Sunday, September 25, 2011

Fordham During The Twenties

The Playshop at Fordham University 
By Fr. Robert I. Gannon, S. J.
WHEN CELLINI wrote about himself, pride led him on; in the "Confessions" deep humility was St. Augustine's motive; sheer love of chatter gave Samuel Pepys; while old Ben Franklin seems to say in Poor Richard's Almanac, "Take heart! If a man like this can succeed, anybody can."
In jotting down these few words, at the editor's request, "The Playshop of Fordham University," our motive is ry like Benjamin Franklin's. Not that our success is a parable to his. We have, in fact, accomplished very ;le. Professor Baker, in his Harvard Workshop, need t look to us for rivalry. What has been done, however, s been so helpful, so pleasant and so easy that, like boys a new swimmin' hole, we are impelled by the most elentary good-fellowship to chant in a chorus to all pass-by, "Come on in; the water's fine!" ^mong the passers-by, I am sure, will be many men and men interested in Catholic colleges and academies where ire talent and opportunity for development can be found in in Fordham. If they will only reflect for the short K they are reading these words on the value of the work the student, to his college and to the Catholic Little eater of the future, they will lose no time in starting ocal Playshop of their own.
[f they do so, and then link practice with their theory, :y will be experimenting with nothing new in pedagogy, 'en Dickens' "Do-the-boys School" in that, at least, was reast of the times. "Spell horse!" said Squeers. "H-O-R-S-E." "Correct! Now go out and feed him." e Ratio Studiorhim, anticipating this Yorkshire master two or three centuries, said in effect, "What is a speech? bat is a poem? Now go home and write one!" It is ar, then, that when the freshmen took up the technique the one-act play in class, their Jesuit professor mur
mured almost unconsciously: "Now go home and write one!" He said it, however, only to a few.
He formed, in other words, what is known to the Ratio as an "Academy." Out of one hundred and sixty-five men, about fifteen were invited to organize themselves as a playwriting group, which in time out of class might meet for mutual suggestions and encouragement. The meetings were most informal. No lectures were given, smokes were passed about. Everyone had his say on every one else's work, and then the director always outlined the next step in the operations.
These steps were simple and obvious enough. After the analysis of standard one-act plays came a special study of Dialogue. It is amazing what difficulty some people find in reproducing perfectly normal, natural conversation, no dialect, no passion—just what he said and what she said. All this, however, was preliminary. Soon we were writing dialogues and monologues, dramatizing short stories, rewriting standard one-act plays after making essential changes—sketching scenarios and finally plunging into original one-act plays. .
In conjunction with all this we were fortunate in having an enthusiastic band of players, "The Mumes and Mummies," on whom we might experiment. They wer.e free— after producing "She Stoops to Conquer" in December, 1921—and, with time out for repetitions and examinations, worked with the Playshop until the end of the year. This means that every two weeks, behind closed doors, a monologue, a dialogue and a dramatized short story, coached by the students themselves, were offered for criticism. A sort of debate always followed, some confining their remarks to the writing, some to the acting; some encouraging those concerned, some expressing themselves quite frankly. The directors then endeavored to make a few suggestions and
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the play was repeated with the necessary changes and modifications. There was nothing marvelous about the whole program, but it was interesting and helpful.
Now, those of a practical turn of mind may be interested in the mechanical and financial aspect of our meetings. They are held in the College Theater with its modern, roomy and well-equipped stage. This is quite accidental, however, as a barn or a garret would be quite sufficient for experimental work of this type. For scenery we have the usual stock sets with a variety of drops, but our joy and our comfort is the good old "cyk" or cyclorama of drapes which can be made to suggest everything because it doesn't look like anything. For costumes we "fake" what we can and rent the rest. The "make up" is smeared on by the ambitious director, with results that, if not always appropriate, are sure to be colorful. With these economies, the expenses for one night's work, including "hard" cakes and pop for the faithful stage crew, never come to as much as eight dollars, and are sometimes no higher than three.
The first green fruits of all this planting were seen on March 21, 1922. That evening, more to encourage ourselves than to astonish them, we came before the friends of the college in a Prize Play Contest. Six plays were offered-— all of them dramatized, short stories limited to twenty minutes each. The program was as follows:
"His Father" Godfrey Schmidt, '25
"The Masterpiece" Frank Walsh, "25
"Heat" James Cancagh, "25
"The Proposal" Gordon LasMude,'25
"Yellow" Paul Collins, 25
"The Ace of Spades" Edward Lyman, "25
Three invited judges passed on the merits of the plan and awarded the prize to James Cancagh, '25, for "Hea: This little tragedy, at the invitation of the managemeii was afterwards produced at one of the Keith theaters New York.
This year, 1922-23, we have welcomed upper-classnr, into the Playshop and, greatly encouraged, have set to work on original plays. Except for the time when all our energies were given to a production of Henry VIII we hare continued our regular private sessions, with more or Jess success. Ten plays of varying merit have been produced this season in the bosom of the family. None of the work can approach the best output of the Harvard workshopsome of it is very ordinary indeed—but the progress is unmistakable and the benefit to those who write and dire* the plays, as well as those who act in them, is as great as the pleasure they derive from their task.
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