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  • Writer's pictureTheater Design Inc.

What Do You Know About Stage Lighting?

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 Color media (i.e. gels) were originally made from gelatin, which had a short life-span.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.

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