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History Of Theatrical Illumination
A History of Theatrical Illumination
May 2, 2000
Role of Illumination 2
Lighting as part of the theatrical experience.
Development of Illumination 3
The evolution of lighting techniques and theatrical structures from candles to bulbs.
Electricity: its effects and advantages.
Typical lighting devices of the 17th to 19th centuries.
Illumination today 9
Contemporary methods as used in Cirque du Soleil's Dralion.
Realizations surrounding the practical process that grew into a profound art
The Role of Illumination
Theatrical lighting has undergone significant changes from its first utilization to modern application. Illumination is essential to the theatrical experience we are familiar with. When the lights come up, the mood is set. Lighting in a performance context manipulates the audience's attention to focus on what the director has deemed important. When an actor or space is no longer an integral part the lights around them dim, dismissing that component and refocusing on what is lit. This process regularly dominates our experience at the theatre, yet it is often taken for granted.
Evidence of innovative devices to maximize, control, and alter light in early theatre illustrates its importance. Artists such as Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci were called upon to supervise Italian productions (Cunningham 1998). Technical rehearsals, to allow the technicians to work out problems without actors, began as early as the 1800s.
This behind-the-scenes art gained significance rapidly with the refinement of theatre. From daylight shining upon a Greek
auditorium to computerized robotic ERSs synchronized with the music of a Broadway show, light has evolved to become one of the most advanced aspects of performance art today.
The Development of Illumination
The earliest permanent performance architecture did not include facilities for lighting or stage effects. Theatrical structures were open-air auditoriums and thus the only variation in illumination possible, given the technology, relied on scrupulous timing with the setting sun or the lighting of torches.
It was not until the Italian Renaissance that the once outdoor spectacles were given their own enclosed edifices (Cunningham 1998). Until this time candles and torches carried by actors during afternoon garden or courtyard performances helped to suggest place and time of day. A general rule was applied early in the transition to indoor theatre: full illumination when the subject is happy, shade or extinguish light at the
first unhappy occurrence (McCandless 1958). This rule was enforced using everyday candles, oil lamps and cressets.
Some rudimentary improvements in lighting and effects included crude manipulation of color and the use of reflectors, often made from household or medical implements (Parker & Smith 1968). Other manipulation of light included dimming devices.
The development of a sloping stage with the addition of footlights was a leap in technology. This combination allowed technicians to direct light towards actors rather then illuminate the entire theatre (Bellman 1967). Placing candles onstage to light scenery also became a regular practice during this time. Some directors were even said to have attached candles to the backs of paper clouds to achieve a desired effect (Parker & Smith 1968).
During the mid 1700s French and English improvements spread worldwide. Performance lighting was brought behind the proscenium and wing and boarder lights were added (Ridge & Aldred 1940).
In 1783 kerosene lamps began to replace candles onstage. Soon after gas was used in quantity. Advantages included increased brightness and control of intensity with a newly developed gas-table that allowed lighting to be dimmed (Bowman 1957). The largest disadvantage were the several thousand theatres that burned down between 1800, when gas became mainstream, and the invention of electric light.
In 1846 the Paris Opera became the first performance facility to use predominantly electricity (Bellman 1967). Electricity, while safer, was difficult to dim. Technicians manually submerged cables in a solution of salt water to break the current and manipulate intensity. An insulated wire with a metal plate at one end was submerged at the bottom of a non-reactive container; the other wire with a metal weight attached was lowered until the two contacts touched to complete the circuit. The light dimmed as the contacts moved away from one
another (McCandless 1958). Sir Henry Irving, of the Lyceum theatre, regularly tested this process before each performance. His practice led to the tradition of dimming the lights before curtain (Hewitt 1952). New electric systems also diminished the warmth audiences had grown accustomed to with gas lighting. These inconveniences were factors in the development of theatres that specifically accommodated electricity.
It wasn't until 1882 in Munich that a theatre was built with electricity in mind (Leacroft 1984). By this time most pre-electricity performance spaces were converted. As had been the case with gas, theatres were responsible for their own power sources. A town theatre often possessed the latest amenities before the general public. This left the theatre owners to create their own gas lines and eventually their own generators for the demanding power requirements of performance lighting (Heffner & Selden 1959).
