by Nicholas Sheets, dramaturg
Awhile back I created a presentation for the actors as their dramaturg. I had been given an assignment by the director and co-director to help the actors delve into their roles in this production. For example, the actor playing Raoul needs to learn what sort of life he would live during the 1880’s in France to help create his back-story. The back-story is the world in which the actor will put himself so everything he does has history during the performance. For example, when Raoul says certain things in Phantom he understands why he is speaking that particular way and what kind of relationships he has with the other characters around him. My job with this presentation was to help create that world.
Depending on the social class in which each character falls, I divided up the presentation into the three main social classes during the Belle Epoque of the turn of the 19th century.
The wealthy would live in houses outside of the city and would be driven in on horse-drawn carriages to and from the city, as well as around the city. This was a real sign of wealth because most people had to walk everywhere. Here’s a drawing of what one of these carriages would look like:
The middle-class would live in the boundaries of the city of Paris. They would live in apartments that weren’t so lavish but were still very comfortable. The middle class enjoyed their newly acquired purchasing power, so the paintings you see in the picture were symbols of wealth.
Many middle-class Parisians would attend art galleries to purchase paintings by well-known artists.
The lower-class of Paris didn’t have much of a purchasing power, but this was when the idea of cafes began to become very popular. For example, on Friday, when you would receive your paycheck, you would go to a cafe, chat, drink, and party until the morning. You probably spent a good portion of your paycheck at the cafe.
Living conditions weren’t very comfortable, probably a few people for a small apartment. Newer, more economical apartment buildings were built during this era because of the need to clean up the city and find places for the growing poorer classes that flocked to Paris. These are example of living spaces for the poorer section of Paris.
Once the information was presented, each actor had to choose for themselves under which class they would most likely be categorized. That choice helped them build the characters that we will see on stage.