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The subtext.

I saw it in 1958 in Santiago, Chile, where I was teaching and designing a show at one of the two universities. I not only saw it but used it in lighting a show.

The universities employed actors, technicians, and designers year round, but that left very little money for equipment. So the dimmer I had to work with was ancient. It was a tub of salt water with two electrical contacts which could be moved closer together or farther apart to dim the lights. It worked surprisingly well. If the lights were left at full for too long though, the current passing through the salt water brine would cause it to boil and the thing would blow. With a Rockefeller grant a while later, the theatre jumped over several iterations of control devices and got a pre-set board.

Years earlier, as undergraduates, a couple of us felt that the student drama group we belonged to was not doing any cutting-edge experimental work. So we started a small organization of our own and the university allowed us to perform in a lecture hall. We made lights out of PAR lamps and number-ten cans we procured from the dining hall kitchen. A company not far away made autotransformer controls and would lend a six-dimmer pack in the hope of a future sale. We brought a one of these to campus, plugged it in, and it blew. Desperation. Someone knew of a man in a basement on the edge of campus who was working on some kind of electronic stuff. Maybe he could fix this thing. We carried the board across campus to his lab and within a short time he made it as good as new. Later, as a graduate student, I took a class with him. He was George Izenour, the father of not only pre-set controls but also of innovative theatre architecture.

When I went to work in New York, Broadway theatres used piano box dimmers. These were resistance dimmers set in a box that resembled an upright piano. Since no theatres owned their own lights or lighting control, each show rented as many lights, cables, and dimmers as they needed. There could be twelve or fourteen dimmers in a box. There were master levers that could control individual dimmers locked together, or a handle on each dimmer could be operated independently. Each dimmer would control, say, 3000 watts, or about three or four lights. Most instruments were 750 or 1000 watts, sometimes larger or smaller. Resistance dimmers had be loaded to close to their rated wattage so if a dimmer wasn't using the full wattage, a ghost light was connected. Since shows had anywhere from three to eight large boards, the operators and the boards were relegated to the basement where the ghost light would not be seen. There, several electricians did a ballet of elbows knees and sticks to operate the dimmers, always striving, without seeing the stage, to get close to the desired readings and the timing.

The way scenery was constructed in those days predated by hundreds of years the way lighting was done. None of the metal frames and hard flats of today. Wood frames with corner blocks to keep them rigid were covered with canvas, which was painted with sizing to make it shrink and be taut. Even so, sometimes the canvas would shudder if air moved on stage or a door set into a flat was slammed. A designer would shudder when this happened. Now, with steel frames covered by hard materials, even an ill wind blows no set any harm.

Then, the walls of every set were painted flats with painted moldings, baseboards, and chair rails. But young designers soon demanded three-dimensional built details. I suspect that better lighting revealed that the painting was faking it. Painting techniques changed, even while I was in school. At first, dry pigments were added to water and a binder of animal glue. Pellets of glue had to be soaked and then heated. The glue pot could cause a stench that permeated the shop. Then came casein paint that was made from milk. Just as grade A has a shelf life, this paint also curdled.

Materials for costumes were very limited compared to today when fabrics from all over the globe are available. Sewing was done mostly on electric machines but there were plenty of treadle machines in shop corners. Powered by a foot treadle that made them much slower, they therefore provided more control. But of course, they didn't allow for six zillion different types of stitches the way computer sewing machines do now.

Computers have taken over in so many ways. For an old guy who is now looking in from the outside with no need except curiosity to keep up with the technology, the speed of change is amazing and daunting. The ads in technical magazines sometimes leave me metaphorically scratching my head. There are so many different possibilities of equipment to buy, so many new light sources, sources that can change color and direction, controls that seem able to fit in a pocket, motors and rigging that lift and turn. And there are those things I have no idea about what they do or why they are needed. I look at them and think, "Waszat?"
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Title Annotation:WASZAT
Author:Salzer, Beeb
Publication:TD&T (Theatre Design & Technology)
Date:Jan 1, 2015
Words:884
Previous Article:From the editor.
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