Wednesday, June 10, 2009

MUSICO-DRAMATIC PRODUCING

This "manual for stage and musical directors" (1930) by Charles T. H. Jones and Don Wilson (yep, the same Don Wilson) covers much of the same ground as the handbook by Frank Beach discussed earlier in this blog. But while Beach's book goes into a great deal more detail about the specifics of production, Jones and Wilson's has the advantage of photographs and illustrations that give us a real opportunity to see these shows as they were presented during the Depression era.

Wilson (seen here) commands much of the space in the later chapters with discussions about a production of PURPLE TOWERS at the University of Washington. Page after page is devoted to the publicity of the show, in which it seems every single day, from the first rehearsal to opening night, had an article of some kind in the local paper as well the university newspaper. Prior to that, tho, we get to see pictures of CARRIE COMES TO COLLEGE, IN OLD VIENNA (performed by a company in Japan!), THE LUCKY JADE, and countless others as given by high schools, colleges, and community groups — not to mention a score or so of photos of mostly unidentified productions from the Chicago Civic Opera... as, I gather, examples of how the pros do it.

The book carries you through the entire process, from casting ("For the leading lady, an attractive girl with a small voice is preferable to an adipose type with grand opera aspirations.") to vocal coaching ("Singing by people absolutely devoid of vocal prowess is torture for the performer and audience alike."), through the rehearsal period, first dress, and finally opening night, as well as what to do with everything afterwards. As a composer, Wilson puts almost undue emphasis on the music, with page after page of tips and tricks for nascent conductors, chorus masters, rehearsal pianists, and vocal directors, while actual stage direction is relegated to a few common sense points about "creating a pretty stage picture". The sections on building scenery and costumes are woefully thin compared to the Beach book, but Jones and Wilson do have some interesting ideas about lighting, both in colour theory and how to construct the lighting stands themselves. For example, in the discussion about "bunch lights", which are essentially a bunch of lightbulbs inside a wooden box, the authors note the use of coloured gel sheets to create mood:

To change color frame without turning off the lights, place the new frame in front of the old one, then withdraw the latter. If this is not carefully done, there will be an instant of plain white light which spoils the effect.

Note: they're talking about doing this during a performance. Not at intermission or at a scene break. I can only imagine what that pressure must have been like for the kid who got stuck changing the light gels because he couldnt sing or act or dance.

Nevertheless, again, this book is — now anyways — all about the pictures, showing productions from the days when one had to be imaginative with materials because there wasnt a whole lot around to work with. Unsurprisingly, cardboard shows up a lot as a scenic medium, after it's been sized with something called "calcimine", which I gather is something akin to gesso. There's a great deal of reliance on existing stage drapes, such that the scenic design is reduced to a few platforms, some well-placed props, and little more. Butcher paper is another preferred skin for flats. Inexplicably, the authors seem to think exteriors are easier to build and paint by amateurs than interiors.

In the costume section, there's some fun little costume drawings. devoted to various nationalities and "ethnics", from the usual gypsies and omnipresent Dutch to (of all things) apache dancers (Should you not know what "apache dancing" is, this was an "entertainment" craze of the late 20s in which the woman is pretty well assaulted in every way imaginable by her sadistic partner, including being dragged across the dance floor by her hair). The costume notes are just as simplistic as those given scenery: to Jones and Wilson, with the right accessories, virtually everything can come out of the downstairs closet. Unlike the costume book I wrote about earlier, it's almost painfully obvious that in this area, Jones and Wilson are at the mercy of strangers, that they really have no idea what they're talking about. But that's okay, I suppose: one cant be expected to be a master of everything theatrical, right?

All in all, MUSICO-DRAMATIC PRODUCING is worth it solely for the imagery, not the tips and advice (although some of the casting suggestions are howlingly sexist). I get the impression that this book was published as a giveaway (The jacket has no price.), something enclosed for preferred clients at places like Willis or Hoffman. It's an enjoyable read as a period piece, but I honestly wonder how it was viewed at the time. I suspect that the publishers thought Wilson's name would be enough to carry it — and had he restrained himself to talking solely about music, it might have made a difference.

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