Chapter 10 - Rehearsal

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A magical effect of whatever kind, and by whomsoever presented, can be made a public success only by unremitting care and labor. Systematic attention to details and refinement of procedure are required. And such attention and refinement can only be provided by means of adequate rehearsal. The rule suggested by these considerations would be too obvious to require statement, were it not so obvious that it is in danger of being overlooked. It is this:

(24) Never present in public any performance, which has not been most perfectly rehearsed-first in detail, and finally as a whole.

In reality, there is far more in that simple rule than appears on the surface. It opens out and partly defines a point of great importance in practice. Merely to say that everything should be properly rehearsed is very much like telling a pugilist to "go in and win." The fighting-man will go in and win, and the performer will rehearse everything properly without being told to do so. That kind of advice is too plentiful to be of much value, anyhow. What both those men want to be told is how to do the thing. Given that knowledge, further instruction becomes superfluous. In the case of the pugilist, we have no suggestion to offer in this respect; and, if we had, there might be some danger in offering it. The entertainer, however, stands in another category. In his case, we have opinions of a more or less strongly developed character, which have been gained both in conducting rehearsals ourselves, and in watching other people conduct them. Thirty years or more of that sort of thing naturally tends to create decided views as to the proper way of doing it, and removes all diffidence in connection with speaking one's mind. Such being our position in the matter we shall proceed to state our views accordingly.

So far as we can see, there is only one way in which a presentation can be properly rehearsed. That is, as indicated in the foregoing rule, to take everything in detail first of all and gradually combine the perfected details until the whole is gone through, precisely as it will be performed in public. To proceed in any other manner is bound to incur waste of time at the moment, and imperfection (possibly serious) in the ultimate result. Haphazard rehearsal, "catch-as-catch-can" style, however prolonged, can never be really efficient. One of the greatest dangers to be guarded against is over-rehearsal. Some people, as we all know, hold the belief that it is impossible to give a production too much rehearsal. That is one of the wildest fallacies imaginable. Yet, at the same time, we should bear in mind the seeming paradox that a presentation may have been rehearsed to death without, in reality, having had half enough rehearsal. This, of course, requires some explanation; but, properly understood, it becomes clear to the verge of platitude. And, after due consideration of the point of issue, we think that none can doubt the fact that-, so long as a production is efficiently rehearsed, the less rehearsal it has the better it will be. In other words, effort should always be made to curtail the rehearsal necessary, by getting as much value as possible out of the time devoted to it.

By way of elucidating this subject, it is only necessary to explain the reasons to which the dangers of over-rehearsal are due. Broadly speaking, there are two of prime importance, and to these two we may confine our attention, so far as present purposes are concerned. No doubt, there are many others of minor consequence; but if we succeed in proving the main points, all the rest may be neglected. Firstly, then, excessive rehearsal produces a sense of weariness, and destroys interest in the work to be done. Thus, all concerned tend to become perfunctory in the discharge of their duties. Secondly, an undue continuance of rehearsal tends to make those in authority lose their sense of proportion. They become unable to determine the relative importance of details, and lack of a proper grasp of the true essentials. This second danger is by far the greater of the two, inasmuch as it militates against the very object which the rehearsals are intended to promote. What always follows in such a case is that, the longer the rehearsals go on, the more stale and incompetent will everybody become-especially the man in charge of affairs. The latter person, in fact, eventually becomes reduced to a state of abject hopelessness, without a particle of faith to sustain him. Surely, it stands to reason that this cannot be the proper way to conduct rehearsals. When every subordinate is worn out, and those at the head of affairs have lost all understanding of the difference between good and bad and of the matters which determine success or failure, there is bound to be waste of effort, to say the least. Instead of being devoted to making progress, the time is wasted in hurrying to and fro, without getting any "forrarder."

From what has been said, it follows that the most important matter connected with rehearsal is the organization of procedure upon proper lines. The readiest way to impress upon readers the truth of that statement will be to give an accurate description of the manner in which the haphazard method works. We could quote an example from among our own experiences in various theaters, but we prefer not to risk a charge of wilful exaggeration. We shall therefore quote an authority against whom no breath of suspicion can be whispered-to wit, Count Leo Tolstoy. His description of an opera-rehearsal on the happy-go-lucky system will serve to illustrate this point perfectly. One has only to modify the description in detail to understand how it might equally well apply to the rehearsal of some magical presentation. Here is Tolstoy's statement:

"On an elevation between two lamps with reflectors, and in an armchair placed before a music-stand, sat a director of the musical part, baton in hand, managing the orchestra and singers, and in general the production of the whole opera.

