'In Production'

I

THERE is an enormous amount of work involved in any theatrical production — hard, intensive work by a great many people. The curtain rises on a play, and the audience looks at the section of life unfolding on the stage, totally unaware of the hours of grueling physical effort, the anguish and the heartaches, that have gone into the finished production. In spite of the praise and the blame, the ups and the downs, there is an unparalleled delight in making that magic which we of the theatre create for you of the audience. We do not create life, we re-create it, always translated from realism through the dramatic idiom into illusion. Everything is selected and intensified through the filter of theatrical art, into the effect of a reality greater than reality itself. The author, the director, the producer, the actor, and the designer are a combination all working together toward that end, and it is a hard pull. There is no such thing as an easy production, but there are very difficult ones, and some are not so difficult as others. Considering the variety of mind and temperament: in all concerned, it is a wonder that any production is successfully finished. It takes strength to be an artist, great strength to be a scene designer.

My own business has been the designing of scenery and costumes for the theatre. This is how I proceed with my work from the time I receive a script, until the rise of the curtain on the opening night.

A manager writes, telegraphs, or telephones that he has a play to produce, and he thinks I am the person to design the production. Usually I drop in at his office to pick up the script, and we have some talk about it before reading; sometimes the script is sent to me; in any case, I promise to read the play within a short time, and tell him my reaction. There I strike one of the pitfalls of our profession, the same thing that comes time and time again to the actor. It is difficult to say that a play is poor if it gives me a fine chance to design, just as it is difficult for an actor to turn down a play when it has a fine acting part.

I do not always refuse to design a play because I do not think it is great; many plays are good enough to deserve production and a run, but it does not always follow that the good plays are successful and the poor ones fail. It is a great temptation to think a play is good when I can do ancient Egypt, or Persia, or eighteenth-century England, baroque Austria or the Palace of the Czar, a nice problem in stage mechanics or a room whose character leaps to my vision as sure as the memory of my childhood home. We work for our audience, but I work for myself as well. I think that what I like, what I believe is beautiful and right, what I design and strive to perfect, will also please those in front. I was fortunate enough to begin my work at the Neighborhood Playhouse, one of the three art theatres that came into being in New York at about the same time. The other two were the Washington Square Players (now the Theatre Guild) and the Provincetown Theatre. Those theatres created their own audiences and set a standard of acting, designing, and playwrighting that Broadway has followed, and the profession of scene designer as it exists today started in those three organizations.

I read the script —first a general reading, then a second and more careful reading for design. This does not mean that I have no mental picture of the play at first. — it often springs to my mind like a magic lantern; but the plan works out only on a more careful reading, a consideration of the action of a play. Before I make any drawings I return to the office, make my own business arrangements, work on budgets for building, painting, costumes and properties, and begin a series of consultations with director and author. I have worked on plays where author and director are one; sometimes the author and the director work together on the play. I find generally that the author has definite ideas of his own about the setting of the stage, and will give a description of the layout and placing of furniture in his script. It is not always the plan that is used; sometimes I think of a better one, sometimes the director has a plan in mind; and it is the director who has the final decision on everything.

My first piece of work is to draw up a number of ground plans; to set the entrances and exits, the doors, windows, fireplace, and general placing of furniture, so that the movement of the play may be established. We have to make an entire room, with three walls instead of four. Scenery encloses the space upon the stage in which the play is performed, and creates the mood and character of the place in which the author has put his action. I make the ground plans first, then the elevations, then the color samples. No two designers work the same way. Many of them make sketches, but I do not, because I find that sketches are unsatisfactory. I prefer to make a halfinch scale model for my director.

It is almost impossible in either a sketch or a model to give a perfect impression of the finished picture on the stage. What happens on the stage is alive — there is continuous movement through light and sound; and I am always faced with the fact that few people have visual imagination. My own mind is so constituted that I can see the picture complete in its detail with my inner eye. So, in the first stages of my work, I have to do a great deal of talking and explaining to the director. I have to make my intention sound beautiful; then I have to make my stage and costumes look as beautiful as I have made them sound. It is a constant battle with material.

