Monday, August 17, 2009


Another production handbook along the lines of those by Beach and Wilson, THE STAGE AND THE SCHOOL, by Katherine Anne Ommaney, gives a pretty decent overview to putting on a show.

Ommaney was an instructor at the North High School in Denver, Colorado, and her experience shows: this is a nearly exhaustive (and exhausting) book that covers the entire production process in enormous detail. Unlike Beach and Wilson's books, Ommaney doesnt limit herself to operetta but instead the entire gamut of the performing arts, from straight plays to musicales to pageants to even dramatic societies and how they should best be organized. Her focus is more on directing and acting -- with one chapter dedicated, in detail, to accents -- but she also inserts guidance on the art of the physical production and the craft of playwriting.

Each chapter provides exercises, some of which are... well, a little unusual (in the chapter on pantomime, she suggests going to the movies to watch George Arliss just for his hands). But her intent is obvious, to get her young actors and directors and playwrights and designers to think well beyond the traditional solution. For example, in the chapter on characterization, "laugh like a giggling schoolgirl in church; a fat man at a vaudeville show; a polite lady at a joke she has heard many times; a minister at a ladies' aid meeting." What's interesting (to me, anyway) about her choices is that they all require second level of thought -- not just a giggling schoolgirl, but one in church, which makes the exercise all the more intruiging.

Another, more complex exercise -- this one for playwrights -- starts with five clippings from the local paper. Each additional step in the exercise takes the nascent playwright deeper into the story-telling process: starting from the essential "what", s/he moves on to adding "who", "how", and "why" by working both in the micro ("write a detailed character sketch of the most interesting person you know") and the macro ("name five problems facing civilized people which you think must be solved by society"), then combining all of these various, seemingly unrelated facets into one working script.

Ommaney has a definite leaning towards the simple and direct yet comprehensive. "The average play written by high school students takes ten minutes to present, although there are sufficient possibilities in the plot for a half hour's action." She has little time for the irrelevant and trite: "the average conversation is too scattered, pointless, and dull to hold the attention of the audience" (David Mamet, take note!).

While not lavishly illustrated, THE STAGE AND THE SCHOOL has some wonderful black-and-white images of scenic design, created by Ben Kutcher. Kutcher came to the U.S. as a child and studied at the PAFA (1910-15) where he was awarded a traveling scholarship for one year of study in Europe. After serving in WWI, he worked in New York in advertising and theatrical work until 1927 and then moved to southern California. Known as an illustrator of children's books, he was a resident of Hollywood, CA until his death in 1967. His usual illustration style is heavily detailed, but in THE STAGE AND THE SCHOOL he abandons that for simpler images that reduce things to mass and shape. Nevertheless, there's a definite whimsey to his approach, even for what he considers "realistic" scenery. The endflaps, images of stylized character costumes, appear to be his work as well.

As with both the Beach and Wilson books, THE STAGE AND THE SCHOOL is an intruiging snapshot of stage production during the Depression. There's a great deal of emphasis on self-reliance and independence of thought, although Ommaney is careful to temper that with mentor-like guidance -- never pointedly pushing in one direction or another, but gently guiding around the traps and potholes.

There's also some fascinating theatre history that could put you on top of your game when it comes to trivia. For example, Ommaney goes into great detail about the Clavilux, devised by Thomas Wilfred as a means of shifting colours of light within the same instrument... a sort of early 30s version of a programmable LED or VariColor today.

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