"The performance had already commenced, and on the stage a procession of Indians who had brought home a bride was being represented. Besides men and women in costume, two other men in ordinary clothes bustled and ran about on the stage; one was the director of the dramatic part, and the other, who stepped about in soft shoes and ran from place to place with unusual agility, was the dancing-master, whose salary per month exceeded what ten laborers earn in a year.

"These three directors arranged the singing, the orchestra, and the procession. The procession, as usual, was enacted by couples, with tin foil halberds on their shoulders. They all came from one place, and walked round and round again, and then stopped. The procession took a long time to arrange: first the Indians with halberds came on too late; then too soon; then at the right time, but crowded together at the exit; then they did not crowd, but arranged themselves badly at the sides of the stage; and each time the whole performance was stopped and recommenced from the beginning. The procession was introduced by a recitative, delivered by a man dressed up like some variety of Turk, who, opening his mouth in a curious way, sang, 'Home I bring the bri-i-ide.' He sings and waves his arm (which is, of course, bare) from under his mantle. The procession commences, but here the French horn, in the accompaniment of the recitative, does something wrong; and the director, with a shudder as if some catastrophe had occurred, raps with his stick on the stand. All is stopped, and the director, turning to the orchestra, attacks the French horn, scolding him in the rudest terms, as cabmen abuse each other, for taking the wrong note. And again the whole thing recommences. The Indians with their halberds again come on, treading softly in their extraordinary boots; again the singer sings, 'Home I bring the bri-i-ide.' But here the pairs get too close together. More raps with the stick, more scolding, and a recommencement. Again, 'Home I bring the bri-i-ide' again the same gesticulation with the bare arm from under the mantle, and again, and again the couples, treading softly with halberds on their shoulders, some with sad and serious faces, some talking and smiling, arrange themselves in a circle and begin to sing. All seems to be going well, but again the stick raps, and the director, in a distressed and angry voice, begins to scold the men and women of the chorus. It appears that when singing they had omitted to raise their hands from time to time in sign of animation. 'Are you all dead or what? Cows that you are! Are you corpses, that you can't move?' Again they recommence, 'Home I bring the bri-i-ide,' and again, with sorrowful faces, the chorus women sing, first one and then another of them raising their hands. But two chorus girls speak to each other,--again a more vehement rapping with the stick. 'Have you come here to talk? Can't you gossip at home? You there in red breeches, come nearer. Look towards me! Recommence!' Again 'Home I bring the bri-i-ide.' And so it goes on for one, two, three hours. The whole of such a rehearsal lasts six hours on end. Raps with the stick, repetitions, placings, corrections of the singers, of the orchestra, of the procession, of the dancers,--all seasoned with angry scolding. I heard the words, 'asses,' 'fools,' 'idiots,' 'swine' addressed to the musicians and singers at least forty times in the course of an hour."

No wonder Tolstoy felt impelled to dip his pen in vitriol and to condemn such proceedings with all the force of invective at his command. No wonder he was led to protest violently against the commission of such crimes in the name of art. No wonder he was filled with contempt, even for the opera itself; although, from his account, it appears to have been founded upon the most beautiful, perhaps, of Moore's poems--"Lalla Rookh." Worst of all, is the fact that there cannot be the slightest doubt of Tolstoy's accuracy in this matter, either in substance or detail. The palpable fact that he had an axe to grind in this connection must be admitted, of course; but for all that, his integrity is too well known to permit of anyone to question his statement, in any essential particular.

Surely every man whose head was made for use and not ornament must agree that such rehearsals cannot be efficient. Proceedings of that kind, if recounted in a court of law, would most certainly be regarded as evidence of incapacity on the part of the men in authority. No business man-and, above all, no artist-could ever believe such a Ballyhooly to be the proper means for producing a work of art. The amenities of Donnybrook Fair cannot represent the standard for artistic procedure; and, in order to achieve artistic success, it can scarcely be requisite for artists to emulate the conduct of Kilkenny cats. We apologize for this sequence of similes, drawn from the Sister Isle, but it is not our fault that they happen to fit the case like a sticking-plaster.

