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Updated: 6 days ago

In the beginning there was the sun, the moon and the stars. These lighting sources were

uncontrollable. They were there when they were there and not when they were not. The ability to make fire is most often hailed as one of man’s premier achievements, but it may also be viewed as the first system to control light for performance. Flash forward a millennium or so and this system has advanced greatly. The invention of candles allows for smaller sources and the ability to control where the light is. The Renaissance saw development of mechanisms to color the light and also to dim it.

The practical distribution of electricity in the early 20th century began a period of rapid development in stage lighting technology. The incandescent lamp allowed the creation of a variety of different stage lighting fixtures each providing different qualities of light. Halogen lamps that improved lamp life and color temperature appeared in the late 1970s. Color media (i.e. gels) were originally made from gelatin, which had a short life-span. In the 1950s plastics became the media for color media resulting in a significantly greater life-span, a greater variety of colors and did not dissolve when wet.

Remote control from a central location became possible (though some may argue about resistance dimmer boards as such.) Piano boards (because they looked a bit like upright pianos) were dominant for decades. Running on DC current, each 6kW or 3kW “plate” introduced resistance into the circuit to dim the lights. A Broadway musical might use six piano boards: 82 dimmers controlling a total of 282kW of light and five 14/3 kW boards. Typically one stagehand operated two piano boards. Autotransformers operated on AC, which improved safety, but still required many hands to operate.

The early 1950s saw the first “electronic” dimming systems: magnetic amplifiers and thyratron tubes. These allowed truly remote dimming, but were very expensive. Patch panels (similar to old-fashion telephone switchboards) allowed selected lighting circuits to be assigned to a given dimmer. Theaters built in the 1950s and 60s might have 200-300 circuits but only (10) 6kW and (100) 2.4kW dimmers.

This explosion of dimmable circuits required development of systems and machinery to control them. Stanley McCandless and Century Stage Lighting (now after many transformations a part of Philips) developed multiple preset boards; allowing complex cues to be set in advance and executed with the push/pull of a fader handle.

The first “computer” light board was used for Tharon Musser’s lighting design for the original 1975 production of A Chorus Line. The board was an EDI LS-8 used to control the shows 96 dimmers, which in turn controlled 311 fixtures. Primitive by today’s standards, Musser’s lighting, so critical to the “look” and flow of the performance, could not have been achieved without the LS-8.

The rapid development and advancement in the field of computers and electronics since the mid-1970s is also evident in the history of stage lighting. Today’s light boards can control literally thousands of dimmers and channels via DMX (Digital Multiplex) a signal protocol adopted by the industry. As lighting control became more sophisticated, it became possible to control projections, lasers, moving lights and other special effects, equipment and systems. As with any computer system, stage lighting control systems are now “networks” that permit sophisticated control and operation. Lighting may be controlled by the theater’s light board, but also from your desktop computer, your laptop, your iPad and iPhone. As with so many things in today’s world, there’s an app for that.

LEDs (light emitting diodes) suitable for use in stage lighting fixtures are the most current development in the ongoing history of stage lighting. LEDs have had and continue to have a transformational impact. They can change color, so gels are no longer necessary. They dim via a DMX or 0-10v control signal and receive electricity from any branch circuit panel: so no dimmers are necessary. LEDs are an efficient source providing equivalent illumination to an  incandescent source with 50% or less energy. They generate up to 80% less heat and significantly reduce the amount of cooling required for a theater or TV studio. Each LED fixture has a unique digital address allowing up to 32 fixtures to be controlled by a single control circuit.

The writings and designs of Adolph Appia, Gordon Craig and Robert Edmond Jones in the 19th and 20th centuries created a foundation of stage design that has been taught and used ever since. Today’s technologies allow their visions to become reality via sophisticated control systems, light sources, fixtures and integration of lighting, scenery and costumes that they could only imagine.

So what’s next? My crystal ball is pretty murky, but ongoing development of new light sources and optics are a certainty. Performers interacting with 3D projections can be seen onstage. Immersive and interactive theaters exist that allow the audience and performers to coexist in the world of a performance and virtual reality is certain to wander into the theater.

A method of analysis that became popular in the 1980’s, value engineering is a tool used to save money. The principle is to find ways to complete a project for less money while retaining its desired “value.” Every element in the building is assigned a relative value. Those items deemed of great value are retained; those deemed of lesser value are modified or eliminated. Seems to be a good idea - - helps keep priorities in order - - keeps client and design team on the same page - - and purports to increase value while decreasing costs - - but does it?

In the 1966 movie Gambit, Michael Caine’s character has a plan to pull off a major robbery and needs Shirley McCaine’s character as a ‘gambit’ and window dressing for his plan to succeed. The opening of the movie shows the plan as a dream sequence where everything goes exactly according to plan. Then the film shows us the plan’s actual execution where, of course, everything goes wrong. I believe this is often what happens when value engineering is applied to performing arts facilities. It’s not that I believe the process is flawed, but that it is often applied at inappropriate times with unrealistic expectations.

Although the cost of a design should be monitored at each design phase, it often happens that bids come in significantly over budget. This can be the result of poor budget accounting during design, wishful thinking on the part of the client and design team, an unforeseen jump in labor or material costs or a malfunctioning crystal ball. Whatever the reason, there is almost never additional funding available and so the design team must find ways to reduce the cost of the facility.

The knight-in-shining-armor most often called upon is value. The only problem is that everyone has their own idea of what is valuable to a theater. Substituting gypsum board for plaster will not likely be a problem for anyone. Re-design of the architect’s cherished lobby window wall will be a disappointment but after the theater is built, no one will ever know. Deleting 25% of the stage lighting circuits and 50% of the counterweight rigging sets can seriously handicap the theater over the course of its entire existence. It may seem far-fetched but in these situations, it is often the theatrical systems, essential to the function of the facility, that are asked to suffer significant cuts.

The client/owner is the ultimate arbiter of the value engineering process, although the work of creating value engineering choices is delegated to the architect. Sometimes the client elects to bring in an outside party to oversee the process. The rationale is that the architect and design team may be too invested in the design and another firm will be able to see the project with fresh eyes.

In my experience, this reasoning is flawed. Often, a construction management firm is engaged and charged with reducing the cost of the facility to the monies available . . . period. Despite the best intentions, they can have no understanding of the history of the project, consensus that has been built or the relationships, professional and social, which have accrued. They are often granted carte blanche and the architect and design team are expected to accede a year or more’s work to a relative stranger with minimal time allotted and, most often, no additional fee. You may imagine the unpleasant climate this creates. In fact, it can poison the entire construction process.


Aside from licking old wounds, I am writing this as a cautionary tale to help make performing arts facilities the best they can be. Keep track of project costs at all times during the design process.  A cost consultant can be a very valuable member of your team in this regard. If the project is over-budget at any point in the design, it should be addressed then. The earlier a budget problem is identified the easier it will be to remedy and the less it will cost. As the design proceeds through construction documentation, budget problems become increasingly difficult to remedy and will increase in cost. If you attempt to implement value engineering at this late stage, you will end up with less building for the money.  To paraphrase Yoda, the Jedi master, “Be afraid . . . be very afraid!”

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