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No. 2190:
Let There Be Light

by Sidney Berger

Today, our guest, UH Theatre Director Sidney Berger, looks for his light. The University of Houston presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Ask any actor or director what the most haunting image of the theatre is and most will tell you it's what's known as the "ghost light" -- a single standing lamp placed for safety in the middle of the darkened theatre stage after the actors and the audience and the stagehands have left, haunting the space and presumably calling up the ghosts of performances past. 

Light in the theatre has always had its own mystique. But its control is only a very recent innovation. In Shakespeare's time indoor theatres such as the Blackfriars, which housed Shakespeare's own company, enabled the players to be lit solely by chandeliers of candles. Even through the eighteenth century and the time of famed actor David Garrick, candles were the sole illumination for actors and scenery. Garrick's stage was illuminated by six chandeliers, each containing twelve wax candles in brass sockets. But acting under them was a decided risk as dripping wax frequently landed on actors' faces. 

Differences in illumination were achieved by raising or lowering the chandeliers. Later, these were exchanged for candled perpendicular lamps and reflectors which were turned away to dim the stage. This meant the actor's face became primary. And Garrick's generation devised a catalogue of "looks" easily seen by the audience. Jealousy, for example, was a combination of fear, scorn and anger; love, joy and fear.

But, as the centuries passed, oil lamps replaced the candle and then gas. Then came the profound innovation: electricity. But when electricity was first utilized, it simply imitated its predecessors but it added color, and its intensity could be controlled, which made it far more useful to theatre productions. What is clear is that light or its absence can stimulate an emotional reaction in the same way a dark and stormy morning can affect us in contrast to a brilliant sun-filled day, which raises our spirits, although the landscape may be the same. Equally, forms of torture include keeping a prisoner in brilliant light or its absence for extended periods. 

In the early twentieth century, visionaries learned to use light to create shape and mass to complement the three-dimensional actor. In an age of flat scenery plasticity was its basic aim. Adolphe Appia cited light as most akin to music which reflects and reinforces changes in mood, emotion and psychology. In our own time, due to twenty-first century technology, we have gone much further. We now have instruments that move, computers that regulate hundreds of light cues with the touch of a button. And technology is still advancing at a furious speed.

So, now, as we pass the single ghost light haunting the looming darkness of the empty theatre, I think of the great designer, Ming Cho Lee, who asked a design 
student what he envisioned for a specific play. "Nothing!," replied the student, "Nothing at all! I want a void!" "Ah, replied Ming, smiling, "But what kind of void?"

I'm Sidney Berger, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

F. Bentham, The Art of Stage Lighting. (London: Pitman and Sons Ltd., 1969).

E. F. Kook, Images in Light for the Living Theatre. (New York: Century Lighting Inc. 1963).

T. Fuchs, Stage Lighting. (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1929).

S. McCandless, A Method of Lighting the Stage. (New York: Theatre Arts Books, 1958).

O. Brockett and R Findlay, Century of Innovation (Theatre & Drama).(Englewood Cliffs, NJ: 1973).