Theatrical Lighting History and Discourse Term Paper

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As stated previously, there are two types of lighting in theaters, General Composition and Selective. During theses early phases, while there were some forays into selective illumination, they were very limited. Some parabolic reflectors were used to guide lighting in specific arches across the scene, but there was little in the way of pinpoint accuracy. There was also one major problem with illumination to date, it was always in the form of a flame and had to be held vertically over its fuel source, protected from anything that could burn and had to be fed by oxygen. This limited the type of housing that could be used as well as the positioning possibilities of this type of light source.

The first attempt at a focused shaft of light was created by the introduction of limelight. The limelight, or calcium light, was produced by directing an oxygen/hydrogen flame at a cylinder of calcium carbonate (limestone) which caused it to glow brightly yet not melt or burn away. The light was slightly green in color, hence the name, limelight. Although short-lived, from the middle to late 1800's, the limelight has left its mark on theater language, followspots are still referred to as limes. However, the heat was intense and there were apparently many fires attributed to this device (McCandless).

The advent of electricity produced the greatest innovation in lighting techniques. Although known since the early 1800's, there was no practical way of generating it until the mid to late nineteenth century. Once a more efficient generator was constructed, carbon arc lamps took over from limelights in almost all theaters before the end of the 1880's. Carbon arc lamps emitted an intensely bright light that could be focused and controlled more efficiently than any other instrument so far. These carbon arc spotlights and followspots continued to develop as more refinements for using electricity came along. Then, incandescent lighting became more versatile and its intensity increased so that by 1920 many carbon arc lamps were replaced by 1000 watt incandescent spots for most general theatrical use. Different lenses and housing became available for a variety of uses and effects. However, Carbon Arc lamps remained in service as followspots as late as 1990.

The advent of electric current gave rise to even more creativity and the light board became an essential instrument to the theater. Now, not only could the intensity and color of lights be exceptionally controlled, but also by the use of motors and pulley systems, spots and lights could be rotated and moved into any position without the aid of a stagehand. Eventually, with the advent of computer technology, light boards could be programmed for many levels of sophistication and performance, as well as automatic timing.

There are of course a myriad of other innovations and inventions that were used and discarded over the course of this development. There were also property lights, props that represented the moon, sun or stars. They could also be used in other ways:

Sometimes property lights serve theatrical purposes in two or three of these modes at once. In scenes of pomp, for instance, the introduction of many richly garnished lights could throw enough artificial light on the scene to create the illusion of the artificial light at a noble entertainment in a hall. (Graves 203)

Torches were also used in theater productions, both as hand held props by the actors and as sconces on walls. This not only added to the overall feeling of the play but also helped in bringing more light into the scene. Most fires presented on stage were usually represented only by smoke, but candles, which were also originally used for religious and court purposes, would be used as props by actors in grandiose processions, this would often bring enough illumination into the scene without the use of other general lighting. Fireworks were also often used as a "special effect" in a stage production, often signaling the end of the show or a prominent occurrence within the play (Graves).

But beside illumination, light has another important feature, it can set the mood and tone of the stage as well as enhance the character of the actor it is lighting. Ghoul lighting is an excellent example of lighting an actor's face from below creating shadows on the face that are not normally present. This disconcerts the brain that is used to seeing the familiar pattern of a healthy face and these shadows create a feeling of fear. This can be seen in any production of Sweeny Todd. The main characters face is not only constantly set to be lit from below, but the makeup design itself adds to this effect as well by darkening the hollows of the contours to make them seem more sallow and ill. It is the look of illness that ghoul lighting projects.

How does this association effect happen?

Our perceptions of a place -- judgements we make about it, feelings that we have there, even the extent to which we are consciously aware of our surroundings -- are determined by our previous experience. Patterns of light and colour act as clues to the nature of a room by triggering associations with places experienced in the past. So we tend to perceive that a room has a particular character, and we also tend to express this in phrases that can be both physical descriptions and subjective attributions -- expressions such as 'warm and cosy'; or 'dull', 'stimulating' or 'threatening'. (Tregenza, and Loe 47)

Some general principles are derived from this. When trying to present a look that is bright and airy, surfaces in the room should have high reflectivity. Very light colored floors and large windows are also associated with this feeling. However, if the feeling is for gloom like that of a cave than the surface areas should be dark in color and low light will make the room seem uncertain to the audience and help to create a more mysterious or frightening air, and so on.. (Tregenza and Loe)

Color is another important aspect of light, both surface colors and projected colors are extremely important on the stage:

The control of colour in lighting is essential in theatrical design... Their use can be subtle: changes of lamp colour between one part of an interior and another can denote changes of scale or activity; they can denote a route, or a centre of importance. Colour variation can enhance perception of time, and mark the change from day to night; it can give clues about differences in temperature and be linked with other environmental senses. (Tregenza, and Loe 63)

Again this is related to past experience and future expectations. For instance, if we have seen a hot fire as yellow to orange to red, than those colors projected on the stage will evoke that feeling in the observer. Another example is snow on a very cold day with a clear winter blue sky, a stage lit with these colors can denote the cold crisp air of winter. But more importantly they can also denote the emotive feelings of hot or cold, the heat of anger or the cold of indifference, as well as simply relating temperature.

Light can also be used to denote exterior scenery that is actually not there. For instance, in Peter Glenville's production of the Innocents there is an interesting use of light. "The set, designed by Jo Mielziner, was a large living room, with French windows leading to an offstage garden whose existence was signaled simply by the cool, greenish light it reflected back into the room" (Babbage). Here we see our audience accepting light as being reflected from a garden. One can almost feel the air in the scene and even hear the chirping of birds or crickets even in just this simple description.

Light creates an unconscious reaction that when used well can be extremely convincing in the context of a production. But light is also more than that. In his article, "Listening to Light." Stephen Strawbridge explains that although, "one can never talk just about light. Light must always be thought of as part of a larger whole. "Yet he goes on to confirm that light, "is the means by which all other elements of a production are revealed" (Strawbridge).

In this simple statement the author relates the most important fact of all. Light reveals. Yet with proper control it can be used to reveal what the lighting designer wishes it to reveal or to express.

Works Cited

Scene Design and Stage Lighting." The Columbia Encyclopedia. 6th ed. 2004.

Babbage, Frances. "The Play of Surface: Theater and the Turn of the Screw." Comparative

Drama 39.2 (2005): 131+.

Graves, R.B. Lighting the Shakespearean Stage, 1567-1642. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois

University Press, 1999.

McCandless, Stanley. A Method of Lighting the Stage. 4th ed. New York: Theatre Arts Books,

Strawbridge, Stephen. "Listening to Light." American Theatre. 20 (2003): 38.


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