Theatrical Stage Lighting and the Devices Used Throughout Theater History Term Paper

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Theatrical Lighting History

History and Discourse on Theatrical Lighting

Lighting has played an important part in stage productions throughout time. It began simply as the light of day from the sun and the diffusing effect of the clouds, which of course were often unpredictable, to the current computerized state of precise timing, intensity and hue. The human eye is often called the mirror of the soul and that which touches it touches the spirit directly. Lighting in its various forms has an intrinsic emotional quality that can affect the mind of the observer long before any words are spoken. As darkness connotes mystery, brightness relays a feeling of certitude in ones surroundings and so on through a myriad of effects from limelight to fireworks and beyond. The history of lighting in theatre is by nature a map to our own imaginations.

In general there are two kinds of illumination for the theater, General Composition Illumination and Selective Illumination. General Composition Illumination is used to produce a "wash" of light across a space, with little or no shadows. It is diffuse and undifferentiated. Selective Illumination is the creation of shafts or pinpoints of light that can be directed or fixed on certain areas of the stage inn order to highlight a specific person, prop or scene. This draws the audience's attention to that area (McCandless). Theatrical lighting has taken these two general categories and over the centuries learned to manipulate their intensity and color for a myriad of effects and the creation of a more dynamic stage element.

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It is generally acknowledge that early theater lighting, whether completely outdoors or indoors and open air, was lit by natures own sun as made plain by the following:

TOPIC: Term Paper on Theatrical Stage Lighting and the Devices Used Throughout Theater History Assignment

The Romans were also in the habit of stretching large cloth awnings (vela or velaria) over their theaters to protect spectators from the sun. In the first century B.C., Lucretius described how light shining through these awnings could even tinge theaters in colored light: red, yellow, and brown awnings when, stretched across great theatres, flung wide over poles and beams, they ripple and flap. For they dye the whole thing under them: people, pit, stage, and scenery...and make it flow with bands of their own colors. And the more the walls of the theatre are enclosed around; the more all that's inside is gay and flooded with beauty when it has caught the light. (Graves 29-30)

The creation of mood and lighting were always paramount in the minds of the stage designers.

However, for the purposes of this analysis attention will be given to that lighting which is of a manmade origin. This of course begins with the humble candle. Attributed to invention circa 400 AD, the candle was at first relegated to religious ceremonies. As better materials were developed and the brightness and portability of the candle increased, it began to be used more generally. But it wasn't until the late fifteen hundreds that there are records of candles being used in theaters in Italy. Their popularity spread over Europe and to England by the early sixteen hundreds (Graves).

Although as R.B. Grave author of Lighting the Shakespearean Stage reminds us that in discussing the past one thing must remain in mind:

Although the chapters that follow count unrepentantly torches and tapers, candles and footcandles, Jonson nevertheless warns us of methodological problems in recreating a play by means of describing the physical circumstances of its original production. As an archaeological principle, we must acknowledge that all we can know of the past is the durable, but there is no assurance that the durable is the most significant part of a bygone society or drama. The worth of physical artifacts is not intrinsic but rather contingent upon the degree to which artisans embodied important functions of their culture in them and left us codes by which we can decipher those functions. (Graves 2)

Candles became the most significant light source for theater productions. In the beginning candlelight was used to illuminate the members of the audience as well as the production and its actors. Candles were usually set in chandeliers over the audience and the audience section was under constant illumination during the performance while the stage would have varying degrees of light. Stagehands would snuff out and light candles according to the stage directions and there were also mechanical contrivances, different full chandeliers and partial branches were also used:

Some of the branches could be lowered by wires and pulleys so that the candles could be lit, snuffed, and extinguished. Lines, ropes, and pulleys are frequently mentioned in the accounts [of performances], but there are only a few explicit references to the raising and lowering of lights (Graves 162)

Candles were also used as footlights and ladders in the wings to add side illumination. Then in the sixteenth century Sebastiano Serilio created a technique that gave candles a whole new dimension. By the use of colored liquids made from various sources like saffron (yellow), burgundy wine (red) and so on he was able to give candlelight color. He utilized a polished barber's basin to reflect candlelight through these bottled liquids to project on actors and scenery. In a sense this was the first attempt at selective illumination as well.

However candlelight had many drawbacks, one of which is the intensity and the quality of the light produced. Many candles, up to and sometimes exceeding thirty or more per several chandeliers were necessary to have sufficient illumination for the stage or audience. Intensity is an important concern as relates to human vision. Detail can be lost if there is not enough light to discern them. Under low illumination one would not be able to see colors as they would normally be seen in bright daylight. The scene becomes a wash of gray.

A while the eye can readily adapt to the darkness indoors, it cannot see details as efficiently. As the average level of brightness decreases arithmetically, one's ability to see contrasts and to differentiate brightnesses decreases geometrically, and objects of various colors, shapes, and reflectances tend to merge together in a monotonously undifferentiated gray picture. (Graves 190)

Candles also required constant maintenance during the performance, wicks had to be trimmed to eliminate smoke and either be lit or snuffed out, as the scenes required. Melting candle wax was often a problem, dripping on the audience as they watched or the actors as they preformed.

In 1780 Aime Argand created the Argand lamp, or the modern oil lamp, that utilized an adjustable taper which could be used to more easily dim the lamps as opposed to constantly snuffing out candles creating smoke. The oil lamp was a welcome invention and quickly replaced the candle for use in theaters and was well accepted by the general public. In the theater they were used much in the same way as candles were for lighting, chandeliers, footlights, ladders and wing lights.

Just prior to and during this transition from candle to oil lamps, a fundamental change in lighting was happening. For the most part theaters had the audience lit with chandeliers throughout the performance, but at the Drury Lane Theater things were about to change. The manger of the theater, David Garrick, after a trip abroad brought many innovative lighting ideas from France. One of these was to have all lighting recessed behind the proscenium and to light the audience only before, during intermission, and after the play. Also, prior to this the footlights were just simple flames in the floor projecting light 360 degrees. Garrick installed shields that acted as reflectors, intensifying the footlights and making the flame invisible to the audience, leaving them in darkness. Moreover, there were many other changes that were occurring during this period.

With the Enlightenment in the mid-18th cent. there was a revival of classicism, and the unity of place was strictly observed by designers. They experimented with strong darks and lights and tried for the first time to infuse their designs with atmosphere. Toward the end of the century the curtain was first lowered to change the scene, and the scrim (gauze drop that becomes transparent when lit from behind) came into use. ("Scene Design and Stage Lighting")

By the beginning of the ninetieth century oil lamps were used throughout the theater industry. Their glass chimneys were often tinted with various colors to help add to the effects of the lighting as per stage directions.

The next innovation was the use of gas as a fuel source for the flame. In the beginning most theaters were able to produce their own gas by using oil, resin or coal. By being able to channel the gas though pipes and tubes, the ability to remotely control the lighting on the stage became possible. For the first time in theater history a light board was introduced, using a series of valves to control all of the lighting on and off stage. This not only improved the quality of lights but also allowed the… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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