After those first plans are made, I go back to the director and together we decide which is best. That, is not so easy as it sounds. He thinks he sees a better way than mine, or I think I see a better way than his, or we work things out together. I like to have my color scheme ready at the same time. Now, of all phases of designing, the color is most personal. No two people in the world feel or see color the same. Every scene that I have ever designed has come to me in its color from the very beginning of the process of designing, and that color has always been part of the character of the scene, rather than an æsthetic value. Scene designing is not interior decorating. While the intention must always be of beauty, the beauty lies in fitness, in flexibility, and in characterization. Sometimes when I tell a director that I will paint the scene red, or green, or whatever it is, it sounds terrible to him, even when I show him a sample. So I have to tell him how it will look under the lights, how it will be modified and helped by the draperies and the pictures on the wall and the spotting of other color on furniture and props.

II

When we have come to a settlement, I begin the work of designing. If it is a period play, or a play whose locale is strange to me, I first do my research. I go to the arts of the time to find my material, to the paintings, the sculptures, ceramics, textiles, fashion books, illustrated periodicals, even funny papers — anything and everything that will give me what I want. There is a rich store of material in the libraries and museums of New York — not always easy to find, but it is there, and with patience and care it can be unearthed. This is a beautiful part of our work, and it is difficult not to spend too much time at it; one loses oneself in other ages, in distant countries, in wonder at the great variety and ingenuity of the expressiveness of man, and in the glory of art.

When I have the research material I need, I make my drawings. Perfect half-inch scale drawings are required for the builder, every measurement set down, specifications of material indicated, and, if stock mouldings are to be used, their numbers written in. There may be fullsize detail of ornament made, and usually a larger scale drawing of fireplace and mantel — everything that will ensure no mistake in the building. It is wonderful, that first excitement of preparing the paper on the drafting table, sharpening up your pencils, laying out the drawing instruments, scale rule, T square, and triangles. The T square and triangle are perfect symbols of security; if they are in good order, they never let you down, they never tell a lie. You set your T square to the edge, draw your line, set your triangle to it, and you have your upright line and a perfect right angle, a fine simple statement of truth; and you build up your designs from there.

If it is a costume play, as soon as I have finished my work for the builder and painter I arrange to meet the actors to discuss costumes with them (I use the word ‘actor’ as a general term, meaning both sexes) before making finished sketches. I may have made some preliminary sketches to show the style or period, but it has been my experience that it saves trouble in the long run to find out the actors’ likes and dislikes, for the costumes are always Trouble. If the clothes are to be bought, we talk over characterization and preference of color, and decide on the most agreeable place to purchase the things.

When all technical drawings are finished, we begin the unpleasant job of estimating. I like to have three estimates on building and painting, and two from the costumers, including shoes and wigs. I go over plans and sketches with each firm, trying my best to cover the ground completely so that there will be no extras after the contracts are signed. That means time and patience, for there are many ways of interpreting a drawing, even a technical drawing. When all estimates are in, they are carefully considered by the manager and myself. The work does not always go to the lowest bidder. We give the contract sometimes to certain firms that we know can do the type of work best suited to our designs; particularly with the painters: one may be good at exteriors, another at wood graining, and another at the older style of painting, where long views in perspective or even objects are to be painted on the set.

When the contracts have been given out, I go over property lists. The property list means everything you see on the stage except the scenery and costumes. It means the carpet, rugs, furniture, the pictures on the walls, ornaments, flowers and flower containers, sofa pillows, lamps and lamp shades, wall brackets, candlesticks and chandeliers, cigarette boxes and ash trays (thousands of ash trays, for they have a habit of disappearing; I’ve bought so many cigarette boxes and ash trays that I have grown to hate the weed), trays for highballs, for cocktails, for sherry, for tea and coffee, for orangeades and lemonades and pineapple juice, various glasses and implements to go on the trays, cocktail shakers, decanters, cups and saucers, tea services and coffee services, and napery. Sometimes a meal is set out; then I have to get the whole works, except the food, which is the property man’s responsibility and the perquisite of anybody when the curtain goes down. No two plays look the same, and each one has its own difficult prop problem, but the prop lists read alike with a few exceptions: when you have to find a sea gull, or something that makes a sound like the breaking of a harp string (try it!), or a vase that will shatter the same way, and infallibly, at every performance.

