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Uses Of Stage Illumination

( Originally Published 1916 )

MIXING colors in stage lighting is quite unlike the putting together of pigments. For instance, a mixture of yellow and blue paints will produce green, whereas the blending of yellow and blue lights shows gray with a pinkish tint. White light may be decomposed by a prism into red, yellow, orange, green, blue, and violet, and resolved into white again by the use of a second prism; but a mixture of the separated colors will not produce white. There are sound scientific reasons for this that may not be entered into here.

As red, yellow, and blue are roughly assumed to be the pigment primaries, so red, blue, and green are ordinarily accepted as constituting the three colors from which—by combining any two in given proportions—any other color of light may be produced. Yellow may be derived from red and green; purple may be made from red and blue, and other combinations will be found by simple experiment.

Mere colored light thrown upon an object will not necessarily give it the same hue. In this connection the story is told of a scenic artist who painted " hell " for a stage version of Dante's " Divine Comedy." The scene in place, the stage director turned upon it all the red lights he had in the place. The effect was miserable. In a rage he sent for the artist, who calmly replaced nearly all the red lights with amber and an occasional blue, and produced the illusion of almost everything but the smell of brimstone.

It is possible nearly to destroy the actual color of any object if the light is strong enough, or if the object has a highly polished reflecting surface; but almost invariably the contrast of two shades of one color serves only one to deaden the other. In a white light, that " inferno " setting would have absorbed the blue and green rays and most of the yellow; in a yellow light it would have appeared yellow and the characters would scarcely have been seen against it; and in blue or green it would have appeared black.

With the red, amber, and blue lights, and the green mediums in the floods and spots, an approximation of all colors is possible. That the color is not exact is a delicate matter, of course; but it is not as serious as it might be because, owing to an almost universal color-blindness and to difficulty in determining the actual color of an object with its reflected lights from other sources, no standards have been set. It may be remarked, incidentally, that the spectrum is said to contain one thousand distinguishable tones, which may be made even millions by very slight variation in the light producing them. The aim in stage lighting should be to produce a color sensation, rather than any technically exact combination.


Use of light as a factor in dramatic production resolves itself to the matter of harmonious background—and even atmosphere, in a considerable sense—for character. The general tone of it all must first befit the place; second, the time of day; third, the use of light for emphasis of significant points, and, finally, the regulation of it for moods and states of mind conveyed by the action as a whole. These, of course, are divisions that allow much latitude.

The lighting of place is a consideration that has the most permanence. It should be simple, without sacrificing individual appeal. Appeal will exist if there is harmony, and harmony may be secured by judicious use of broad effects, when even groups of small colors will blend at short distance. The aim is that character should stand out clearly against an unobtrusive but consistent background. To that end, necessary lighting, that would be disagreeable if contrasted with a moving figure, should be so arranged that it will not be of stronger color than that of the figure moving against it.

One may easily imagine difficulties in reproducing time of day. In what position does the house stand with reference to the points of the compass? Northern light or southern exposure? Then, if it is early morning, does dawn of the clear day come from blue through red to full up, or is it red through blue? When evening approaches, and daylight is still in the room, the illumination is dimmed toward the windows, and not beginning there, as is frequently done. These little things barely suggest the many problems in this regard, that confront the director.

Under the head of emphasis comes Belasco's use of the baby spot for each character on the stage; under the last-named division of tone will be found the strong local lighting of tables about which characters are, or are about to be, grouped.

It is a fascinating art; but it must be kept in its place or it is no art at all.


Perception of light—or, rather, the projected influence of light upon the audience—is largely a psychological, a spiritual, temperamental matter. That is broadly demonstrated by the court record of the Parisian wife who tried to divorce her husband because he refused to change the depressing color of the parlor wall-paper upon her was not whit less than the influence of stage lighting upon any audience.

Augustus Thomas has made some striking observations concerning this, notably in his play " The Harvest Moon." Yellow, he said, (or had his character say), will encourage laughter; green, content; red, stimulation; brown, fear; violet, tears, and blue, mystery. It is an interesting matter. Even after casual reading one is disposed to ponder it seriously.


Consider for a moment the " rules " about lighting that the average theater electrician has deduced from his experience. In the foots he has a preponderance of white and amber bulbs with a sprinkling of blues, but few or no reds. In the borders he uses mostly whites, with quite a few ambers, and some blues. Red light, like rouge on an actor's face, is apt to make the effect " patchy " and unreal; so red is used preferably in strips, bunches, and the like. It is necessary to sunset effects and in fireplaces, perhaps, but not in many other quarters. The electrician prefers to get his warmth of color from ambers. For general lighting, whites are used extensively, with touches of amber to soften the glare. Effort is made, however, to keep the entire lighting system so that the various parts are in harmony, counter-acting shadows cast by the foots, and other distorted values, by means of borders and side lights.

The common aim is to get most light upon the acting zone, which in most cases is somewhat below center stage, where everyone in the audience may see what is going on.

When Granville Barker began his interesting productions in New York in 1915 his audience wondered greatly at a series of large lights placed singly about the balcony front. These were " base lights," to fix the general illumination of the scene, to be modified as needed by local sources of illumination. They were for the same effect as those employed in his earlier productions in London. There, his balcony lamps —meaning now the familiar balcony spotlights—projected two strong violet beams. Six lamps, hung around the face of the balcony, variously emitted white and amber lights. Lamps in the proscenium boxes and above the stage, mixed their rays with the others, and so made footlights unnecessary. In London, it is said, the balcony lights had some effect; in New York the overhead lighting was practically all that counted, the studded balcony contributing more propaganda than direct service.