Imagine the absurdity of having the Musical Director, Stage-Manager, Ballet Master, Principals, Chorus, Ballet, and Supers, all tumbling over one another in that manner. Why on earth were all those people huddled together on the stage, trying to act in concert when they had not yet learned what was required of them individually? Think of the chaos that must have attended the efforts of such crowded incompetency! Nearly everything was bound to go wrong; and, at each mistake, the whole crowd had to halt, go back to a certain point and start again. The waste of time resulting from such idiotic procedure is lamentable in the extreme. Let the reader try to put himself in the place of that singer who had the job of bringing home the "bri-i-de!" He must have had a high opinion of the ability possessed by his Management. No matter which of the assembled inefficients went wrong, he was pulled up, ordered to go back to the beginning of his recitative, and made to sing it all over again. And the same with everyone else. All of them marking time after each step forward and usually, taking three steps back afterward. This certainly "gives furiously to think," as they say across the channel.

Then, again, consider the discipline of the subordinates, as shown in Tolstoy's account. It was like the snakes in Norway, non-existent. One might safely predict that no assemblage of men and women could be found who would do better in surroundings of that kind. They could maintain no shred of interest in their work. They could see no possible object in paying attention to business, when nothing really mattered. But, when the harassed Musical Director happened to notice somebody chattering, he naturally expressed his opinion in terms of magnitude.

The whole system was obviously wrong. Some may perhaps argue that when time is short, it is impossible to adopt any other course. We contend, however, that the shorter the time available, the greater the need for making the most of it. If one has not time to manage a production systematically, there cannot be time to muddle through with it. The rational way of going about the business would have been as follows.

The first essential in any production is the avoidance of divided authority. There can be only one "producer," who must be in supreme command. But, at the same time, since he alone cannot do all the work, he must not interfere with the minor authority delegated to others. In the case of this particular opera, the Musical Director was also the producer, and properly so. In a magical production, the supreme head of affairs would similarly be a magician. Had he been a capable producer, he would never have allowed everything to be rehearsed at once, in that way. At the outset, he would have assigned to each of his subordinate officials their respective duties; and he and they would each have given the performers, in their own individual departments, all necessary instructions. To every important member of the company, written instructions would have been issued for private study. While the principals were studying their parts, the supers and other subordinate performers would have been called for rehearsal in their respective groups. Simultaneously, the orchestra would have been rehearsed, apart from the stage performers. After that, the principal singers and actors would have been called to rehearsal with the orchestra. Then each group of minor artists would have been attended to in the same way. Then, and not until then, would a general rehearsal have been called. Not until then would everybody have been brought together upon the stage, and expected to attempt combined action.

That would be the time when the producer took general command. He should then find that, in the main, every performer knew exactly what he had to do, and where he had to stand. All the producer would have to do would consist in dovetailing the work of the various departments into one harmonious whole. Whatever he might have to say about the work of any particular department, he would say it to the director of that department and not to the subordinates. What any director might want to say to his own people would have to wait until the general rehearsal had ended. The proceedings would not be stopped and everybody kept waiting, while the Ballet Master scolded his dancers, the Stage-Manager called over the coals his supers, stage-hands, extras, and assistants galore, or the Conductor gave his French horn socks.

According to Tolstoy's account, the Musical Director appeared to be attending to everything connected with the opera, and trying to combine the duties of all the directors. If he had to teach and direct all the crowd, what did he want with such people as the Stage-Manager and the Ballet Master? There is no sense in keeping a dog and doing the barking oneself. Besides, in a big production, it is impossible for one man to be both chief cook and bottle-washer in that way.

Wagner, we know, tried to do everything himself in the way of supervision. He knew one branch of his productions thoroughly-the musical department. This was surely enough for one lifetime, as things go. But in addition to that he was Author, Producer, Stage-Manager, Ballet Master, Scenic Artist , Costumier, Lighting Expert, Stage Foreman, Property Man, and everything else, all rolled into one. It is heresy to say so, but sitting through a Wagner opera is, to us, a painful ordeal. In spite of the grandeur of the music, the absurdities in drama and stage-craft, to everyone with a sense of humor, cannot fail to be irresistibly comic. Wagner should be heard, not seen. Our culminating experience of Wagner as performed on the stage, was in witnessing the second act of "Die Walküre" in Vienna. Never again! The tortures of suppressed laughter we underwent were too great for words.