III

Three weeks, or at the most three and a half, from the time the play goes into rehearsal, my work has to be finished, and I have to deliver the production for a full scenic and dress rehearsal, with lighting. Time always crowds us, and time in our business is money. By dint of our special quality we stretch the days and hours so that they cover time and space, and our special quality means a pair of tireless feet, a pair of eagle eyes, an ability to go without sleep, and a mind capable of organizing work and dealing with the enormous variety of people with whom we have to come in contact.

I try to arrange my work so that my blueprints are at the builder’s before rehearsal starts, and work is under way. I usually have an assistant who scouts for me, finds samples, makes my engagements, makes and takes telephone calls. If the production is small, I sometimes handle it alone, particularly if there are not many clothes to do.

Costumes take as much time as scenery and props, if not more. I select every piece of material I use, whether it is a costume I design or a piece of modern clothing, for I have made the color scheme for all costumes in their relation to each other and to the setting. I superintend all fittings, and that is the most exacting and trying work of the entire job. The director says I can have time for the actresses’ fittings, but the time is either in the morning at nine-thirty — when they are half asleep and hardly know what they are looking at — or, worse still, at five or later in the afternoon, when they are worn out from a day’s rehearsal, in no condition to stand up, and hate everything they see. However, I feel that. I cannot give the costumes too much care. The actor’s body is the actor’s instrument. So I must do all I can to make that body comfortable and as beautiful as possible.

The hunt for props begins. I believe that is what keeps most of us in the business. I take my long list and my blueprints and mark where every prop is to go. This fixes each article in my mind, so that I need rarely look at the list again except to check up on small props, usually off-stage articles that are carried on during the action.

I go first for the sofa. There’s always one, and sometimes two, or a settee. Now sofas are in every home, and one would imagine by the number of them on the market that this would be the easiest object on my list. No. It has to be low enough so that action backstage is not hidden, high enough and deep enough in the seat to fit the long leading man, shallow and low enough to fit the small leading lady, and all sizes between. It must seem to stand at right angles to the fireplace, but it really doesn’t, for it must be more on stage. It must be a fine piece of color, because it is the most prominent article of furniture on the stage; yet it must be soft in tone, because many of the spotlights are focused on it and it must not shine out like a bald head in the sun; and it must be of a color to harmonize with whatever costumes sit on it.

I secure all the furniture, sometimes two or three pieces of each to choose from, and I take the director to see them, although he never has time. I also show my director large samples of whatever drapery and furniture material I am using, as well as samples of costume material, so that he may actually see the color scheme.

The hunt for furniture and objects of character is fascinating; and the strangest thing is that, no matter what you need, it can always be found. Occasionally a piece of furniture has to be made, a sofa of peculiar dimensions or a table to fit a strange space, but generally everything can be found. There are one or two famous old places in New York where furniture may be rented for the run of a play, and in those places are many interesting pieces of character, particularly the Victorian pieces so much in vogue, and pieces that are worn and show the tone of time.

Any room that has been in use for a long time acquires a character that is inevitably its own. The colors in such rooms take on something from each other, as though there were an exchange of chemical particles. Walls and carpets, pieces of furniture, draperies and pictures, grow into an entity, and create a distinct relationship to each other. That is what I am concerned with when I am finding the furnishings for my stage rooms. I hunt and hunt, up and down Second Avenue and Third Avenue, Lexington, Fourth and Fifth Avenues, Eighth, Ninth and Tenth Avenues; it is good hunting, and when I track down a piece, when my eye lights on something that is just the shape and tone and color that I want, no big-game hunter ever bagged his lion with more delight. Sometimes I see something that might do, not really right but at a pinch might do — then my guardian angel holds me back. Invariably the right thing shows up. I get to know what’s in a shop as soon as I have crossed the doorsill.

Then there are the property makers, those skilled and ingenious people who are stumped by nothing. Sometimes we cannot use the real thing, because it is too heavy or too costly, or no longer in existence. They can make you a pothellied iron stove that you can lift with the thumb and forefinger of one hand; they can make you a library of unbelievably real-looking books; they can make you the emperor’s throne and the ark of the covenant, a human skeleton, or a featherweight ball and chain.

