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Lighting And Effects Are Worked By The Stage Crew

( Originally Published 1916 )


For Edison's invention of the electric light, Brander Matthews holds him responsible for not only the withdrawal of the apron and the making of the picture-frame stage, but for the banishment of the soliloquy. Thus, the matter of lighting has brought about actual changes in stage construction—and in drama itself.

There are five general ways of lighting the stage : by the spotlight in the gallery, by the footlights in front, by the portable strip and bunch lights, and by the border lights from above.

The footlights, or " foots," is a row of lights in a metal trough along the front edge of the proscenium. In England they call them floats," because in bygone years, the trough was filled with oil, in which wicks floated. Sensational and rapid changes undergone by this particular feature of playhouse illumination probably account for much of the demand that it be done away with.

Argument seems to be that there is no natural lighting that comes from below. Light reflected from water may be an exception, although the source is above. However, the attempt to inaugurate a "natural" system of chiaroscuro seems really nearer to " deadly realism " than the efforts deplored by these same would-be reformers. The stage is a narrow place whereupon large things are suggested; and it cannot employ the system of universe without reducing everything in it, characters included, to scale. The theater is for conveying impressions, and so long as they are projected truthfully, there need be no particular question on the part of the public as to the means employed.

Footlights have come to perform a contributory service in a highly complex piece of machinery, instead of shouldering, as formerly, almost all the burden of stage illumina tion. In the newer theaters, the footlights occupy but a comparatively small stretch of the proscenium.

Concerning footlights, George Foster Platt, former general stage director at the New Theater, has made a pointed comment. " It appears to me that it would be as wrong to eliminate footlights," he told me once, " as it would be to have them all the time. Suppose you have a beautiful woman in a big picture hat on the stage, and all the lighting is from overhead. Her fine face would be in darkness."

David Belasco has been eliminating footlights for many years. He did it first about thirty-six years ago at " The Passion Play " in San Francisco, using the old locomotive bull's-eyes from the balcony to light the distant stage. As the overhead lighting system developed at his New York theater, he installed reversible footlights that could be turned out of sight at will. When it came to his production of " The Phantom Rival," in 1914, he dispensed with foot-lights altogether after the first act; and, with the opening of " The Boomerang," he leveled off his stage front, rounded it out into an " apron," and had practically all his lighting from above. When he had his overturning foots he had an added row of " linolites," long incandescent finger-bulbs, placed end to end in a thin line, particularly for use when the foots were inverted.

Footlights are commonly divided into three or four sections from side to side of the stage, separately controlled, each color of lamps on a separate circuit. At the Little Theater, the division is into three. The two side sections are rarely turned on to the full; but the middle section is powerfully bright, with a silk screen over it to diffuse the glare.


Strip lights vary in length and position. A strip is usually a long zinc box—much like the boxes umbrellas come in—with the bulbs set one above another in little oblong niches in the face of it, depressed flush with the front. On the back are hooks or rings, by which the strip may readily be fastened in position. Its uses are legion. It may rest lengthwise on the floor—it is not more than about eight inches wide—behind a low hedge, or ridge of grass, perhaps, to light a portion of scenery not reached by the regular illumination; it may be over the outside of a doorway to show the backing; it may be inside a fireplace, or it may do one or a dozen things, all depending upon the exigencies of the action in which is serves.

The bunch light is another portable affair. On a small, round base is a slim standard rising to a round or square reflecting head that has bulbs clustered or studded in it. It is a much stronger and more concentrated light than the strip, but is used for much the same purposes.


The flood light—particularly the olivette, or open-faced arc—resembles nothing so much as a giant " horseshoe," or king crab, standing on its tail, the point of which has been thrust into a mound of sand. The upper half of this " tail " telescopes up and down, while the head is movable and can cast the light in any direction. These lamps are often capable of illuminating an area of forty square feet, with a spread light of some four thousand candle power.

As danger of fire is increased with naked arc lights, fire laws compel managers to maintain a separate attendant for each, to stand beside it as long as it is used. This is ex-pensive. An added objection to the open arc is that it has a tendency to flicker and may not be dimmed. Several seasons ago, John A. Higham, master electrician to Winthrop Ames, conceived the idea of adapting the new 1,000-watt nitrogen lamp to stage use. It is incandescent—enclosed in glass—and therefore involves no fire risk and requires no attendant. By connecting it with the switch-board it may be dimmed to any desired degree. This lamp was carried with the road company of " Sumurun " in America; and thus it became well known to all theaters. The celebrated forest scene in " Children of Earth " was lighted by five floods of this character, the entire equipment being operated from the switchboard by the electrician and his assistant.

