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- Writing for Vaudeville - 5/95 -


To achieve success in any art the artist must know his tools and for what purposes they are designed. Furthermore, to achieve the highest success, he must know what he cannot do as well as what he can do with them.

The vaudeville stage--considered as a material thing--lends itself to only a few definite possibilities of use, and its scenery, lights and stage-effects constitute the box of tools the vaudeville writer has at his command.

I. THE PHYSICAL PROPORTIONS OF THE VAUDEVILLE STAGE

The footlights are the equator of the theatre, separating the "front of the house," or auditorium, from the "back of the house," or stage. The frame through which the audience views the stage is the "proscenium arch." Flat against the stage side of the arch run the "house curtain" and the asbestos curtain that are raised at the beginning and lowered at the end of the performance.

That portion of the stage which lies between the curving footlights and a line drawn between the bases of the proscenium arch is called the "apron." The apron is very wide in old-fashioned theatres, but is seldom more than two or three feet wide in recently built houses.

1. One

Back of the proscenium arch--four feet or more behind it--you have noticed canvas-covered wings painted in neutral-toned draperies to harmonize with every sort of curtain, and you have noticed that they are pushed forward or drawn back as it is found necessary to widen or make narrow the stage opening. These first wings, called "tormentors," [1] extend upward from the floor--anywhere from 18 to 25 feet,--to the "Grand Drapery" and "Working Drapery," or first "border," which extend and hang just in front of them across the stage and hide the stage-rigging from the audience. The space lying between the tormentors and a line drawn between the bases of the proscenium arch is called "One."

[1] No one of the score I have asked for the origin of the word _tormentor_ has been able to give it. They all say they have asked old-time stage-carpenters, but even they did not know.

It is in One that monologues, most "single acts"--that is, acts presented by one person--and many "two-acts"--acts requiring but two people--are played.

Behind the tormentors is a curtain called the "olio," which fulfills the triple purpose of hiding the rest of the stage, serving as scenery for acts in One and often as a curtain to raise and lower on acts playing in the space back of One.

2. Two

Five, or six, or even seven feet behind the tormentors you have noticed another set of wings which--extending parallel with the tormentors--serve to mask the rest of stage. The space between these wings and the line of the olio is called "Two."

In Two, acts such as flirtation-acts--a man and a woman playing lover-like scenes--which use scenery or small "props," and all other turns requiring but a small playing space, are staged.

3. Three

An equal number of feet back of the wings that bound Two, are wings that serve as boundaries for "Three."

In Three, playlets that require but shallow sets, and other acts that need not more than twelve feet for presentation, are played.

4. Four or Full Stage

Behind the wings that bound Three are another pair of wings, set an equal number of feet back, which serve as the boundaries of "Four." But, as there are rarely more than four entrances on any stage, Four is usually called "Full Stage."

In Full Stage are presented all acts such as acrobatic acts, animal turns, musical comedies, playlets and other pretentious acts that require deep sets and a wide playing space.

5. Bare Stage

Sometimes the very point of a playlet depends upon showing not the conventional stage, as it is commonly seen, but the real stage as it is, unset with scenery; therefore sometimes the entire stage is used as the playing stage, and then in the vernacular it is called "Bare Stage." [1]

[1] The New Leader, written by Aaron Hoffman and played for so many years by Sam Mann & Company, is an excellent example of a Bare Stage act.

On the opposite page is a diagram of the stage of Keith's Palace Theatre, New York City. A comparison of the preceding definitions with this diagram should give a clear understanding of the vaudeville playing stage.

II. THE WORKING DEPARTMENTS OF THE VAUDEVILLE STAGE

At audience-right--or stage-left--flat against the extended wall of the proscenium arch in the First Entrance (to One) there is usually a signal-board equipped with push buttons presided over by the stage-manager. The stage-manager is the autocrat behind the scenes. His duty is to see that the program is run smoothly without the slightest hitch or wait between acts and to raise and lower the olio, or to signal the act-curtain up or down, on cues. [2]

[2] A _cue_ is a certain word or action regarded as the signal for some other speech or action by another actor, or the signal for the lights to change or a bell to ring or something to happen during the course of a dramatic entertainment.

[diagram]

STAGE-DIAGRAM OF THE PALACE THEATRE, NEW YORK

The author wishes to express his thanks to Mr. Elmer F. Rogers, house-manager, and Mr. William Clark, stage-manager, respectively, of the Palace Theatre, for the careful measurements from which this diagram was drawn.

When an act is ready to begin, the stage-manager pushes a button to signal the olio up or raises it himself--if, that drop [1] is worked from the stage--and on the last cue he pushes another button to signal the curtain down, or lowers it himself, as the case may be. He keeps time on the various acts and sees that the performers are ready when their turn arrives. Under the stage-manager are the various departments to which the working of scenery and effects are entrusted.

[1] A _drop_ is the general name for a curtain of canvas--painted to represent some scene and stretched on a batten--a long, thick strip of wood--pocketed in the lower end to give the canvas the required stability. _Sets of lines_ are tied to the upper batten on which the drop is tied and thus the drop can be raised or lowered to its place on the stage. There are sets of lines in the rear boundaries of One, Two, Three and Four, and drops can be _hung_ on any desired set.

1. The Stage-Carpenter and His Flymen and Grips

As a rule the stage-manager is also the stage-carpenter. As such he, the wizard of scenery, has charge of the men, and is able to erect a palace, construct a tenement, raise a garden or a forest, or supply you with a city street in an instant.

Up on the wall of the stage, just under a network of iron called the "gridiron"--on which there are innumerable pulleys through which run ropes or "lines" that carry the scenery--there is, in the older houses, a balcony called the "fly-gallery." Into the fly-gallery run the ends of all the lines that are attached to the counter-weighted drops and curtains; and in the gallery are the flymen who pull madly on these ropes to lift or lower the curtains and drops when the signal flashes under the finger of the stage-manager at the signal-board below. But in the newer houses nearly all drops and scenery are worked from the stage level, and the fly-gallery--if there is one--is deserted. When a "set" is to be made, the stage-carpenter takes his place in the centre of the stage and claps his hands a certain number of times to make his men understand which particular set is wanted--if the sequence of the sets has not yet been determined and written down for the flymen to follow in definite order. Then the flymen lower a drop to its place on the stage and the "grips" push out the "flats" that make the wall of a room or the wings that form the scenery of a forest--or whatever the set may be.

2. The Property-Man and His Assistants

Into the mimic room that the grips are setting comes the Property-man--"Props," in stage argot--with his assistants, who place in the designated positions the furniture, bric-a-brac, pianos, and other properties, that the story enacted in this room demands.

After the act has been presented and the curtain has been rung down, the order to "strike" is given and the clearers run in and take away all the furniture and properties, while the property-man substitutes the new furniture and properties that are needed. This is done at the same time the grips and fly men are changing the scenery. No regiment is better trained in its duties. The property-man of the average vaudeville theatre is a hard-worked chap. Beside being an expert in properties, he must be something of an actor, for if there is an "extra man" needed in a playlet with a line or two to speak, it is on him that the duty falls. He must be ready on the instant with all sorts of effects, such as glass-crashes and wood-crashes, when a noise like a man being thrown downstairs or through a window is required, or if a doorbell or a telephone-bell must ring at a certain instant on a certain cue, or the noise of thunder, the wash of the sea on the shore, or any one of a hundred other effects be desired.

3. The Electrician

Upon the electrician fall all the duties of Jove in the delicate matter of making the sun to shine or the moon to cast its pale rays over a lover's scene. Next to the stage-manager's signal-board,


Writing for Vaudeville - 5/95

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