I have worked myself into a fever of worry when on nearly the last day I have not found an important article. There is always one thing that is elusive and will cost me as many hours as all the rest together. A one-set show is in some ways more difficult than a show in many scenes, for everything that is needed for three acts must be on from the beginning. Occasionally something is added as the acts go along. I once had a play to do in one scene: Clear All Wires, by Sam and Bella Spewack. It was later made into the successful musical Leave It to Me. There was a lot of action. The set had three doors, and almost the entire back wall was a series of French windows opening on to a balcony; there was also a fireplace, which left little wall space for my furnishings. A scene in the last act, a singing lesson, needed a piano. There was no wall space for a piano, unless I could find a small old-fashioned upright that would fit in at the fireplace under the mantelpiece. It seemed foolish to look for one, but I always say that if you can think of something you can get it. The scene was in an old hotel in Moscow, and I had combed the town for furnishings: Boulle cabinets, heavily carved bulky furniture, oil paintings in ornate gold frames. I knew exactly the kind of piano I wanted — the kind you see in a Renoir painting, with brass candle sconces on each side of the music rack.

I went to all the known piano places, starting with Steinway’s, hoping they would have such a relic stored away. Nobody had one. I went to the rental studios, I went to auction rooms and secondhand furniture stores in Manhattan and Brooklyn. I almost got one at the Salvation Army depot, but it was too big and not pretty. Steinway’s man, who was interested, telephoned me and told me of a warehouse in the east sixties near the river which stored nothing but pianos, from the year one, he said. It was an old brick building six stories high, bulging with every kind of piano. I found what I wanted, the exact size to fit under the mantel. It was ebony, with florid carving on the legs, and candle sconces like the Renoir painting, and behind the pierced front board was gathered a piece of faded green silk.

We telephoned for a truck and I waited for it and rode back to the Times Square Theatre beside the truck driver, my treasure safe with me. I watched it being hauled up the alley and put where it belonged. I was hot and filthy, my dress was ruined; it was a torrid day at the end of August — in fact, that day there was an eclipse of the sun. Everyone was pleased; so the director decided to go on with the singing-lesson scene. The man who played the singing professor sat down at the piano, struck a chord, and the smile came off my face. The piano did not play!

I walked out to the alley that led from the stage door to Forty-second Street and I cried. The electrician was an old friend of mine and followed me out. He put his arm across my shoulder and said, ‘Here, girl, take a look at the eclipse through this, and then pianos’ll make no difference.’ He gave me a square of blue glass. A man standing by said to me, ‘When you are finished, Mrs. Bernstein, can I have a look?’ His face was familiar, but I could not place him, and I told him so. ‘Oh,’ he said, ‘I see you while I hang around during rehearsals. I lead the orchestra in the theatre; I play the piano.’ He never got the glass. I rushed him in and showed him my trouble. By the next, day the piano was playing, not too perfectly, but with just the right tinny sound.

The rental studios are gold mines, each floor like a Freudian dream. Everything that you have ever forgotten in your life is there. I have seen a plaster bust of Abe Lincoln on top of a melodion inside a sedan chair, with a pile of raw gilded harps on the roof of the chair. I’ve seen a couple of artificial legs draped over the horns of a stag head and dozens of papier-mâché beer steins stacked around a spinning wheel. There are hundreds of chairs and tables that look like nothing at all, unless it is just what you want; old pictures, old drapes, old carpets, frayed old pieces of rich fringe, and papiermâché ducks.

Many managers sell their props to these studios when their plays close, but some managers have their own warehouses, where they keep their fine pieces of furniture, lamps, and so forth. I have paid a great deal of money for some pieces of furniture — as high as $2500 for a French writing table. It was in The Firebird, for Gilbert Miller, starring Judith Anderson; and I have furnished a stage with authentic American antiques in the Theatre Guild’s production of Sidney Howard’s Ned McCobb’s Daughter, with Alfred Lunt. Those were exceptional cases, for exceptional managements. The pieces are used again in plays, once in a while rented out to other managers.