All portable lights, as strips, bunches, and floods, and isolated lights, as brackets, table lamps, and so on, are supplied with current through insulated wires, terminating in plugs which are thrust into sockets in the stage floor, or above. These plug sockets, or " dips," as they call them in England, are, of course, connected with the switchboard. Chandeliers are hooked to permanent cables, and lighted by means of plug connectors. Wall brackets are also linked into circuit by connectors.


Border lights are long, inverted metal troughs, each holding a row of lights, and running from side to side of the flies, parallel to the stage floor. They may be raised or lowered. Of course, their use is curtailed when the setting has a ceiling piece. There are usually three to eight border lights from front to back. One or all may be used.

They are provided with colored lamps in much the same manner as the foots. Separate circuits are maintained for separate colors, and each border is divided from side to side in from two to four sections.

A supplement to the familiar border light is the light bridge, which is usually a slender steel affair, generally running from one fly gallery to the other, just back of the curtain.

The first " light bridge " of which I ever heard was that used by Sarah Bernhardt in " Camille," during an American " farewell " tour in 1900. She sent a man up over the stage in a basket with a calcium light to keep fixed on her throughout the performance.

When Maude Adams completed her third year in " The Little Minister " several seasons ago, Charles Frohman, her manager, gave her permission to fulfil one of her many ambitions and experiment with stage lights. One result of these experiments was invention of a bulb stain for fine gradations of color. The stain she used first was some kind of beauty lotion she happened to have on her dressing room table. But the important invention was the light bridge—thirty-seven feet long, about two feet in width, and divided into seven compartments, in each of which was a great lens capable of illuminating any given space or corner of the stage with diffused, evenly rayed light, or with a concentrated spot. Each compartment had a special operator.

With the opening of " The Return of Peter Grimm," about 1912, David Belasco employed a much simpler light bridge that could be folded and transported with ease. I am reproducing a picture of it herewith. He employed it again for " Marie-Odile," but discarded it at the end of that time at the Belasco Theater as inferior to an improved arrangement.


I cannot venture to say when the practise of following an actor about the stage with a spotlight began, but certain I am that Belasco first refined the practise. With " baby " spotlights, or " chasers," in the wings and above, projecting strong beams of light that may be dimmed as necessary, he follows his important characters about the stage. Each lamp is controlled by a special operator. The spotlights in balcony and gallery booths are too familiar to require comment here.

When Harrison Grey Fiske produced " Hannele " he had nineteen characters on the stage picked out by nineteen individual spotlights. Belasco used thirty-two separate lights, each with its own attendant, in addition to foots and borders, in " The Grand Army Man," but how many of these were chasers I am unable to say. An interesting variation of this idea was provided in Richard Walton Tully's play, " Omar, the Tentmaker," produced in 1914. In one scene Omar, as played by Guy Bates Post, had to move very elaborately about the stage, and a light had to be kept on his face throughout, while all the rest of the stage was in darkness. The problem was solved by John Higham. In Omar's turban he placed a little incandescent bulb, focused upon the actor's features. Omar himself pressed the button concealed elsewhere in his costume.


We get another plan to do away with the familiar border light from Venice, Italy, from an architect named Mariano Fortuny. Instead of casting the light directly upon the stage, Fortuny reflects it to the floor from serried, black and white banners, which modify the colors into tints and shades. The general " quality" of the diffused light is said to be remarkably effective. Still, it must take up much space in the flies, and must call upon the flyman for temperamental work.


At close of the season of 1914-15, Belasco introduced further innovations in lighting at the Belasco Theater, New York. First he did away with the footlights. Then he had a curved apron built out from the straight proscenium—something over seven feet at the most extended point. At the top of the proscenium arch, an iron hood was placed, following the same sweep as the apron. Fronting the edge of the hood he hung a French curtain that may be raised or lowered to accommodate itself to the balcony sight lines.

Inside the hood, within a foot of the bottom of the drapery, is a row of sixteen reflectors, holding powerful lights in sheet-iron boxes, four to a box, and with slides for gelatin color mediums. Another set of sixteen, exactly like the other, is suspended just back of the proscenium. Still another gang of fifteen lights, slightly different in appearance but acting on the same principle, is further back. This was the arrangement for " The Boomerang."

