Stuart Walker: Lessons from the Prophet of the Portmanteau By John D. Newman Drama Teacher Highland High School Salt Lake City, Utah Stuart Walker is the playwright, director and producer who created and led the Portmanteau Theater and its company. The Portmanteau, a portable stage, presented plays to families in New York City and throughout the country. Walker wrote most of the short and full-length pieces he directed and presented them in various combinations. Those who have studied theatre for young audiences might be most familiar with Walker’s adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s The Birthday of Infanta,, which appears in Roger Dedard’s Anthology Dramatic Literature for Children: A Century in Review. Many of Walker’s lesser-known works appear in Edward Hale Bierstadt’s Portmanteau Plays, More Portmanteau Plays and Portmanteau Adaptations, which are available in most academic libraries. Many of Walker’s staging, touring, lighting and directing innovations may seem commonplace today; however, developed in the years surrounding World War I, his practices were well ahead of their time. Some of Walker’s hallmark works were rediscovered by and are now associated with later theatrical artists. While Walker may not have exerted a direct impact on the evolution of theatre for young audiences, his approaches and principles influence today’s theater. Walker’s works exemplify the following five principles and merit a contemporary consideration. I. The Walker Technology Principle: Know when and how to use it. Stuart Walker was mentored by melodrama magnate David Belasco, referred to by one biographer as the “Bishop of Broadway.” In terms of production scale and spectacle, Belasco could be considered the Steven Spielberg of his day. Although his characters were simplistic, his technical expertise allowed him to achieve his epic vision. An oft-cited scene from The Girl of the Golden West required thirty-two stagehands to portray the embrace between hero and heroine inside a cabin as snow blows through the logs. In The Governor’s Lady, Belasco painstakingly reproduced a child’s restaurant in full naturalistic detail. Transformed into a grand opera by Pucinni, Belasco’s Madame Butterfly stunned its premiere audience with a fourteenminute lightshow using the most advanced lighting techniques of the era. One would expect that Walker, after working as an apprentice to this theatrical sorcerer, would emulate Belasco’s scenic wizardry when his interest turned to family theatre. Indeed, Walker shared his mentor’s genius for stage technology. When he set up his Portmanteau on the stage of the New Century Theatre, Walker’s homemade, household-current dimmer system proved more effective than the theater’s celebrated “million-dollar light board.” Stuart Walker eliminated foot lighting and pioneered forty-five degree side lighting decades before Stanley McCandless. Experimenting with reflectors and gels, Walker discovered advanced methods unparalleled by those of his contemporaries. Furthermore, his collapsible stage rivals the best touring systems of our day and was unique in its era. However, the “Prophet of Portmanteau” veiled his wisdom and reserved his skill. If Belasco was the bishop of the theatrical cathedral, Walker was the wandering prophet who retained his power and worked miracles at integral moments. Walker did not simply emulate David Belasco’s scenic wizardry; he expressed himself with artistic independence. Walker developed his own artistic voice rather than echoing that of his mentor and showed a power equal to that of Belasco as he developed his personal theatrical language. Children’s Book and Play Review 2 II. The Walker Story Principle: Every story has a natural time and space. Stuart Walker believed that every story has a natural playing length and that the time a play is afforded on stage should be no more nor less than the story dictates. This led Walker to create many pieces too short to be performed individually. Rather than stretch these stories beyond what he felt were their natural playing times, Walker developed a s
ystem that allowed him to present pieces of various lengths in the course of a program. During the 1930’s and 1940’s, the length of a play was determined by adult expectations rather than by concern for the story’s natural time scale. As a result, many plays exceeded the interest and attention spans of their younger audiences. Using the system of combining plays allowed Walker to keep his family audiences satisfied. Besides temporal confines, Walker also faced the challenge of spatial limitations. Yet his Portmanteau stage, in its ability to be used in both small and large theatres, allowed Walker to overcome many of the spatial boundaries he encountered. However, there were times that Walker chose to stage his plays in a more traditional fashion, and so left the Portmanteau unassembled, allowing his company to fill the entire stage space. III. The Walker Casting Principle: A good eye for talent may still have its blind spots. After his first performance using the Portmanteau stage, Walker was approached by a well-known New York producer who exclaimed: “Where did you get that cast?! I’ve never heard of one of ‘em— but they’re wonders!” Walker replied, “I got six of them out of your companies.” The star system, well engrained in Walker’s time, allowed a few, big-name actors to eclipse the talents of lesser-known but equally skilled performers. When one works in artistic isolation, reliable actors can become stars in their own eyes, and they may cast these actors in roles that could be better filled. It is sometimes necessary to take a fresh look at the options in order to combat the blind spots created by familiarity. IV. The Walker Audience Principle: You can include a younger audience without excluding an older audience. As a boy, Stuart Walker gave regular performances using his toy theatre, on which the Portmanteau was largely based. By age twelve, Walker was writing and producing a new play every week, each of which had to please both the younger and older members of his home audience. When he had a full-sized theatre at his desposal, Walker was thus able to satisfy both the children in his audience and the adults who brought them to see his plays. Accounts of their performances attest the fact that Walker’s plays entertained the young and old alike and that most were both critically and financially successful. What remains open to interpretation is how Walker achieved that golden balance. In some cases, his plays operated on multiple levels, allowing both age groups to be entertained. An example of this is The Trimplet. This play portrays a journey, intriguing enough to be enjoyed at face value by the children watching but it also supports philosophical and symbolic aspects enjoyed by the older members of the audience. In other cases, his play’s trans-generational appeal is derived from its portrayal of common childhood experiences. For example, Nevertheless is a simple story of a boy and girl arguing over a piggy bank which is nearly stolen by a thief whom they successfully reform. It’s ability to capture the reality of the creative play that all have experienced as children or observed as parents keeps this story from becoming a stale morality tale. Likewise, the dwarf and infanta in The Birthday of Infanta remind their audience of the ridicule many experience as children and the careless cruelty of which most have been guilty at one time or another. Walker also recognizes the desires of both young and old through his use of dialogue between the “device bearer” and “you”(a cast member planted in the audience). The device bearer sets the stage and establishes the background through prologue. He is occasionally interrupted by you, who asks questions that children in the audience might have about particular words or ideas. These Children’s Book and Play Review 3 exchanges usually occur at the beginning of the play, so as to be the least
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