Through the seasons I become so familiar with available props that I recognize them. When the curtain rises on a scene my eye catches the console table I used in Camille, for Eva Le Gallienne, at the Civic Repertory; or the old rocking chair from Elmer Rice’s We the People, or the girandoles from Phil Barry’s Animal Kingdom for Gilbert Miller, starring Leslie Howard; or the three gilt chairs and the Biedermeier mirror I used in the Guild’s Reunion in Vienna for the Lunts; or the highboy from Lillian Hellman’s Children’s Hour for Herman Shumlin, or the bar furniture I designed for his Grand Hotel. It goes on from season to season. They are like old friends, only they have this advantage: they cannot bore you with reminiscences, and their hair is not so gray that you get a twinge in your heart at the passage of time. About ten years ago I bought some portraits in a secondhand shop in Brooklyn for a production of Tolstoi’s Living Corpse. They were good paintings, one rather early one, and a pair of small portraits of man and wife of about 1850. I have seen those pictures practically every year since that play closed, and the woman’s portrait was recently in Abe Lincoln in Illinois.

IV

This is a sample day, when I am working on one production; multiply it when I do more than one. I am on my way by nine, sometimes by eight-thirty. My first stop is at the builder’s if my stuff is still there, so that, if any questions need to be settled, there is the whole day ahead. My blueprints, with their exact measurements, give all the information to the builder; still there are generally some small matters to be seen to. I always go through a stage in the building where I am afraid I have drawn up the doors too short. It is horrible, and usually wakes me up at home about 5 a.m. when I am nowhere near a blueprint.

If the building is finished, my first stop is at the painter’s. That is a job that needs more supervising. When I make my color notes, close as they are to what I want, they are only a starting point for the painter. We proceed from there. If the scene is painted in a wallpaper, I have selected my pattern and had the stencils made. We do not use real wallpaper on scenery. It would be out of scale, not fireproof, and monotonous. We get a much finer and more real effect by painting the design on canvas; we can shadow the corners and carry a lovely tone up to the cornice.

The painters make large color samples for me as near like my own as possible. I watch the scene painting every day, going sometimes a second time when I want to see what certain changes will look like. Then I worry about how it will look on the stage.

After that I call at the costumer’s to look at samples, or the cut of something; then I try to get to the theatre before rehearsal begins in order to check up with the stage manager. Sometimes my assistant does this for me. I stop at the flower maker’s to put in my order or see how it is coming. I go to several places that rent lamps and fixtures, to see what they have. Character lamps are growing harder to find, also chandeliers, and at times they have to be made to order. I am not satisfied with all my drapery materials, so I make the rounds of the fabric houses; then the department stores, for they often have a splendid assortment. While I am there, I go through all the departments that are likely to have any stuff I may need. I may be able to pick up a lamp, and certainly can find some of the thousand ash trays and cigarette boxes I need. Then I look in the furniture department, particularly where they keep the little tables, for halfway through rehearsals the director always needs an extra little table to hold some extra little cigarette box and ash trays.

By now it is one o’clock, and I go to the costumer’s while the cast breaks up for their lunch; a couple of the men have promised to come and get in a fitting. They never mind it if they have time, and we send out for a sandwich and a cup of coffee for them. About two, I make time for some lunch, but it is more of a rest than a meal, and I have a chance to do some thinking and go over the prop list in my mind. Then out on the hunt, looking, looking, sometimes finding nothing in a whole afternoon, sometimes rounding up almost the entire setup. I’ve been in as many as twenty shops in an afternoon; it is tiring, but there is so much that is interesting to see that I forget I have a body and only think of aching feet when I am at home. You realize that the city of New York is an extraordinary market; it is a repository of goods from the entire world and from all ages. In my search I have reached sections of the city I should never otherwise have seen, inhabited by all nations of the world.

I have a fitting for the leading lady at five, either at the costumer’s or at the dressmaker’s, and try to be there a few minutes ahead to make sure everything is ready. There is never enough time for these fittings. I have fancied an Elysian world where all the costumes would be ready so that they might be worn during rehearsal and the actors might grow into their clothes as they do into their parts. So many elements enter into the costumes: my own idea and design of the character, the author’s, the actress herself, with her decided predilections and her fixed conception of her personal appearance, and the costumer, who can turn a trying occasion into a pleasure, or vice versa. We take until six or later; sometimes I have several actors at one time for fittings. Then it is a circus. I would rather do anything in the world than go through those trying hours. If the things turn out well, I am rewarded. It is the only part of my work that I dislike.

