Saturday, September 6, 2008


I cant imagine any school theatre department in the 1930s being without a copy of this, a book that was arguably the Bible for anyone considering mounting a production. I received a copy today (from, in remarkably beautiful condition, including surprisingly complete gold leafing on the cover. Within, Frank Beach covers everything from how to choose the script to casting to building scenery to wrangling recalcitrant six-year-olds to finding sponsors to pay for everything. For a small book of only 200 pages, it tells you everything you need to know.

Written in 1930, it's fascinating to read Beach's solution for doing just about everything on the cheap: he starts from the position that the school doesnt have a lot of money to throw around and then provides hundreds of tips and techniques to stretch that money as far as possible. Under his tutorship, no material is too humble (even crepe paper!) and no method too home-spun. For example, in the section on costuming, he notes how dying something red and then dying the same material blue gives it a depth and colour that you cant get by simply colouring it purple. Rice and galvanized wire create a rain effect. A lighting dimmer is made from a watertight barrel and two pieces of iron piping. The bok is almost a celebration of elevating the simple and mundane to the level of the utterly theatrical, and I can easily see a teacher out there in Kansas or Nebraska looking at a complex and elaborate play like The Fire Prince (which was probably Beach's inspiration, as he mentions it in almost every chapter) and thinking, Okay, maybe I *can* pull this puppy off.

Particularly interesting is how Beach positions a production as the end result of cooperation between several school departments -- not only theatre and music, but also chemistry, home economics, "manual training", business, and language arts. It suggests that a theatre production is something in which everyone can participate as a project that would build meaningful life skills, regardless of field of endeavor -- a concept so radical to us today that it makes one wonder what Beach might have written were he discussing, say, a football game.

Nevertheless, his thesis is a solid one. Who better to use their nascent skills in promotion and bookkeeping than the students actually interested in business? And who better to build effects for smoke and the like than students in the physical sciences? Yes, in theory it's good for an acting student to know more than just how to act, but at the same time, it's a shame we moved away from this holistic approach to education to a more compartmentalized one.

But it's something from Beach's introduction that seems especially salient:

One measure of the value of our education is the degree to which it carries over from grades to high school, and from high school to adult years. Music, particualrly in its concerted forms, afford unusual opportunity for such a transmission of interest. For the pleasure derived from the presentation of the operetta and the cantata in the school years may find its counterpart in the ault life of a community through mature expression in the form of choral singing and amateur opera. But have the adults in the community the inclination for the production of the amateur opera? For answer we may ask: is this, primarily and exclusively, a jazz age? Can only the unusual, the bizarre, the risqué awaken a response? Are the adults of our community so effete, so surfeited with effortless enjoyment that they have lost the power of initiative and become immune to the satisfaction which results from creating one's own pleasure? Have the time-saving inventions of today actually left less time for avocations? Has the physical and mental inertia inspired by the "talkies" and the radio stifled all ambition for accomplishment along cultural lines?

A different time, indeed.

And then again, not so different after all...

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