other stages as bare as a speaker's platform; so the specific stage upon which the play is to be presented must be in the director's mind when he makes his selection and afterward when he plans his settings and devises his stage business.
In respect to size, what, in most instances, the director needs is a stage with an opening of thirty to forty feet, an unencumbered space of ten to twenty feet on each side of the opening, a depth of at least twenty-five feet, and a height sufficient for the disappearance of drops. But alas, he cannot choose his stage as he chooses his play or actors; he must use whatever is at hand.
Suppose his stage is big and roomy, situated at the end of a large auditorium seating fifteen hundred or two thousand people. Such a stage has several advantages. The director will have space in which to work and to. change scenery; he will never feel cramped and never wonder where he is going to put the properties and settings necessary for the presentation; he may be able to use some device, such as a wagon stage, for a quick change of scenery. But a large stage in a large auditorium has its disadvantages as well. Building a set of scenery for a large stage is more expensive, changing scenery is more cumbersome, and training his actors to "fill" a big stage and project into a large auditorium is a real problem.
The modern play provides another definite difficulty for the director with a big stage. Plays of an earlier day were written for immense stages, but the plays of today are writ-ten for a stage of moderate size. Realistic plays are generally intimate plays; the settings asked for are not courtyards and halls of state, but ordinary-sized rooms in homes and apartment buildings; the actors are not expected to take twenty strides from the entrance door to the table at center, but a half dozen thirty-inch steps; and they are not asked to shout their lines across space at one another, but speak them in what gives the illusion of a conversational tone. A director with a big stage is under some necessity of choosing a play to fit his stage. When he chooses an intimate play like Shaw's Candida, Irvine's John Ferguson or Van Druten's There's Always Juliet, he cannot give his play the stage it needs.
In adapting an intimate play to a large stage, the director can reduce the width of the opening for his setting by using a false proscenium which extends inward onto the stage behind the permanent proscenium. But in bringing his side walls in, he is changing his sight lines ; and now he must have his action take place nearer the center of the stage, otherwise the spectators sitting on the sides of the auditorium will not be able to see what is going on.
Sometimes the situation is reversed, and the director has to adapt his play to a very small stage. Now he finds that although it does not cost him so much to construct and paint a set for his stage, there are difficulties to be overcome in changing sets and in handling and storing scenery and properties. A cramped stage space may put a tax on his ingenuity; he may have to spend a great deal of time in overcoming the inadequacies of space—time which could better be given to the interpretation of the play. But a small stage is not without several good features. In the first place, the modern play can be set upon a small stage much more reasonably than upon a large one. Another advantage is that his actors, in their use of voice and body, fit a small stage. Most of our amateur actors are matter-of-fact actors. It is difficult for them to project voice, emotion, or bodily language beyond that which is found in ordinary living; if they succeed in heightening their projection, they are often stagey. The advantages of the small stage, which is situated in a small auditorium (if it possesses working space), seem to overbalance the disadvantages.
Once in a while, in a modern play, a setting is called for which seems to demand a great space: the bridge scene in Winterset, the island scene in Mary Rose, the hill-and-prairie background in Distant Drums are examples. What is the director to do with desert or canyon or other such pretentious scenes if he has a playing space of only twenty by twenty feet?
The problem is not so great as it may appear to the be-ginner. Usually he can bring some masses together in the foreground (towering rocks in The Great Divide, clumps of trees and bushes in Mary Rose) and use these masses much as wings were used in the old theaters. Back of these wings, even on a drop twenty feet wide by twelve feet high, he can suggest a distant vista which seems to cover many miles. He soon learns that he does not have to represent everything on his stage. The base of a pillar, in the right proportion, may suggest great height, and the background, perhaps only fifteen feet from the footlights, may give the effect of illimitable distance.
