March 1, 2012

And the award goes to… Lighting the stage!


Chris Lee is nominated for The Hollow at the Signature Theatre

The Helen Hayes Awards nominees were announced on Monday, and the professionals tapped for Outstanding Lighting Design have us talking about lighting the stage. The lucky designers included Colin K. Bills for A Bright New Boise at the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company; Michael Gilliam for Ruined at the Arena Stage; Chris Lee for The Hollow at the Signature Theatre; Tyler Micoleau for Much Ado About Nothing at the Shakespeare Theatre Company; Thom Weaver for Cyrano at the Folger Theater; and Andrew F. Griffin, who nabbed two nominations for King Lear at the Synetic Theater and Othello at the Folger Theater. In a world of movies filled with animation, some tried-and-true acting is always refreshing, and this is the creme de la creme of performances.

Colin K. Bills is nominated for A Bright New Boise at the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company

These awards, named for actress Helen Hayes, recognize excellence in the professional theatre in Washington, D.C., and have been handed out by the Washington Theatre Awards Society since 1983. In case you are assuming the “job” of the theatrical lighting designer has always been about swinging catwalks strapped above the stage and loaded with sizzling lights aimed in myriad directions, you might enjoy reading “A Brief Outline of the History of Stage Lighting,” which points out that early lighting designers in Italy between 1580 and 1618 lit the stages with candles. It wasn’t until the 1780s that Swiss chemist Aime Argand developed the modern oil lamp, which replaced candles for stage lighting.

Michael Gilliam was nominated for Ruined at the Arena Stage

The gas lamp became the light-source of choice on the stage in 1816 when the first gas stage-lighting system was installed in the Chestnut Street Theater in Philadelphia that year. It was British inventor Joseph Wilson Swan who patented the world’s first incandescent electric lamp in 1878, followed quickly by Thomas Edison, who received the American patent for his in 1879. Electric lamps were brought to the stage in 1881 when London’s Savoy Theatre installed 824 16-candle-power Swan lamps to light the stage and an additional 334 lights to illuminate the auditorium.

Andrew F. Griffin was nominated for Othello at the Folger Theater

This quote by the Savoy producer of that era, Richard D’Oyly Carte, points out just how much better off we are when experiencing our dramatic performances these days: “The greatest drawbacks to the enjoyment of the theatrical performances are, undoubtedly, the foul air and heat which pervade all theatres. As everyone knows, each gas burner consumes as much oxygen as many people, and causes great heat beside. The incandescent lamps consume no oxygen, and cause no perceptible heat.”

Thom Weaver was nominated for Cyrano at the Folger Theater

Given this description of theater-going in the past, I’m betting this year’s nominees are happy to be designing in the 21st-century. Congratulations to each of you nominees for lighting the stage, and good luck during the awards ceremony on April 23, 2012! We’ll be watching to see who takes home the trophy!

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