III. A Quick Look at the Professional Theatre
Well, now that we have some sense of the beginning of spoken drama in Athens a few thousand years ago and the type of buildings in which theatre happens, here’s a quick primer on the modern American professional theatre, or at least those parts of it that you’re likely to encounter at first.
There are generally two types of modern American professional theatres: resident theatres and non-resident theatres. If you go to a “Broadway” show in a large city other than New York, you’re likely seeing the “national tour” version of a show that was popular enough in NYC to last for at least one performance on Broadway. (Reviews come out on opening night, so a total turkey sometimes shuts down right after the papers/blogs/chat boards have had their say.) These are very professional shows, cast with a mix of not-ready-for-prime-time folks starting their careers and veterans who have been dancing in the chorus for decades. The event that you see is a scrupulously re-created re-enactment of what happened on Broadway, and everyone involved has just flown/bussed into town for a week or two to set it up at the local theatre.
(Which is occasionally larger and better-provisioned than the original theatre in New York.)
This arrangement goes back to the 19th century, interestingly enough. When the cross-country railroad construction boom allowed residents of the eastern cities to go west in search of lucre and breathable air, the theatrical troupes that had coalesced around actor-managers in New York and Philadelphia discovered that they could make money by packing some scenery and a few actors into a train and sending it off down the line. Large “opera houses” sprang up in railway towns, sometimes staffed only by a custodian who would unlock the facilities for the visiting troupe.
(The old opera house in Champaign was likely built for this purpose, as Champaign was a railway town. That opera house was also probably the site of the first academic theatre production at U. of I., A Box of Monkeys.)
So why New York? Well, the short answer is that a huge number of people who have the skills and experience live in the city. About 20,000 professional stage actors live in New York City. Chicago has about two thousand, D.C. a thousand, and Seattle about 500. (Source. Full disclosure, I’m among the 20K.)
The other type of theatre is a resident theatre. In a resident theatre, every show is created at that theatre, in the same community in which you go to Starbucks and honk at the traffic lights. (Some examples: Steppenwolf, Arena Stage, The Cleveland Play House, Denver Center Theatre.) While sometimes the shows are productions of scripts that were recently performed in New York(and sometimes the actors are flown in from New York), it’s very different from the touring production. While the touring production scrupulously recreates the New York performance, the regional theatres simply buy the rights to produce the text and recreate everything from scratch according to the sensibilities of their own city. So you’ll see anything that the author wrote in or very strongly implied, but everything else has been freshly created. Occasionally, the experience has nothing whatsoever to do with New York.
Interestingly, stage directions in printed plays don’t always come from the playwright. (And yes, that is the correct spelling — the experience is wrought, not written.) When the shows started piling their painted tarp scenery into railway cars, things would occasionally get too complicated for the actor/manager who had just played two performances of “Hamlet” and met with the local “Society for Appreciating Wholesome Art” at the depot hotel tea-room. Back in New York, things were getting complicated as well, as the flurry of polyglot productions that the theatres needed to stage in order to pay the rent meant that it became advisable to retain someone who would manage… the stage… In a flash of the ingenuity for which the theatre is justly famous, this role became the “stage manager.” As the shows increased in technical complexity and the electric light was introduced, this role became that of the director, but since the director was generally too self-important to trouble himself or herself about the details, the role of “stage manager” also survived.
Long story short, the printed “stage directions” that you see in older plays are often not written by the author, but are rather the stage manager, recording the staging that the original director had created. If the playwright has enough of a literary reputation (e.g., Eugene O’ Neill), the stage directions can safely be considered authorial, although there are exceptions to this.
The resident theatres outside of the major eastern cities largely got their start at the beginning of the twentieth century. In contrast to the touring commercial productions, “little theatre” and “art theatre” groups began forming in larger cities. These groups were influenced by the progressive social theatre of Ibsen and Strindberg and the theoretical work by the Russian director Stanislavski. Eventually, these efforts moved beyond parlor readings, and the little theatres that were built (as opposed to the empty “opera houses” near the rail lines) are among the most charming theatres in the country.
So, to recap, plays start somewhere. If it’s a spoken play or a musical, it usually starts by being written. The theatre, wherever it might be, then takes the text and figures out how to design the room, which people to ask to speak the lines, what to tell them to do while speaking the lines, when to turn the lights off and on, how much of admission fee to charge, etc. They then stage the show and everyone has amazing, life-changing experiences and hits the pub for a pint afterwards to savor the experience and talk until dawn.
If it’s a big New York company, the producers have kept careful notes on everything and recreate the experience, often down to the gesture or cornice, have a second set built at the warehouses out in Brooklyn and Queens, put it in a truck and ship it off to another city.
If it’s a resident theatre, they generally take down the set and start reading the next play.