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EntertainmentColumnistsLinda Winer

Is it curtains for the stage curtain?


BEST PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTOR IN A LEADING ROLE IN A PLAY: Tom Hanks, "Lucky Guy";; Nathan Lane, "The Nance,"; Tracy Letts, "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"; David Hyde Pierce, "Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike"; Tom Sturridge, "Orphans"
Photo Credit: Joan Marcus

After all the humble winners, brave losers and exclamations of theater love at last Sunday's Tony telecast, isn't it time to pause a moment to appreciate a vanishing member of the theater family?

I am having a nostalgia spasm for the theater curtain. Perhaps you haven't noticed, but it may be twilight for the noble velvet drape that, for centuries, rose and fell at important moments to tell audiences when to pay attention and when to start thinking about transportation home.

Fewer and fewer directors and designers are choosing to frame their productions with the standard curtain -- the one called the "house curtain" that belongs to the theater. This is in contrast with the more popular "show curtain," which designers create as part of the set of specific productions. Both seem almost quaint compared to the scenery that's just out there, in plain view from the start, until a blackout means the end of a scene or the evening. And we're not even going to mention plays in which actors (this season, Laurie Metcalf and Fiona Shaw) are sitting onstage when we arrive.

So what has happened? Are playwrights not writing the kind of lines -- called "curtain lines" -- that signal the end of a scene or an act? Does it feel more modern to have audiences live in the set before the play begins? Have curtain-up surprises become too old-fashioned, going the way of overtures and opening credits in movies?

After talking to three of our major designers in separate phone interviews, the answer to all of the above is yes. The reasons, as you may have guessed, are far more interesting.

Santo Loquasto, who blew up an outside photo of a prewar building for the show curtain of his Tony-nominated set for "The Assembled Parties," says he seldom uses the house curtain. "The show curtain gives you the opportunity to make a statement dramaturgically or atmospherically," he adds, explaining how, indeed, the rambling Upper West Side apartment is almost a character in the play. In general, he finds a house curtain "more neutral or kind of bourgeois."

David Rockwell, who uses a transparent show scrim to introduce his Tony-nominated sets for "Lucky Guy," can't remember a time when he used the house curtain. "Historically, the curtain rose and everyone focused on that story," he observes, taking a longer sociological view. "But people communicate differently in a world with so much competing digital distraction. I'm not one to look back. We try to get the show closer to the audience and try to have that first image be more special."

In contrast, John Lee Beatty not only uses the house curtain for his Tony-winning sets for "The Nance." He also feels protective of the endangered species. "I use them more often than some people," he says, regretting that "people get confused by the language of the curtain these days. It can be so useful."

"The Nance" is, in part, a backstage vaudeville about New York in the '30s, which makes both curtain and the early 20th century Lyceum Theatre feel right. But decisions about curtains, Beatty says passionately, "are not taken lightly."

One of the other few uses of the stage curtain this season was in Michael Yeargan's Tony-nominated sets for Clifford Odets' "Golden Boy." As a genuine period piece about New York in the '30s, the work was written and structured for curtains and curtain lines.

In contrast, many of today's playwrights, influenced by TV and movies, reject old-fashioned curtain lines for quicker lines with cinematic rhythms better suited to quick blackouts. As Beatty puts it, "Playwrights don't do expositions in which the maid answers the phone while the audience applauds the set."

All three designers point to the impact of regional theaters on playwrights and curtains. Instead of proscenium stages, popular since the 17th century, most modern theaters outside New York have been built with thrust or arena stages, which seldom have house curtains at all. Loquasto jokes that we have Tyrone Guthrie to blame, since the British director practically began America's resident theater movement by opening the Guthrie Theater, with its thrust stage, in 1963.

Then there is the Bertolt Brecht effect on the alienation of house curtains. Arnold Aronson, professor of stage design at Columbia University, considers Brecht "the primary figure responsible for the demise of the curtain. He advocated doing away with it to reveal the mechanics of the stage and to undercut illusion -- nothing should be hidden. He's also responsible for exposed lighting equipment."

Obviously, we also can't underestimate the impact of technology -- especially digital projections -- on the triumph of show curtains over the old-time velvets. It seems equally obvious that the creation of individual show curtains is more expensive than using the drapes already hanging.

But nothing is that obvious about the rise and fall of curtains. According to Beatty, "a nasty little Broadway secret is that, sometimes, a show curtain is cheaper than a house curtain. A show curtain can be folded into the mechanical package, automated, instead of needing a human to pull it by hand. You save that salary."

Who knew? Beatty says, "The curtain man needs to know how fast to make the curtain come down to match what's going on in the material. He has to be able to bounce a curtain so actors can get extra applause. Some curtains even need more than one person to really make them function."

So if it is, indeed, curtains for the curtain, we'll know some reasons why.

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