Besides the varying sizes of stages, the director has to con-tend with a diversity of equipment. Amateur stages are being equipped much better than formerly, but, occasionally, a director is given a stage with only the simplest equipment—a row of footlights, one or two border lights, two conventional sets of scenery, and nothing else. The director, working on such a stage, may grow discouraged and reason that since the audience is accustomed to the same old sets and lighting, they will bear with any inadequacy in the play's physical environment. This attitude dodges responsibility. The director's task is to give the audience a theater experience; it expects good stage environment in scenery and lighting. But if he can do nothing about his conventional equipment (and nine times out of ten he can), he will be able to help his audience, first, by choosing plays which do not depend on individualized settings and intricate lighting effects for their presentation, and, second, he can spend more time on his actors.
A poorly equipped stage is a challenge to the director. He can depend only on his actors to put over the play. In a last analysis, nothing is absolutely necessary for a successful play but good actors, well directed. Directors sometimes depend upon striking scenery, expensive costumes, and startling lighting effects when they should be depending more upon the playing of their actors. For how long is a striking set dramatically effective? One minute? Or five? How soon before an audience grows accustomed to a beautiful costume? And then they want the show to go on.
It might be a good test of a director's ability to give him a simple, unequipped stage and a group of ordinary actors, and ask him to create a play. If he were intelligent, he would probably learn a great deal about acting that he never knew before, and find in acting, and acting alone, sufficient resources for giving the audience the experience it desires.
But no good director should be asked to spend all his days working on a small, bare stage; he should not have to give over his time to working with a hopelessly inadequate equipment that thwarts a freedom of expression in the various fields of staging; he should feel free to produce some of the modern plays which call for a well-equipped stage.
What, the beginning director may ask, do you mean by a well-equipped stage? The answers to this question vary. Perhaps, though, we can make a list of simple, usable equipment that will satisfy the demands of most of our amateur plays.
First, we would ask for a stage with a thirty-foot proscenium opening, with at least ten feet of free wing space on either side—more would be better—with a depth of twenty-five feet, and a gridiron forty feet above the stage floor, that is, of sufficient height to carry drops sixteen feet high out of the range of vision of the audience when the stage is set. The gridiron should be equipped with pulleys and ropes, counterweighted, in fifteen or more sets, for handling the drops and the top borders. The drops may be handled from a fly gallery, eighteen or twenty feet above the floor and against a side wall; or, as in some of the newer stages, the drops may be operated from the stage floor.
We would ask for a scene dock for the convenient storage of scenery and in order that, during the performance, the scenery need not be stored flat against the walls. And we would request, if possible, a workshop opening onto the stage in order that scenery and properties need not be built either away from the theater or on the stage itself.
When we come to lighting, we are likely to ask for more than we will get, for lighting equipment is expensive. Certainly we would ask for footlights with three circuits, properly installed, and at least one row of border lights above the stage. We would want a good switchboard, situated near the stage opening, down front and would insist that all light units be connected with interlocking dimmers. Dimmers, as almost everyone knows by now, are used to gradually increase and decrease the amount of power in the circuits, and so give the impression of increasing light and gathering darkness. We would ask for several floor sockets, situated at right, left, and back of the playing space, and two flood lights and two spot lights that can be plugged into these sockets. And, lastly, we would try to get a small light bridge above the first border (just back of the front curtain) or a rod running parallel with the border, to which may be attached a number of individual light units—small spots and flood lights, for the specific illumination of the scenes. And before we purchased this equipment, we would consult with an authority on stage lighting and not depend upon the salesman from some stage-equipment company to tell us what we needed.
There is one other thing for which we would ask: a sufficient number of spacious dressing rooms which are not on the stage, but are easily accessible to it.
With a stage of these dimensions and this modest equipment, the director will feel free to choose his play for his audience and his actors and need not feel that the limitations of his stage will prevent an adequate staging of it. More equipment than we have listed can be used to excellent advantage. But, as we proceed, we shall have in mind a modest stage, such as we have been describing.
Even now, many directors of amateurs have stages fully equipped and capable of handling, from scenic, lighting, and stage standpoints, the production of modern plays in the modern manner. Let us dream of the day when every director shall have adequate stage space and sufficient equipment so that his imagination need not be wholly employed in overcoming all manner of difficulties, such as a too-low roof, no side space, or a row of pipes twelve feet backstage from the footlights; and so that he will be at liberty to devote his time and energy to the play and therefore provide the acted play with all it needs for its presentation.