The theatre has sought command over light for hundreds of years. The first dimming devices were nothing more then candles and 17th century house hold items. Even at that time inventions were complex. Nicola Sabbattini had a device specifically for showing hell.
Let A be the pot in which we pass the
piece of torch BC, long enough to let B
come out of the top and C remain below
the pot. When the time comes to use it,
some one must hold part C in his hands,
the torch having been lighted at B. When
we want the torch to be thrown on the
stage, the pot will be rapidly lifted,
and the resin will come out of the holes
which were made in the paper D, and
catching fire will result in a big flame. Thus, the other men will do the same thing from time to time while the trap is open.
Sabbattini was responsible for many early developments. He was also credited with being the first to place a doctor's basin behind a light source, creating the first reflector-spotlight. A similar design was later used with electric light (Rosenthal & Wertenbaker 1972).
Another creative master, Drummond,
discovered that by heating a piece of
lime to a high temperature with a
hydrogen and oxygen flame it became
incandescent and produced an intense
white light (Sellman 1984). The nature of the light required constant attention of an operator making it useable only is specialized applications. The intense light was a realistic representation of sunlight through a window or the
moon in the dead of night. By 1860 the limelight was commonly used as a follow-spot. These gadgets were impressive for their time. It's only natural that we should be producing equally impressive apparatus for the 21st century.
Luc Lafortune is a lighting technician and designer for Cirque du Soleil. Lafortune adapted the original lighting configurations for Dralion, Cirque's most recent show, for their North American tour. He describes the complex assortment of instruments used to invoke each element of the show.
Audience members surround the stage on three sides; a massive tent supported by four towers covers the entire arena. Lighting instruments are mounted on the towers and the scaffolding between them. Some instruments are operated traditionally during the show by a technician at a computerized lightboard. These are stationary lamps focused to particular areas of the stage as well as robotic lamps. Robotic instruments are capable of moving independently during a performance. Although similar lights are responsible for the visual effects associated with rock concerts, these lights are capable of more refined applications and are employed by many ballet companies. An instrument movement is programmed into a computer before performances begin. To allow for slight
variations in each show cues are administered to coordinate the timing of performers and lights. A light board operator usually gives these cues, but in a musical performance cues can be programmed into a musical instrument. When a keyboardist or drummer plays a particular combination of notes a lighting instrument moves to the next programmed area.
(The performers) are mesmerizing to watch, comments Lafortune. The light is there to compliment them. You don't want to know the light is there, changing, you want to feel it as part of a great show.
Although at times progression was slow, lighting development experienced two great leaps forward-candlelight to gas and gas to electricity. The practical objects put to use in early instruments is astounding. The simplicity of design combined with the complexity of their effect is perhaps the most
interesting elements of dramatic lighting history. When contrasted with the sophisticated, technical instruments of the 21st century a significant evolution is obvious.
Bellman, W.F., Lighting the Stage (San Francisco: Chandler, 1967)
Bowman, Wayne, Modern Theatre Lighting (New York: Harper, 1957)
Cunningham, Lawrence, Culture and Values, (Florida: Harcourt Brace, 1998)
Heffner, Hubert C. & Selden, Samuel, Modern Theatre Practice (New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1959)
Hewitt, Barnard, Play Production and Practice (Philadelphia: Lippencott, 1952)
Leacroft, Richard & Helen, The Theatre and Playhouse (London: Methuen London 1984)
McCandless, Stanley R., A Syllabus of Stage Lighting (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1958)
Parker, W.O. & Smith, H.K., Scene Design and Stage Lighting, 2nd ed. (New York: Holt, 1968)
Ridge, C. Harold & Aldred, F.S., Stage Lighting Principles and Practice, (London: Pitman, 1940)
Rosenthal, Jean & Wertenbaker, Lael, The Magic of Light, (New York: Theatre Arts Books, 1972)
Sellman, Hunton D., Essentials of Stage Lighting, (1984)
Luc Lafortune, lighting adaptation for Cirque du Soleil
Word Count: 1469
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