SPECIAL interest has been taken in the development and equipment of the German stage. Yielding to the influence of art, Teutonic ingenuity is continually devising new mechanisms and original effects, many of which, it is true, would be impracticable in American theatres so long as profit remains the determining factor in theatre construction.
In America the relative size and equipment of the stage are usually overlooked in the mercenary anxiety to provide only for seating capacity, but the time may come when the architect will be asked by the manager or owner to enlarge the stage in correct proportion to the auditorium, in order properly to accommodate the productions that custom or public taste may demand as suitable for that theatre.
The main features of a German stage that would impress an American architect are its size, plan and mechanical contrivances, the unique devices for building up scenic effects, and the perfect lighting arrangement. The dimensions of the New Deutche Opera House stage in Char-lottenburg, Berlin, are colossal. This stage measures 249 feet in width by 170 feet in depth, being the largest in the world; larger even than the immense stage of the New York Hippodrome.
The scenic contrivances and lighting arrangements of modern German theatres are little short of marvelous.
One idea only have the modern theatres of Europe adopted from America; the American level stage. The pitched stage previously employed in Europe for the better vision of the audience has been recently discarded for the artistic, constructive and technical advantages of a level stage.
A few years ago scene changes were made in all theatres during intermission, but by recent innovations that permit a prearrangement of setting to be used much time is now being saved in advanced playhouses and better effects are being obtained. These necessary devices have not yet been generally adopted in America, but the inevitable importation of large stage productions from Europe will make necessary the correction of this serious fault in American stagecraft.
In 1896 Head Engineer Lautenschlager of the Residence Theatre at Munich, Germany, invented and first used the now famous revolving stage, which permits the simultaneous preparation of several scenes, each in its proper turn being presented to the audience by revolving the turn-table so that the desired scene comes into view through the proscenium opening. This device is an excellent One for use in comedies or light dramas, and has been already adopted in several American theatres.
This turn-table stage, however, failed to fill the requirements of large productions, and two further general schemes were devised. In one of these there were side and rear stages consisting of huge movable platforms adjoining the slightly depressed actual playing stage. The different settings were built up on these auxiliary platforms and rolled into place, as desired, above this playing stage. This device was called the Reform Stage and was originated by Stage Director Brandt of the Berlin Court Theatre, where it was first installed.
In the other scheme the movable portions of the stage floor were so increased that the entire working stage became a series of hydraulic-lift platforms, capable not only of being raised and lowered but also of being propelled laterally. The scenes in this system are built up in the basement underneath the stage, wheeled into the desired position, and raised to the stage level by hydraulic power. This stage was the invention of the Asphalia Company of Berlin, and has been installed in the Hofburg Theatre in Vienna and the Wiesbaden Theatre, at Wiesbaden, Germany. In both of these theatres this device is most remarkable, the working portion of the stage being divided into nine platforms mounted on hydraulic rams, which may not only descend to a sub-stage but there be interchanged.
It is in the Paris Opera House and the Deutche Opera House in Charlottenburg, Berlin, that the Reform Stage has reached its culminating perfection. Here these mammoth stages are so perfect mechanically that they may be rolled into position by one man, and frequently the scene changes are made with extreme realism in full view of the audience. For instance, when a garden scene follows an interior setting, the two are arranged in sequence and roll by as the actors are passing from the house into the garden. Originally built for hydraulic power, the first adopted substitute for hand power, these devices may now be operated by electricity.
While some of the newer German theatres still retain the loft space above the stage in which to hoist scenery, they have in addition a sus-pended horizon shaped like a quarter-sphere shell, also the invention of Herr Brandt. It curves outward at the top and sides, and upon its surface a stereopticon, mounted on a bridge above and inside the proscenium opening, projects realistic cloud effects, either stationary or moving. The new Deutche Opera House at Charlotten-burg, Berlin, has this device mounted on a traveling crane, worked by electricity from a cab fixed on the traveler. The rear wall of the Dresden Theatre, too, has been built into a permanent horizon of this type, on the plan of a true ellipse, extending high above the proscenium.
There is every evidence that the extra high scene loft, which has ever been a troublesome architectural feature, may be eliminated in the future American theatre as hanging room for scenery. The old style painted scenery with its "flats," "wings" and ugly "sky borders," is impossible for artistic use, and is "gradually giving way to modern plastic scenery, built up "in the round" to indicate better the true perspective. In most fine productions actual objects are now employed on the stage in place of painted "properties."
The elimination of the extreme upper region of the stage and the establishment of a sky-dome would truly comport with the presentation of natural appearing plastic scenery and permit a texture of reflected light from the cupola-horizon to give the effect of infinite distance. It has been suggested by Professor Wallace C. Sabine, of Harvard University, a recognized authority on acoustics, that this quarter-sphere form of horizon is neither necessary from the standpoint of illumination nor desirable from the standpoint of acoustics. He believes that a flatter back with a sharper curvature above and at the sides would be preferable for the purposes of both acoustics and utility.
A stage innovation of the advanced theatre that may be readily adopted in American theatres with no appreciable loss of space is the inner adjustable proscenium arch. This plainly designed frame is placed four or five feet inside the permanent arch and by an ingenious arrangement is made to contract or expand to accommodate the scene on the stage. Thus a ballroom can use the full expanse of the stage, and a bedroom a much smaller part to indicate the true size of a bedroom and thereby cause the actors' figures to appear natural in stature. This inner opening may be treated in neutral colors to harmonize both with the scene presented on the stage and the permanent decorations of the auditorium.
For the information of those who contemplate erecting theatres not intended for play productions but for the temporary housing of traveling attractions American stages are at present equipped with the scenery described in the table at the end of this chapter.