Sly Stone, was in an extremely altered state of consciousness when, on Friday October 3, 1976, he finally appeared on the stage in our benighted movie palace. He was a walking pharmacy that night, having required some coaxing to get him down from the dark warren of backstage dressing rooms. If the stage had been raked, he might well have fallen plumb into our aromatic orchestra pit (where certain drunken patrons had a habit of pissing when not observed).
The St. George had been built with a classically-raked orchestra section aided by unobscured sight-lines, thanks to its cantilevered balcony, so a flat stage was all it required. However, some time in the late seventies or early eighties a misguided building owner poured a great deal of concrete into the orchestra floor, in effect flattening it for a roller rink that was never to be, and eliminating the viewing angle in that Eugene Derosa–built palace. Ever sat on a flat floor and tried to see to the back of a flat stage? The current SGT ownership has dealt heroically with the erased orchestra rake by erecting small platform elevations (mini–bleachers) throughout the ground floor; but it ain’t the same. Sound seems to get trapped under the balcony overhang, for one thing. This audience member always heads for the never-altered balcony at the St. George, where acoustics are pristine.
Another solution might be to set the stage at a rake. But then you’d have to deal with all those actor–and–dancer complaints. Mandy Gonzalez who played Elphaba in Wicked, at the Gershwin from January, 2010, to March, 2011, remarked, “You have to be ready, not only to sing an incredible score, but to do it in a dress that weighs 15 lbs., on a raked stage, running up and down stairs, carrying a heavy broom, going through trap doors, and flying!!” Carole Shelley, who played Madame Morrible in Wicked, left the show because her back just wouldn’t take it. In The Actor and the Alexander Technique, Kelly McEvenue, an Alexander instructor, notes, “...I have dealt with many complaints from actors coping with the effects of a raked stage. Most actors counterbalance the rake by leaning back...they tend to lock the knees....” (p. 142).
Rumors of actors taking curtain calls that ended with them on their heads are not uncommon, and backing offstage is definitely not recommended. Before Bette Midler (“The Showgirl Must Go On”) replaced Celine Dion at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas several years ago, Dion advised her to “have them fix the stage,” by which Dion was referring to a steeply-raked affair, designed to enhance the view from the balcony. A new stage was built and delivered. The showgirl will only go on so long as she’s able to stand (how, otherwise, can she dance?).
Until recently I thought the only kind of rake was in the angle of ground-floor theater seats. Oh yeah, I’ve been to the Metropolitan Opera, seen the diva sing her way up a series of treacherous tectonic plates, but in most theaters it never occurred to me that actors on what looks like level ground might actually be running uphill! Isn’t it a little bit like our misguided use of the words “sunrise” and “sunset?” The sun doesn’t actually move — we do! People on stage are walking, singing, dancing on a flat surface — or are they?
I stood a couple of times downstage at the St. George, to make an announcement about broken film or some other irritating movie interruption. I’m glad it was on the level. And equally glad that Chaka Khan, Buzzy Linhardt, The Brooklyn Bridge, The Paper Bag Players, Mrs Rosemary’s children’s dance troupe, an Evangelical revival replete with thrown-down crutches, Curtis High School at graduation time, and Sly Stone, all had firm ground to stand on. The world’s a stage, isn’t it?