It is a mistake to try to do too much. A producer must necessarily know many things. He must have a general knowledge of the work connected with every department of his production. But he cannot do, and must not attempt, the work which should be done by expert specialists in each department. He must be able to say when anything whatever is not right; he may even have expert knowledge and experience in one or two directions; but he cannot know everything and do everything essential to a great production. The ideal producer is the man who can direct the efforts of his colleagues, in such manner as to bring about the combined effect he has conceived, and which he knows to be essential to success.

We shall now proceed to deal with the application of the foregoing illustrations, and of the conclusions to be drawn therefrom, to the procedure advisable, first in the case of purely magical productions, and then in connection with magic and drama combined.

In the rehearsal of magical presentations, the need for avoiding confusion is even more pronounced than in the case of drama. Performers have more to think about in magical work than in other forms of stage business. A magician has not only to play his part as an actor; but simultaneously he has to give adequate attention to technical details, which involve considerable difficulty as a rule. In addition to these matters, he is often obliged to study his audience, and adapt his procedure to the requirements of the moment. Compared with the actor's task of playing a set part, the magician's duties are far more complex, and more difficult to perform. Therefore, he requires every advantage to be derived from thorough preparation.

In the case of a single-handed performer, of course, the matter is comparatively simple. Yet even in his case, systematic procedure will yield better results than haphazard working. His first step should be to get the purely magical part of his work more or less complete. Until that is well in hand, he cannot expect to give proper attention to the requirements of actual presentation. When he has arrived at the knowledge of what must be done to render his effects presentable, he will be in a position to decide upon the best way of presenting them. Naturally, while rehearsing the magical details, he will conceive ideas relating to appropriate patter and business. These he should note down for future reference, without flying off at a tangent and allowing his attention to wander from the work in hand to details of presentation which, at that stage, cannot possibly be decided. In trying to do two things at once, in that way, he can only waste time. The chances are ten to one that if he cannot avoid the temptation to imagine what the end of his work will be, while he has still to complete the beginning, more than half the ideas he elaborates will have to be rejected. There is also the danger that in attempting too much at once, he will lose sight of many important details which otherwise would have attracted his attention. When he gets on the stage, he will be compelled to attend to several things at the same moment. He should, for that very reason, attend to one thing at a time, while he has the opportunity for so doing.

Having brought his magical details to some degree of perfection, and made notes of any ideas that have occurred to him in relation to the staging of his effects, the performer even then is not ready to rehearse his presentation. He has still to decide upon the word and action appropriate to each moment occupied by his stage-work. The incidental patter and business must be prepared before he can reasonably hope to make efficient progress. The fact is, after the purely magical technique has been mastered, the magician is required to throw aside, for the moment, his own special work, and take up the dramatic side of his art. He has to prepare himself for playing his part upon the stage, as an actor. To this end, he must become a dramatic author, in addition to fulfilling his other duties. Even though he may be preparing a "silent act," he has still the dramatic "business" to arrange; and that, after all, is the most important element of drama. When his presentation includes patter also, he has a "speaking-part" to write and play.

This being the case, his proper course is obvious. Firstly, he should sit down and write out his part--words and business--precisely as though he were a dramatist writing a play. Secondly, having done his duty as an author, he should learn his part, precisely as though he were an actor, pure and simple. Then, and not until then, will he be in a position to commence the rehearsal of his work as a presentation. That is the earliest moment at which he will be competent to rehearse, on the stage, the production he intends to present on the stage.

From this point onward, the whole procedure should be, so far as possible, conducted as though an audience were present. There is some difficulty in so doing, no doubt. Empty seats are a poor substitute for an audience. Cold blood is a very indifferent stimulus, in comparison with the excitement of a public performance. The circumstances are not well adapted to calling forth a performer's reserve force, nor are they calculated to aid him in displaying his ability. Those drawbacks, however, have to be faced at rehearsal by all performers alike. The magical performer cannot expect to provide an exception to that universal rule. The only way in which his presentation can be efficiently rehearsed is for him to imagine the empty seats are filled, to address them as "Ladies and Gentlemen," and go through the performance as it will be given "on the night."

