The director usually selects the cast through auditions in which performers read sections of the script to be produced, present prepared scenes or speeches, or, when appropriate, sing and dance. The director of a musical production is aided in the auditioning process by the musical director and the choreographer. Although auditioning is acknowledged to be a flawed method, it does allow the director to judge the talents and qualities of potential performers. Actors may also be hired on the basis of reputation, recommendation of agents, or simply for physical appropriateness.
Acting implies impersonation, and most plays require the creation of complex characters with distinct physical and psychological attributes. In the broadest sense, however, a performer is someone who does something for an audience; thus, performing may range from executing simple tasks to displaying skill without impersonation, to believably re-creating historical or fictional characters, to exercising the virtuosic techniques of dancers and singers.
The director and cast of modern productions generally rehearse from two to six weeks, although certain European subsidized theaters have the luxury of several months rehearsal time, and certain types of Asian theater require several years of formal training (the bunraku puppet theater of Japan and the kathakali dance theater of India are notable examples). During rehearsals, blocking (the movement of the performers) is set, lines are learned, interpretations are determined, and performances are polished. If a new play is being rehearsed, the playwright is usually present to change lines and to rearrange, add, or delete scenes as necessary. In the case of musicals, songs and dances may be added or dropped; the choreographer rehearses the dancers, and the musical director rehearses the singers.
Most professional actors in the U.S. belong to Actors Equity Association, a labor union. Canada and Great Britain also have equity associations, and equivalent unions exist in other countries. Virtually all commercial theaters, most regional and dinner theaters, and many summer-stock theaters in the U.S. are union houses; therefore, they may hire only Equity actors except under special conditions. The union determines salaries, length of rehearsals, number of performances per week (normally eight), working conditions, and benefits. Although acting is often thought to be a lucrative profession, it is so for only a very fewthe stars. Base salaries for actors and dancers are lower than in most other trade professions. Moreover, theater does not provide steady employment or job security. Of the more than 20,000 Equity members, some 85 percent are unemployed at any one time.
In Europe, one person, frequently called a scenographer, designs sets, costumes, and lights; in the U.S. these functions are usually handled by three separate professionals. Set design is the arrangement of theatrical space; the set, or setting, is the visual environment in which a play is performed. Its purpose is to suggest time and place and to create the proper mood or atmosphere. Settings can generally be classified as realistic, abstract, suggestive, or functional.
A realistic setting tries to re-create a specific location. During the height of naturalism at the end of the 19th century, directors strove for total verisimilitude, leading to such practices as purchasing real meat to hang in a butcher-shop scene or transferring a complete restaurant onto a stage. The American producer-director David Belascos insistence on realistic sunset effects and the like led to significant improvements in lighting design and equipment early in the 20th century. But naturalism is also illusionism; such settings are designed to fool the audience. Walls of a stage set are usually not made of wood or plasterboard, as they would be in a real house, but are constructed from flatspanels of canvas stretched on wooden framessupported from behind by stage braces. Flats are lightweight and thus easy to move and store, and they are reusable. Trees and rocks may be constructed from papier-mвchй; elaborate moldings are made from plastic; wallpaper, shadows, and inlaid woodwork are more often painted than real; false perspective may be painted or built into the set. The stage floor may be rakedinclined upward from the front of the stage (downstage) to the back (upstage)and furniture appropriately adjusted to compensate for audience sight lines or the normal effects of perspective. The result is the illusion of a room, or park, or forest, but the reality may be a carefully distorted conglomeration of canvas, glue, and paint.
From the Renaissance to the mid-19th century, realistic settings generally consisted of a painted backdrop and wingsflats placed parallel to the front of the stage to help mask the offstage space, and often painted to enhance the scenic illusion. Some furniture or freestanding set pieces were sometimes placed on the stage, but generally it was an empty space for the actors. The settings were “stock,” consisting of an interior set, an exterior set, and variants that sufficed for all performances. Most interior scenes since the early 19th century have utilized a box seta room from which the fourth wall (the one nearest the audience) has supposedly been removed, leaving a room with three walls, a ceiling, and three-dimensional furniture and decor. Such an arrangement posits the spectator as voyeur. In actuality, the setting is once again illusionistic; the arrangement of furniture and the positions and movements of actors are designed for audience convenience.
Even in the most realistically detailed setting, the designer still controls much of the settings effect through choice of colors, arrangement of props and set pieces (is the room sparsely furnished or cluttered, spacious or claustrophobic?), and placement of entrances. All this has a profound, albeit subtle, effect on the audience.
The abstract setting, most popular in the early 20th century, was influenced largely by the Swiss designer Adolphe Appia and the English designer Edward Gordon Craig. The theories of these two men have influenced not only design in general but much contemporary theater. An abstract set does not depict any specific time or place. It most often consists of platforms, steps, drapes, panels, ramps, or other nonspecific elements. Most common in modern dance, abstract settings work best in productions in which time and place are unspecified or irrelevant, or in which the director and designer want to create a sense of timelessness and universality. This is common, for instance, in Shakespearean productions, in which locale may alter rapidly, is frequently not indicated by the script, and may be suggested adequately by a few props and by the poetry itself. Abstract settings place more emphasis on the language and the performer and stimulate the spectators imagination. Costuming thus becomes more significant, and lighting takes on great importance.
Most settings in todays commercial theater are suggestive, descended from the so-called new stagecraft of the first half of the 20th century. Sometimes called simplified realism, its scenic effect is achieved by eliminating nonessential elementsan approach championed by the American designer Robert Edmond Jonesor by providing fragments of a realistic setting, perhaps in combination with abstract elements, such as a window frame suspended in front of black drapes. Universality and imagination are encouraged through the lack of detail; yet some specificity of time, place, and mood is achieved. Such sets may appear dreamlike, fragmentary, stark, or surrealistic.
Functional settings are derived from the requirements of the particular theatrical form. Although they are rarely used in dramatic presentations, they are essential to certain kinds of performance. An excellent example is the circus, the basic scenic elements of which are determined by the needs of the performers.
The use and movement of scenery are determined by stage facilities. Relatively standard elements include trapdoors in the stage floor, elevators that can raise or lower stage sections, wagons (rolling platforms) on which scenes may be mounted, and cycloramascurved canvas or plaster backdrops used as a projection surface or to simulate the sky. Above the stage, especially in a proscenium theater, is the area known as the fly gallery, where lines for flyingthat is, raisingunused scenery from the stage are manipulated, and which contains counterweight or hydraulic pipes and lengths of wood, or battens, from which lights and pieces of scenery may be suspended. Other special devices and units can be built as necessary. Although scene painting seems to be a dying art, modern scene shops are well equipped to work with plastics, metals, synthetic fabrics, paper, and other new and industrial products that until recently were not in the realm of theater.
Lighting design, a more ephemeral art, has two function