I go home tired, looking forward to a hot bath and clean clothes. I am getting into the tub, or already in it, or just getting out of it, when the telephone rings. The stage manager calls up and says the director would like me to come down to the theatre tonight; there will be a runthrough of the play, and he is not quite sure if that grouping of furniture stage left is going to work out. Maybe we shall have to use something different; possibly, instead of the settee, he thinks two chairs and a small table between (for cigarette box and ash trays) might be more flexible. I’ve worn out a pair of shoes trying to find that settee, and it is already at the upholsterer’s being covered with the only five yards in New York of just the plum-colored silk I want. While he talks I try to remember what else I have seen that will tone in with my chintz, and who might like to use my Boston Symphony tickets for tonight.

The rehearsal drags out until midnight or later, and we find after all that the settee will do and I might have been listening to the Beethoven fourth. Only I do find that I’ve made a mistake in my costume colors, for I can’t have the leading lady and the sweet young thing both on the stage at the same time in blue. That means getting on the telephone tomorrow by nine o’clock.

V

That is an average day. I have them much harder, when things go wrong, and I realize the fallibility of human nature. The worst are the days the scenery and props are hauled in, the scene set up, dressed, lit, and viewed by the management; worst of all is dress rehearsal.

The truck goes for scenery at eightthirty, and if there are not many sets it is at the theatre by noon. The props are called for at the same time, and the property man has the list and checks the stuff as it arrives. The electricians hang the lights, the carpenters set the scene, and I work with the property men on the dressing — that is, placing furniture, hanging pictures, putting up the curtains, arranging the flowers, and setting out those ash trays. Then we are ready to light.

The director promises that he will not come in until we are all set, but invariably he breaks his promise and runs over to the theatre around four to have a look when all is confusion. The bare walls are just up, no door frames or windows in place, props piled up and looking awful; the set seems a horrid color without lights; the cyclorama is just hung and not stretched, and somebody has folded it up into squares like a fresh pocket handkerchief instead of rolling it on a pole like a real sky. The walls look too high, the doors too short and wide, the color too crude or too soft, and I wonder what I have been doing all those long weeks.

It is wonderful to watch the set take shape and order come out of confusion, to see the place take on the reality that has lived with me so long in my mind’s eye — the colors, the pictures on the walls, just as they should be, the fine accents of lamps and ornaments and flowers. It is hard to say how long a time we spend on the technical setup of the stage; it all depends on the amount of scenery, the number of changes, and how few things go wrong. It is my business to see that everything is so well made that nothing can go wrong. Unfortunately, things happen sometimes. The scenery is all set up at the builder’s before it goes to be painted, to check up on the joints, the fit of the cornice, the working out of doors, windows, platforms, and staircases. But the surface of the stage is always different from the floor of the builder’s shop. Most theatres are old, and the stage floors are worn and have sagged. Certain old theatres in cities on the road have been built with the floor raking up toward backstage a full foot. All that plays havoc with our carefully fitted joints. The staircases shake, the doors are out of plumb and will not stay shut, and the scenery trembles like an aspen leaf at every entrance; and there are other troubles almost impossible to foresee.

I have known the wrinkles not to come out of the cyclorama, and I have known a too tightly sewed seam to appear in the centre of the sky after three days of hanging — the painter and I worked on that seam every minute we could have the stage until eight o’clock of the opening night. Places on the scene where the spotlights hit will need toning down, and somebody’s dress will look blue on one side of the stage and violet on the other; props will break or disappear, and silver trays will always make a Tinker Bell light, dancing over everything. You tone it down with soap or get a wooden tray. It all takes time, and in the scene-designing business there are only forty-eight hours a day.