A young performer often imagines that the ease of manner and ready flow of language possessed by his seniors are more or less spontaneous in origin. Even when he has seen a prominent artist present a certain effect several times, and has noted that the patter and business do not vary, he merely concludes that the performer has got into the way of doing and saying the same thing at the same time. But the fact is that practically every word and action has been most carefully rehearsed, before the presentation was ever put before the public. Nothing is ever left to chance by an artist. As we have already pointed out, art and chance are entirely antagonistic. All that seeming spontaneity, all that ease of deportment and delivery, are the result of careful preparation. They depend upon an adherence to artistic principles and methods, rather than upon natural self-possession or personal resource. It is only in accidental circumstances that ready wit and promptitude are called into play. Apart from such contingencies, an artist always knows beforehand what he intends to say and do. Relieved of all anxiety in that direction, his mind is free to attend to the work of actual presentation. If his attention is diverted from, the work in hand by constant anxiety concerning details of which he is uncertain, he can never do his best. His performance, consequently, is bound to suffer to the precise extent of the anxiety he feels.

The general handicap due to nervousness, from which all artists suffer more or less, cannot be eliminated by any amount of rehearsal. It is the penalty an artist has to pay for having gained a proper understanding of his responsibilities. Knowing, as he does, the full requirements of his art, he is inclined to doubt his ability to perform' his duties efficiently. That feeling, in its acute form, usually wears off with some rapidity, even during the first presentation of a new effect. As the performance proceeds, and everything goes aright, the artist gains confidence from the knowledge that his preparations have been properly made and, in all probability, he has no reason to dread failure.

When we see a performer who, with the utmost assurance and self-conceit, starts off to present a new effect in public, we need feel no uncertainty in "sizing up" his merit as an artist. He cannot possibly realize his true position, nor the nature of his responsibilities. He is confident of success, for the simple reason that he does not understand how serious would be the result of failure. His courage is born of mental deficiency, not of artistic intelligence. When, however, his over-confidence leads to disaster, he obtains a glimmering notion of something lacking in the scheme of creation which has launched him adrift upon the ocean of life.

There is an anecdote related of two officers who served in the Crimean War. One was a Major Smith-let us say-and the other we shall call Captain Brown. Smith was a man who possessed a great amount of brute courage. He knew no fear, because he could not understand danger. Brown, on the other hand, was a man who thoroughly realized danger, but was dominated by a sense of duty and responsibility. During one particular action, Smith was riding along the ranks and noticed Brown, very pale and anxious, standing at his post. The Major pulled up his horse and said, "Hullo, Brown! You look frightened!" Brown very quietly replied, "Yes, I am frightened. If you were half so frightened as I am, you would run away."

In this little story, we have a complete analogy to the excessive confidence of the incompetent performer, and the natural diffidence and nervousness of a real artist. The man who knows no fear requires no courage. His education is defective. He is confident because he lacks knowledge. The man who understands danger, and faces it all the same, has true courage. He has been properly educated. He knows the extent of his responsibilities and has learned how to do his duty as it should be done. That is the kind of man to whom the title of artist may be justly assigned, not to the man rendered confident by ignorance and mental obtuseness.

Passing on to the rehearsal of presentations in which magic and drama are-combined, a very slight amplification of what has been said is all that is needed. The same general principle of rehearsal in detail applies to this case also. The dramatic side of the question merely adds a further department of specialization. Incidentally, of course, it adds a further cause of possible confusion in rehearsal; and one which, unless due precautions are taken, will produce great waste of time in the first place, and, ultimately, defective presentation.

The procedure to be recommended in this instance, although it may sometimes appear to involve loss of time, is to keep the magical and dramatic sides of the production entirely separate, until such time as both have been well rehearsed. In many cases, this may be thought equivalent to going the longest way round to the end in view. Appearances, however, are deceptive; and, in such matters, the longest way round is usually the shortest way home, in point of time. To rehearse the whole combination before its individual components have been brought to a reasonable degree of perfection, can but be to reproduce the conditions described by Tolstoy in the account we have quoted.


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