BY TOM SKELTON
THE TOURING DANCE COMPANY: PART III
The larger legitimate theatres generally do not provide draperies with the price of the rental. You either have to bring your own or rent them locally. The ideal drapery arrangement for most dance performances would be a complete set (4 borders, 4 legs and a backdrop) of black velours, behind which is a sky drop (with a scrim in front of it to add to the effect of distance). With such an arrangement, entrances and exits are easy, and by sometimes using the sky drop instead of the blacks, greater visual variety is possible. To rent these draperies, however, can be an enormous expense, both in terms of the labor to hang them and the rental itself. Theatrical supply houses usually charge at least $150 to rent a complete set of blacks, whether you use them for a full week or for a single performance, and the sky drop and scrim will probably cost an extra $50. The labor charges are variable, depending on whether the stage hands are union or amateur.
Many auditoriums in schools, museums and universities have their own draperies already hanging. Sometimes, unfortunately, they are hung as a cyclorama and completely enclose the stage. With such an arrangement, all entrances and exits must be made downstage, and there is no position available to mount side lighting. In such a case it will probably be necessary either to re-hang the draperies to make entrances and light positions, or when there are no other battens from which they can hang, to improvise entrances. This is possible because even when draperies are hung as a cyclorama they generally come in ten or twelve feet widths. Find the place where they overlap and, with nails, weights, or tape, swing one corner further on stage and the other corner further offstage so that the actual opening is masked. This is not too satisfactory visually, but it will work functionally if the dancers are careful when they make their entrances and exits.
If anyone ever asks your advice on what color stage draperies are most practical, be sure to say “black.” The dancer surrounded by black draperies is more visible because even a little bit of light will make him stand out in contrast to his background: and the colors of the drapery will not clash with his costume.
For some ballets, however, a sky drop will better help the mood. The drop must be stretched tight so that there are no wrinkles, and it should be seamless if it is supposed to look like sky instead of like a piece of cotton. A seamless scrim hanging a few inches in front of it will greatly improve the space effect, and will mask all sorts of defects in the drop itself. To give the feeling of space, and to avoid tiring the eyes of the audience, the sky drop should be lit in tints of blues and greens. All other lights must be carefully focused so that they do not spill on the drop and cause shadows. If the drop is not in good condition it sometimes works best not to light it at all. Then it becomes a neutral gray, receiving its light only from light reflected from the floor, giving a feeling of space but not attracting attention to itself in any way.
If the draperies are so-called “neutral” beige or gray, there’s very little you can do about it except to carefully focus your spotlights so that none of them hit the draperies and cause highlights or shadows to draw the eye away from the dancers. And you’re really helpless if the draperies are a bright color or a lame´, as they are in many movie theatres and ex-vaudeville houses, or if you have to dance before a movie screen that can’t be masked.
In school auditoriums the draperies are sometimes permanently hung tow or three inches off the floor so that they won’t get dirty when the floor is washed. It’s very distracting to see the feet of dancers making a cross-over or in the wings waiting to enter, so you must pin long strips of appropriately-colored paper (or even newspaper) to the bottom edge of the drapery, wide enough to reach the floor.
You should carry a supply of clip-type clothespins on your tour. If the draperies are in bad condition there’s apt to be no time to sew or patch them, but clothespins on the back will hold them together temporarily. You should also carry a batch of safety pins for the same purpose, but be careful to pin them so that no part of the pin itself will be exposed to pick up light. If they must show, you can buy black safety pins, or spray-paint them yourself.
Your chief concern with the piano, other than to be sure it has been tuned recently, is to be sure that it is placed so that the pianist can see the stage for his cues. The piano light, too, is often a problem, since it must be carefully masked so that it will not spill onto the stage or into the eyes of the audience. Incidentally, the light should be plugged into an independent source of electricity so that it cannot be accidentally turned off during a stage blackout. The pianist himself should check his piano before the house opens in case the stool is too high, the sight lines bad, the light to bright, or too dim, and also so that he will know how to get to the piano once the house lights are turned out. Sometimes he will have to come right down through the audience.
If each of your dancers carries a small mirror, the dressing room problem is not too great because, if necessary, he can carry the mirror to the best source of light. Otherwise, you must check each room to be sure that there are lots of bright light, mirrors, tables, etc. If there are no racks or hooks for hanging costumes it may be necessary to drive a few nails into the wall or hang ropes from place to place. If there is no wastebasket, a paper bag or cardboard box will do.
In your questionnaire (see July issue) and the letters that follow, be sure to emphasize that the dressing rooms must be clean and near the stage. This is particularly important in movie theatres where the dressing rooms are used so rarely that those near the stage have become storage rooms, and the others are covered with inches of dust.
We have discussed various methods of lighting the stage with maximum or minimum equipment (October ‘55 through December ’56 issues). The only thing to add at this point is that many theatres have a lot more equipment than is in use at the moment you arrive. Sometimes the custodians or stage hands will say they have no more, rather than bother to put it up for one performance and take it down again. So if you desperately need more equipment keep your eyes open and peek into the storage rooms and closets if you get the chance.
(more next month)