> > > >

1947-48 Theatre Catalog, 6th Edition, Page 16 (4)

1947-48 Theatre Catalog, 6th Edition
1947-48 Theatre Catalog
1947-48 Theatre Catalog, 6th Edition, Page 16
Page 16

1947-48 Theatre Catalog, 6th Edition, Page 16

do a little hasty research. There is no time to go to the library, but there is always a New York telephone directory or an illustrated dictionary handy for ready reference. If he is lucky and a good shop is in the neighborhood, he can look at fabric while eating a sandwich lunch. Under no circumstances, however, is the designer permitted the luxury of a second thought! The first design idea that strikes him is the design, good, bad, or indifferent. Sometimes the designer and the director have as much as a good hour together to exchange ideas.

Second week: The director has approved sketches and plans on paper. By the end of the first week of rehearsal, problems have arisen in certain scenes when actually tried out and rehearsed which necessitate changes. This is normal and quite usual. While the actors break for the lunch hour, the director, balancing a bottle of milk on the telephone companyls handy high shelf, holds a sandwich in the same hand that accommodates the earphone. At the other end

*of the line, the designer is in the builderis shop, just behind a buzz saw; the wind from the fan is blowing his blueprint, but he firmly stands on it with both feet and screams his end of the conference into the telephone. This type of conference is naturally a little hard on the digestive systems of both parties, but actually a lot harder on the quality of the final production on the stage.

Now comes either a tragedy or a comedy. Too often it is the former. The production is assembled in the theatre. Privately the designers heart sinks. He sees too many bits and pieces assembled for the first time. Individually and in their respective shops of creation, they seemed right, but put together they fail to capture what was in his creative mind.

The director is even more sadly disillusioned. ffI never imagined there was so little room in the second act?y During that first telephone conference he thought he had heard the designer say something different. The comedy, which is rare, very rare, is when the director walks into the theatre and says ftHow amaz , ing! What a coincidence! That7s exactly l-the quality I planned myself. It is astonishing how clairvoyant you are! We both had the same thought!"

What to Do?

This slightly exaggerated and brief outline is the story of top-notch directors and top-notch designers. They are men with every desire and ability to do 1 the best work in the theatre. The reasons 'for this mad scramble are many. It is a vicious circle. Producer X will not fire the starting gun until he has secured a i booking and a star or a cast, but he aoften fails to realize that the creative planning team should have plenty of time to mull over and create a master ' plan for the production, One of the great qualities of the European theatre has been the development of working teams headed by a creative director. It is true that our economic and labor conditions would make it impossible for a company to live together for weeks and months 'before final rehearsal. However, I do think that the economic investment on 1the part of the producer in giving his creative team a head start would pay dividends.

One of the hardest jobs of the director-designer combination is to achieve a boiled-down essence of what the play really needs in the way of production. I am speaking in terms not alone of scenery, but light, costumes, tempo, and sound. This boiled-down essence cannot be achieved in a hasty conference of a quickly digested first idea.


One of the worst infiuences Hollywood has had on American playwriting and production is an exaggerated instance on literal realism in the theatre. Too many good manuscripts are written in terms of tfrealism" as the cameras eye sees it. To me, the best realism in the theatre is selective realism. I do not mean necessarily impressionism, but translating an authoris script in terms of a theatric reality is a hard job to do. The authors could and should employ it more in their writing. However, a creative directordesigner team can achieve this if it is given time to do so.

Several years ago, when that brilliant production, "Our Town," was running on Broadway, there was much controversy regarding plays without settings. People were reported asking at the box office "Is there any scenery in this playiw

The real question, the question. worth asking, is "is there any theatre in the sceneryiw

For there is no such thing as presenting a play without scenery. The moment a company starts speaking their lines, even on an empty stage under a work light, there is a setting, though perhaps not a very effective one. The stage platform elevating the players above the audience is theatric in itself. The concentrating work light also adds a focal and dramatic element to the scene.

There is nothing new in the attempt to simplify the setting for a play. It dates back to the first formal drama. But there is always something new in a fresh attack on an old problem. I believe that the designer in the modern theatre (and I go back to Adolphe Appia and Gordon Craig) has always been eager to attack his job in a fresher and more imaginative manner. And the audience, for its part, is quick to welcome an unconventional production, provided it is theatrically edective.

Implied Scenery

The reason such attempts are rare is due to the fear of playwrights and producer of offending the audiences sense of reality, and to their lack of faith in the appeal of imaginative and suggestive settings. Even in Hollywood, however, where belief in the literal-mindedness of the public is a practically unquestioned canon, the average cameraman and director knows and uses to

e advantage such simplifications as the

close up, which eliminates all detail and focuses attention on the actors. If a lens is ever invented that will allow the entire contents of a room to be viewed under the comely chins of Charles Boyer and Irene Dunne, in a closeup, I am afraid there will be a rush to use it! There is always the old urge to overstate facts which are only important if they are implied once.

What I call Implied Scenery is, for me, the most effective. It is a- rare and happy day when I have the chance to

caress a good play with just that right touch, and I was, therefore, grateful to the courage and faith of the Playwrights' Company for the chance to try a scenic experiment with the new production of HAbe Lincoln in Illinois," which is now in its second year in New York,

In my original designs for the play, which was then at the Plymouth, I reduced the settings to a sort of concentrated realism with the purpose of accenting the most telling objects in each scene.

In moving the play to the larger Adelphia, the Playwrights presented me with this problem: To design a simple, fast-moving, easily - handled production of this 12-scene play, sacrificing nothing of its dramatic effectiveness, yet scaling the operating costs within the range of the wonderful ideal of a popular dollartop theatre.

I began by listing the endless nonessentials (and it was an endless list) which had surrounded the actors in each of the twelve scenes originally, and then proceeded to pare down the list.

Take, for example, the scene in which young Lincoln visits his future bride, Mary Todd, in the formal parlor of the Ninian Edwards home. At first, the scene depicted a mid-Victorian home in alle or nearly alleits fussy elegance of drapes and doodads. When I finished my censorship of the list of items, there remained, as essentials: (a) beautiful character-revealing lighting; (b) the one period sofa and the two chairs actually for the actors to sit on; and (c) a storytelling mantel-shelf and iron stove, to communicate the mood and character of that particular family at the particular period.

Left out were the walls, the doors, the, windows, the draperies, pictures, unneeded furniture, and extra trimmings. And when the scene came to be rehearsed at the Adelphi, it was found that the lack of a door not only did not prevent Mr. Gaines, as Lincoln, from making an effective entrancFits absence actually punctuated Sherwoodis beautiful lines.

An emphasis of a different kind is provided in the second scene, when the pes- . simistic old veteran of the Revolution, Ben Mattling, is trying to dissuade young Abe Lincoln from going into politics. In its original setting, the walls of the Rutledge Tavern were decorated with engravings of former presidents of the United States, and in his diatribe against the degradation of the democratic dogma, old Ben would point to each in turn as he spoke the lines "Look at Washington. Look at Jefferson. And John Adams. Where are they today? Dead?) The line was always good for a laugh. But in the present production, the tavern has no walls; there are no pictures of the presidents. Old Ben speaks the lines without pointing. And yet the laugh on his final indignant itDead!" is far louder than it used to be at the Plymouth. Why?

Because a non-essential has been removed. When Ben used to actually point to the portraits, there was a slight distraction. Instead of focusing entirely on the actor and his words, the audience used to follow his pointing cane. Pen haps some of them wondered if the pictures on the wall were really of Washington, Jefferson, and Adams. At any

1947-48 Theatre Catalog, 6th Edition, Page 16