All these lights are on dimmers, and may be modified at will. These, with the local lights at the side of the proscenium arch, admit of great variations in illuminating the scene. In Stuart Walker's Portmanteau Theater, two rows of the new border lights are employed in precisely this manner, but they are so wired that each lamp may be separately controlled. The lights may be focused on any given spot on the stage by adjustment of the boxes, so, for instance, that correct shadows will be given from a table lamp without having too meager lighting of the scene, and without having the table lamp itself too bright. Naked lights are avoided wherever possible on the stage proper.


Efforts to obtain " atmosphere " in stage lighting remind one of the celebrated " horizon "—or cyclorama drop—a dead-white wall, formerly made in most cases of canvas, and now frequently of concrete, with colored lights thrown upon it for effects of sky. We have one made of concrete in this country at the Neighborhood Playhouse, New York. At the sides, this horizon curves toward the proscenium arch so there may be no broken lines. This is a modification of the " round horizon."

In Europe there is what is called the " domed horizon," with a dome over the top, the lights in this case being thrown upward from below. This dome is sometimes detachable, made of canvas, and may be raised or lowered independently. In some cases it is permanent, made of concrete, and continuous with the cyclorama itself. Still another form has it upon a gigantic steel frame, which may be moved up and down bodily, or brought forward. This form was invented by Fritz Brandt, of Berlin. The horizon in the new Dresden Theater, Germany, has an inner " shell " of gauze, about six feet away from the backing, for effects of atmosphere. The horizon at the Opera House in Beyreuth, which was installed by the Asphaleia Syndicate about 1884, is raised about six feet from the floor, so actors may walk under it.

The great objections to the dome are that it interferes with hanging stuff in the flies, and has a bad acoustical effect on the stage. The great objection to use of horizons in general is that they tend to undue silhouetting of the figures before it. It is imperative that actors be seen.


Switchboards are usually on the prompt side of the stage, where the electrician in charge may receive his instructions first-hand from the stage manager. At the Metropolitan Opera House, New York, the electrician looks at the stage from below through an opening in the footlight trough, while in his hands is a sort of yachtsman's wheel which is a master control for all the dimmers on the enormous switchboard. This board controls 11,488 sixteen candle power lamps, besides motors, 44 arc lamp pockets, and 228 incandescent stage pockets.

At the Century Theater, New York, the electrician has a sort of prompt hood in the footlight trough immediately adjoining the hood 0f the prompter, and instead of having just a master dimmer wheel, he actually controls all switches and dimmers individually in the marvelous stage equipment. By simply moving little disc indicators, he may cause one gang of lights, or them all, t0 wax bright or diminish at any of five available speeds. Thus, the coming of night from late afternoon may be set for automatic accomplishment in perhaps fifteen minutes, so slowly that it is almost imperceptible.

Many suggestions have been made to station the electrician in the rear of the auditorium, where his perspective would be correct, and let him operate his lights from there at will. But " synthetic lighting," as this is called, is hazardous business. The time for experiment is at rehearsal.

Boards are usually divided so that the various switches and dimmers may be found even in the dark. The Little Theater board, designed and installed by John Higham, is a marvel of scientific arrangement. Everything at right—on the side nearest the auditorium—is devoted to house lights; that on the left to the stage. The position of the board is directly over the prompter's head, running parallel to the side wall of the theater. At one end, the electrician may look through an opening into the auditorium and see his spotlight, his footlights, and the chandeliers and brackets of the house. At the other end, he may look upward and see all borders and lights in the flies and most of the stage lights, even when the scene is a boxed interior. A separate switch controls each circuit and color; and each has a corresponding dimmer with interlocking master handles.


Effects of color are obtained by the use of stained bulbs in conjunction with clear ones. They are usually arranged in sets of three : amber, red, and blue, and sometimes a fourth, white---or frosted. Spots and floods change color by the use of mediums. Rheostats and dimmers at the switchboard regulate the quantity of light, and consequently combinations of colors. Tints of fixed hues are produced by the addition of white light : shades by checking toward darkness.

Arrangement of colored lights varies. For simple lighting, amber lamps preponderate over white about three to one. For elaborate effects they sometimes run two white, one blue, one red, and so on.

Gelatin and silk mediums remain in favor because they do not soon fade. Stains, in which the electrician dips his bulbs, fade quickly, and sometimes a whole lighting effect will be ruined in this way within forty-eight hours. One form of silk medium that seems to be of French origin, is on rollers that the silk may be turned until a lighter tint or darker shade is brought before the illuminant. A picture of one may be seen in the " Chantecler " arrangement, illustrated opposite page 186 of this book.

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