A constantly recurring error in production is lighting the scenery and not the actors; but it is an error that better electricians, like Hartman, of the Belasco Theater, and Higham, of the Little, know themselves how to avoid.

In Fred Pease, Margaret Anglin is said to have one of the best stage electricians in America. It has been re-marked of him that he has an unerring sense of " quality " in light. He it is who carries out suggestions of Miss Anglin and of Livingston Platt, her scenic artist, in intelligent practise. He will begin with a blue cyclorama, for instance, and by combining blue and green local lights make the color seem to converge into infinite distance, and yet closer definition of the acting zone. In the Anglin production of " As You Like It," there was a simple drop showing a river winding its way across from side to side. Pease fairly painted the scene anew by lighting the near bank with a blue bunch, the far with a green bunch, and the river—a transparency—with white lights from behind.

The acting zone is continually changing; so the electrician must be prepared to light his scene in new ways, with important masses of light and shade moving imperceptibly or naturally, about the stage. Lighting of the central position, whether over a table, or just over the floor or any other likely place, affords the keynote for the degree of illumination. Frequently this spot is too bright; and in-stead of modifying it, the director will raise all the other lights on the scene to match, and so have an overlighted stage.

Livingston Platt, when at the Castle Square Theater in Boston, carried on some valuable experiments in this line. He had noticed the custom of using dark canvases in scenery, necessitating a glare of light to show them up. He tried the reverse of having all his scenery in pale monotones, using then a soft, diffused illumination. His gain was great in investing his productions with rare imaginative quality.


Particular difficulty in lighting has to do with changes during the act—from afternoon to evening, light to darkness, and so on; but they are " set " in time to be worked " at cues with more or less effectiveness. Consider, though, lighting a stage in such manner that it will appear to receive its whole illumination from a small oil lamp on a table, with shadows correctly given; consider, then, how the stage is to be convincingly illuminated by outside means if that lamp is moved about the scene. In " The Great Divide" Margaret Anglin crossed the darkened stage with a lighted candle in her hand. The whole illumination of the scene followed that candle. How was it done? A row of in-candescent bulbs in the footlight trough were switched on and off in succession as she passed. In " The Return of Peter Grimm " Belasco used the same effect for the passing candle.

There was an exaggerated attempt to convey " the soul of the drama " through light in Walker Whiteside's production of " Mr. Wu " in New York in 1915. In the last act, which takes place in the palace of Wu Li Chang, Wu is discovered at his devotions. As he bows over the urn from which flames and smoke ascend from burning incense, the light, we are told by Whiteside's press agent, " suggests the religion of the ages." The knight of the pen describes further changes in this manner :

" As young Basil Gregory is brought into his presence, the light changes to leaden blue, indicative of the spirit of revenge; for the youth has brought dishonor into the house of Wu Li Chang, and must pay the penalty. When the boy's mother is ushered into the mandarin's treasure room, a golden hue envelops the scene, which, as Wu declares his passion for her, alters to a rosy pink. Eventually a light green suffuses the room, presaging, as it were, the death of the nefarious Chinaman. In the throes of Wu's demise, a ghastly yellow beam filters through the open window; and, at the end, a great splash of red strikes the recumbent figure of the great mandarin as he lies dead on the floor of his gorgeous habitation."

The story of a play may be told in light, just as it is told in pantomime or in dialogue, each new presentation supplementing, emphasizing, and enriching the others. There was psychological reason in raising all the stage lights three or four points when Forbes-Robertson, in character as the Passer-By, entered upon the scene in " The Passing of the Third Floor Back ; " there is quite as much in raising the lights whenever Frances Starr comes upon the stage in any play. In subtler fashion it achieves the same end as the old-fashioned music at entrance of the leading man.


It has long been a tradition of the theater that " comedy lighting " is " full up." While this is generally true, there are many exceptions where comedy scenes are played on a darkened stage. Take the end of Act I in Galsworthy's " The Pigeon," and the close of Act I in " Madame President "—where the lady and her lover appear by the light of two bedroom candles, which presently are blown out for the biggest laugh of all. Another tradition places death scenes on darkened stages; but see the passing of Peter Grimm at high noon. Still another tradition would seem to ban all shadows; see the wonderful scene in Galsworthy's " Justice," where poor Falder, in prison, is driven almost frantic by his own shadow on the wall. Indeed, one now finds lights focussed for the express purpose of casting shadows.

Shadows should be prevented where they interfere with intelligibility of the action. In Winthrop Ames's revival of Clyde Fitch's play, " The Truth," it was necessary that the audience see the full expression of the face of Grace George, who played Becky Warder, as she sat at a table writing a letter. A lamp, concealed in the table, illumined her face as she leaned over, and another from the first—or " concert "—border caught her expression as she raised her head. Each light was dim as she brought her face into it, and then brightened, so the change would not be perceptible.

Probably no American stage director understands the subject of lighting better than Hugh Ford, who long produced plays for the Liebler Company. His method is generally to determine the big scene of each act, and light the rest of the act in sympathy with it. By bathing the act in this color, the big moment imperceptibly gains force and vitality in the audience's mind when it arrives, while the act itself shows a unity of purpose not otherwise possible to obtain.

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