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Let There Be Lights

Photos by Steven Mikulan

The small loft room that controls a theater’s technical effects is called a lighting booth, even though, besides a show’s lighting, its sound effects and image projections are also run from there. It’s typical for two people to operate in the booth — one person for lights, the other for sound — but it’s common also to find the stage manager crowded in to call a show’s cues. A generation ago nothing was as jarring to theater-department grads leaving the spacious, brushed-chrome and state-of-the-art facilities of a UCLA or USC as grappling with the medieval amenities of most 99-seat theaters — especially their claustrophobic lighting booths.

“You really took your life in your own hands when you worked the booth,” recalls Janis Hashe, a

former Theater of NOTE artistic director who now produces with that company. “Things were sparking, fuses blew.”

When the Weekly first began reviewing plays, it was not unusual to detect more drama in the lighting booth behind the audience than onstage. One often heard the clack of cassette tapes being rifled through or dropped, and the tension was palpable when a blown fuse plunged a house into darkness that was total except for the bobbing halo of a board operator’s flashlight as he or she fumbled to repatch a dimmer pack. Back then, perhaps nothing more sharply demarcated poverty and relative affluence than the kind of technical firepower a theater had at its disposal.

“Most of the equipment we had could fit in the back of my Honda Civic,” NOTE’s Hashe says of those days when her company was located in what is now downtown L.A.’s toy district. “I know because a lot of times I had to drive it back and forth.” On at least one occasion, she says, the equipment came straight from her home stereo system.

In days of yore, a small theater’s lighting booth was typically comprised of a consumer-market dual-cassette deck (or sometimes a reel-to-reel deck) and an amplifier that sent sound to two speakers; lighting was controlled by a two-scene dimmer board with preset levels, allowing one group of lights to fade out as another was brought up. Cues were written on paper, and fades were done by manually sliding “pots” and could often be affected by slight fluctuations in the electrical current, or unsteady hands, especially during a grueling two-minute dissolve. Even the quietest booth was filled with the hum of overloaded circuitry.

 

In 1975, Broadway began discarding its mechanical “piano boards” for computerized consoles. “Until then,” recalls lighting designer Anne Militello, “there were no booths looking out on the stage. Someone in the wings operated the lights, without seeing the actors.” It took years for the technology to miniaturize and become cheap enough to be within the range of low-budget companies. In the meantime, houses operating on shoestring budgets had to use enormous autotransformer dimmers whose 12-inch-long levers lifted or lowered coiled copper to acquire the desired wattage.

“You had to use your entire body to operate them — your elbows, your feet, your legs,” says Militello, whose Hollywood-based company, Vortex Lighting, services stage- and architectural-lighting clients. Then, in a kind of mesozoic period, came smaller, analog scrimmer consoles with finger-operated sliders. Today, cheap technology has noticeably leveled the steeply raked stage that once separated cash-strapped companies from flush ones. There will always be theaters too young or too poor to afford as much as base-line technology, but look inside even the lowest-rent theater today and you’re likely to find, owned or rented, dimmer boards and mini-CD players that would have been unheard of when they first appeared.

The quantum leap in available effects options is almost solely due to the advent of digital technology, which allows a crystalline signal to be programmed, stored and outputted from dimmer boards. The digital revolution has also reshaped the way we hear theater. Tape hiss began disappearing from speaker systems around the late 1980s with the appearance of recordable CDs and mini-discs, and designers can now customize their theaters’ sound-effects inventories by downloading them from online libraries.

An operator simply presses a dimmer’s “go” button to begin a 25-minute, real-time light fade, as when moving a scene from dusk to night — what’s more, this movement can be linked to other cues, as, say, the migration of moonlight. A software package generically referred to as Show Control enables light and sound cues to be controlled by a single console; another software program, Computer Assisted Drawing (CAD), allows designers to draw stage sets in three dimensions on a computer screen and then “tour” the set to see how it would look under different lighting plots. And, no longer the exclusive domain of stadium rock shows, moving lights are heads or reflectors programmed to pan, tilt and swivel according to dimmer-board cues, although they remain beyond the reach of most small theaters.

Theater of NOTE now resides in Hollywood. Its booth probably seems as cramped as it did 25 years and two locations ago, but today it is dominated by an ETC Express 24/48 lighting board, which can control 24 cross-faded scenes or 48 single scenes, and whose cues are viewed on a computer monitor. The board now retails for between $4,100 and $4,400, and leases for about $125 per week.

Although NOTE’s lighting booth does not have a computer, a stage manager could theoretically run the show from a laptop anywhere in the theater.

“You could run it from home,” says Jonathan Klein, NOTE’s tech director. “If you were linked to the theater by computer camera. You could do it from outer space if you wanted to.”

And, with the stage manager’s cuing role now reduced to telling an operator to hit the “go” button, Klein says that stage managers are not really needed to oversee booth cues. That doesn’t necessarily mean a streamlining of staff, though.