Sightines - American Theater: Surfing the Tidal Wave of Change

Article by John Fenn

John Fenn is a playwright, actor, director, and all around theater artist who has been involved in theater since the 1940s which gives  him a unique perspective on our field.  His article reminds me of the continual evolution of this art form that we call theater and makes me wonder where the next generation of actors, writers, and designers will take us. - Mike Wangen

One of the great joys of starting my theater career in the 1940s, has been that I’ve been active during a period of momentous and all-pervasive change in the American theater.

When I first started acting, at the ripe old age of 15, I performed on a proscenium stage with the Tucson Little Theater. I postured in front of backdrops or canvas covered screens called “flats,” assembled to show a living room with a fourth wall cut away so the audience could spy on the characters’ lives.

Those surfaces were meticulously painted by talented scenic artists, who were able to make stretched canvas look like Victorian wood paneling with moldings and baseboards, or the marble surfaces of a Greek temple. After I laboriously learned to twist the paintbrushes just right, from a distance they looked like the real thing.

As an actor, I was expected to use what was called Middle English speech (really, a cheesy English accent) and move with the posture of a ballet dancer. The apex of acting achievement, for us, was to be the personification of Laurence Olivier.

Being a lad of some girth, and a distinctly non-aquiline face, this was not an easy task. I have a production shot of me as Horatio in Hamlet where I’m sucking in my cheeks and struggling to affect Sir Olivier’s hauteur and posture.

When I went to acting school, I was given lessons on how to sit, how to stand, and breathe.  I had extensive vocal exercises that sharpened my articulation, and increased my ability to project to fill a 1000 seat proscenium theater.

Little did I know, at that time, a gentleman named Lee Strasburg was bringing to the American theater a total revolution which would alter the art of American acting forever.  It was of course, Method Acting and its first and most influential proponents were Marlon Brando, and his former roommate James Dean, under the distinctly Method direction of Elia Kazan.  The entire focus was on the actor - manipulating their emotions and psyche then pouring everything into, and becoming the character.

In Tucson, Arizona, oblivious to this revolution, I continued to strut and fret my hours upon the stage.  I was illuminated by a bevy of 500 watt lights that were individually connected by hundreds of feet of thick copper cable to what were called “piano boards”. These unbelievably heavy devices were about 6 feet wide, five feet high, and 30 inches deep allowing a stage electrician to fade or increase the intensity of the lights for different scenes. It took six stagehands to beef a piano board up to a stage door.

Backstage on Broadway I saw ten of these monsters placed face to face in pairs in two long rows so that one IATSE electrician could control each pair of light boards. These five men could change the levels of hundreds of lights for each scene at a stage manager’s command. As a production stage manager in New York I shudder to think of how many times I said, “Lights 75 (the cue number)… GO.”

Now, of course, all the thousands of pounds of equipment and those five very highly paid stagehands have been totally replaced by a laptop computer which records all the changes in all the lights as “cues.” With one mouse click, the stage manager can change the lights from a night scene to a sunrise.  Actually, I think that the computers can be taught to listen to the score of a musical or the lines of a play and run the whole show by themselves.

In the meantime, as my career progressed, massive changes were made in theaters that affected both acting styles and scenic design. Prompted by the tremendous expense of Broadway production, actors and producers developed the off-Broadway theater.  Suddenly the traditional proscenium “fourth-wall-peek-through” theaters (with 1000 or more seats) yielded to a bevy of tiny off-Broadway theaters with 200 or less seats.

At the same time, Tanya Moiseiwitsch and Tyrone Guthrie were sweeping North America with the their thrust stage Shakespeare Festival theaters. They revived the configuration of Shakespeare's Old Globe Theater. Flats and backdrops had no place on these stages, but rather, everything had to be realistically three-dimensional. Props became more important than scenery.

Scenic design for proscenium theaters changed also, becoming three-dimensional constructs, rather than painted flats. I can remember I had an interview with Jo Mielziner at his Dakota Building studio in New York. I was wildly excited to see the actual set model of Death Of A Salesman in his lobby. This set, with scrim walls and frames enclosing an upper platform bedroom, was a far cry from the typical Noel Coward drawing room sets on which I performed as a 15-year-old.

The off-Broadway movement, which was largely originated because of the incredible costs of Broadway production, worked hand in glove with the development of method acting. If you were seated 4 feet away from a performer, you could not tolerate the big classical acting styles typical of the first half of the 20th century.  Also, it was a magnificent environment for short actors like Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino and many others, who were all method actors. Tall actors, required for big Broadway theaters, were like giraffes in those tiny rooms.

I remember working as a stage manager for Joseph Papp of the New York Shakespeare Festival during innumerable actor auditions. Joe and his assistant Gladys Vaughn always favored a realistic, straightforward American acting style, and would have summarily dismissed Laurence Olivier himself, if he had come in with his typical classical readings.

Economics, off-Broadway and method acting profoundly changed playwriting. Anybody today, who writes for a cast of more than 8 people had best beware, and 1 person or 2 person shows have a much better chance of being produced. Also, the writing style changed profoundly from George Bernard Shaw or Noel Coward, where wit and verbal dexterity ruled.

Suddenly we were writing spare idiomatic text, more like the way people talk, and distinctly less literary. The meaning is all in the subtext instead of being conveyed in sentences. Case in point, Brando’s famous animalistic howl, “STELLA ….”  from Streetcar Named Desire.  

I can only revel in the fact that I have, in the span of my simple career, joyously surfed such tidal waves of change in acting, playwriting, and lighting, as well as theater and scenic design.