I have used the word ‘magic.’ It is the lights that are the touch of the wand. Lighting takes hours and infinite patience. It must be plotted ahead, but in the end is always arrived at by trial and error. We have to light the actors so that they are visible to the last row in the gallery and no action is lost, yet keep the set fine. Light is enormously valuable for creating a mood and for setting the time of day; light is the atmosphere. During the process of lighting, I have seen the most beautiful moments, effects that are lost to us forever, while the men are working at the switchboard. It is the dramatic, the casual beauty of life itself. I have seen the same thing happen with people, too, during a rehearsal. A scene will be repeated again and again, then the rehearsal will stop and the actors relax and they will fall into groups and attitudes of perfect grace. There are such extraordinary things to see on the working side of the theatre.

We have no way of judging in advance the exact amount of time it will take to light a play. No two stages light the same way, and each play has its own problems. An experienced electrician, with good flexible equipment, plenty of lamps and mediums, and an experienced designer and stage manager, can get through in a reasonable amount of time. I have often stayed up the entire night so that the stage may be ready for a dress rehearsal the following day. We can arrive at the final lighting only after the cast has gone through the play with costume and make-up. The stage may be beautifully lit, all the colors and forms of my design brought out, yet there will be areas too light or too dark, spots where we cannot seem to make light appear. It is here, at this point in the work, that the director and designer come to blows! Of course the director wins, but we try our best to agree. It is tricky, it is subtle; and no scenery, no costumes, however good, will stand up under poor lighting. I must repeat, it is the magic of the art of scenic design.

The costumes may have looked well in the fitting rooms, I may have given them my best attention, but I always go through the same fear when the actors come on stage for their dress parade. Even when they are lovely, I go through the same nervous tension; then I wonder why I ever went into this crazy business, when I could be wrapping up packages in a store or selling goods over a counter, or sweeping up some nice lady’s floors. A great deal of opinion is expressed, audibly, for and against, and with little care for anybody’s feelings, and every variety of human taste is rampant. The actors feel strange; they are not used to the clothing of their characters, and sensitive to what others think. Clothes have a strange way of changing their value when they come on the stage, and I have had a shock, at times, myself. When they are right, when they are beautiful, and the characters come together and pass, and accentuate and modify each other, as I have planned, my anguish subsides and I am happy. There are usually changes to be made, some slight, occasionally a drastic one. It is hard for me to find I have made a mistake; just as hard for me to be forced to make a change against my own judgment. The director has the last word, and if he insists, I must do as he says. Another of my difficulties is to try to keep an actress satisfied with a fine, becoming costume when her husband, or her sister or her cousin or her aunt or her best friend, says she looks terrible in it.

During the days between dress rehearsal and opening, I am working over my set and costumes all the time. There are small things that may be improved, lamps changed about, lighting made finer, more flowers bought, maybe an extra bit of furniture to fill a space that looks empty (for every director, like nature, abhors a vacuum), or changes in costume. That is what scenic and dress rehearsals are for. No matter what is wrong, if the idea is right, the fault can be remedied. We have the most wonderful people working in the technical departments of our theatre, men and women who are superb craftsmen and who never let you down. You ask the impossible of them, and the impossible is accomplished. Those sofas that never fit the actors: our wonderful upholsterers take the stuffing apart and make them as high or low, as wide or narrow, as needed, in a few hours between rehearsals. Our wonderful painters will come and add a hundred years of smoking around a fireplace, or the travel stains of a generation to the walls of a railway station in less time than it takes a Junior League miss to have a shampoo and wave. Our wonderful costumers will refit, dye, or even make an entirely new costume overnight — when they are overworked and ready to drop. Our electricians, the magicians, will try and try and try again to light that place that has defied lighting, or work to get a shadow off the wall. People all over the world have asked me if I do not meet a lot of interesting people in the theatre. I do. And the workmen I find the most interesting of all.

In the short space of time that it takes to complete a theatrical production are contained all the elements of an ordinary life — its agonies and disappointments, its pleasures and joys, its desires and creative longing, and its final accomplishment. You cannot do it unless you have the passion for it burning in your breast. Each play is a little life. There is a moment at the opening night when the house lights are down, the footlights come up and illumine the edge of the curtain. Then the curtain rises, everything is in its place, the lights bathe the scene in beauty — that moment is worth everything. I feel I have conquered the world!