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YESTERDAY, CLARENCE STRATTON shared thoughts on theater, especially of Little Theater as it existed in 1928. Today in Part 2, Stratton describes two theatrical innovations, one with a definite shortcoming.

A Peculiar Shape. “One of the most peculiarly shaped auditoriums,” Stratton described, “is that at Carnegie Institute, Pittsburgh. It is a perfect ellipse.”

“The seats,” Stratton wrote, “are curved in parallel with the rear wall. The rows near the stage cut sharply across the narrowing curves of the sides as they sweep round to form the proscenium. Here the stage front, instead of curving into the auditorium, or stretching in a straight line across it, recedes from it. Seats at the extreme ends of the first few rows are closer to the stage line than those in the middle.”

Apparently the auditorium’s downstage portion was modified some time between this diagram shown in The Popular Science Monthly, May 1901, and Stratton’s visit.

On Trodding the Boards. Merriam-Webster cites “tread the boards” as an old-fashioned term “to perform on a stage as an actor // It’s been many years since he first trod the boards on Broadway.”

H.M.S. Pinafore, 1878, by William S. Gilbert and Sir Arthur Sullivan. University of Montana. “This photograph,” said Stratton, “illustrates what can be done with a gray cyclorama, a few pieces of scenery, and a plaster back wall. The cost of the setting was fourteen dollars.” This and the following image from Theatron.

Stratton offered a tale justifying the advisability of the boards: “I have been told of one large city theater in which as an advance over old-fashioned materials the new stage floor was made of concrete. Only too late was it discovered that stage brace screws could not be fastened to the floor.”

“Then,” the tale continued, “at needless expense troughs were excavated in the solid materials, and in these grooves wide planks were laid to which the braces could be attached. But even this change did not remedy all the defects on such an innovation. Actors off stage, walking about on the concrete floor made such squeaking noises with their leather soled shoes that several temperamental managers and stars almost lost their minds.”

“The brilliant ideas,” Stratton said, “that have sparkled on blue prints but sputtered out in reality are numerous enough to fill a book.”

Indeed, numerous too are the theatrical successes he records.

The Doctor’s Dilemma, 1906, by George Bernard Shaw. Pasadena Community Playhouse. An expressionist setting by James Hyde.

As Stratton asked rhetorically, “If the acting and the lighting are right, may the setting be anything this designer pleases?” His book Theatron describes the genre in a dense and weighty (2.3 lbs) 303 pages. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2020

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