Electric lighting instruments--scientists and sociologists have recognized the overwhelming effect of electric light in everyday life. It has changed the way we live, the way we conduct business, and the daily (nightly) cycle of our activity. Obviously the theatre existed at night before electric light, but the effects of bright, focused, flexible, and manipulated electric light has changed the way we see productions, and the quality of production we expect. Todd Hensley, Schuler & Shook
Ellipsoidal reflector spotlight--arguments have gone on for years about which was first, the Klieglight or the Leko, but they both appeared in 1932. Ken Billington, lighting designer
The Lekolite was the first commercial ellipsoidal reflector spotlight. It was much more efficient than the PC or fresnel spot, and allowed effective shuttering and gobo projection. Its ellipsoidal reflector descendants are about 80% or more of the spotlights and moving lights now used onstage. Karl Ruling, ESTA
The ellipsoidal reflector spotlight, developed by Ed Kook and George Levy, allowed designers to create crisp, sharp-edged light. We moved from a "wash" mentality to a controlled design philosophy. James Moody, lighting designer
The automated fixture with pan, tilt, dichroic color mixing and wheels, and rotating and fixed gobo wheels all contained within the same unit has revolutionized the lighting industry. Each parameter itself is an important invention. Christian Choi, High End Systems
Intelligent lighting fixtures made the greatest impact on the century, due to the increased flexibility these units provided through color changing, motion control, and gobo projection capabilities. I look forward to seeing what impact future intelligent lighting will experience with the LED technology improvements that are just on the horizon. Paul Dexter, ELS
Computerized lighting fixtures allowed designers to have a full color palette and re-focusable ability with a small amount of equipment, thus saving power consumption as well as physical space. The full potential is still to come. James Moody, lighting designer
The moving light--from the moment that the first Vari-Lite fixtures were used at the concert in Spain, the world of lighting has never been the same. This is not only a milestone of the past 100 years, it is the basis for lighting development for the next measurable period of time as well. Bill Groener, PRG
The moving light--specifically I am thinking of those very first Vari*Lites that I saw used on that Genesis tour back in 81-82. When I first saw them in action, never having seen a moving light before, I just about saw God. Peter Maradudin, lighting designer
These items are important pieces of technology, but have they affected the art of lighting? I remember seeing a Broadway show in the mid-70s, just after A Chorus Line opened and computer lighting consoles were beginning to be used in New York. The show featured a stunning complement of lighting cues, especially a lovely cyc with subtle and artistic changes. I thought to myself as I was watching the show that these cues were only possible with computer control, and was shocked when I went backstage after the show and saw six piano boards and three operators! I was struck by the same thought recently after seeing Fosse, with its recreation of scenes from Dancin', for which lighting designer Jules Fisher won a Tony Award. There was much more movement of lighting in the scenes in Fosse, but more complex artistry in the same scenes in the original Dancin'.
Although it's not one of the three most important inventions of the 20th century, the product that I nominate for the one that best represents the 20th century, and the one the remained constant in its use for the last 100 years, is the carbon-arc followspot. Whether vaudeville, opera, theatre, or rock and roll, no product better exemplifies entertainment lighting than a bright white followspot cutting through the air of a dark theatre. Gary Fails, City Theatrical
Electronic sound--Today sound is undergoing the same rapid development enjoyed by lighting control of a few decades ago. Crisp, clean digital recording, microphones, control, and amplification has led to sound design in almost all types of performance. David Peerbolte, Peerbolte Creative
The compact disk--Especially for sound effects libraries. I remember when I bought my first library in the early 80s: 100 reels of 1/4" tape with all sound effects separated by audible beeps. To "audition" a sound effect (after looking it up in a catalog bigger than the average phone book), you would select the reel, thread the tape onto your two-track machine, fast-forward in "cue" mode while counting beeps to find the effect. Once listened to, you would reject the effect, rewind the tape, take it off the deck, put it back in its box, put the box back on the shelf, grab the big catalog, look up another selection, grab that box and start all over again. Of course with CDs, the whole process took a quantum leap, but I do kind of miss that personal relationship I had with my tape deck.
Instant access hard disk recorder/players--such as the 360 Systems DigiCart and Instant Replay. This aspect revolutionized the way I delivered my designs in the theatre. To have superior quality playback capabilities such as full bandwidth, instant access, fade in and outs, editing and volume level control, and convenient file transfers all in one box was a dream come true.
Digital audio workstations--specifically DigiDesign's ProTools and Sound Designer. Working in this kind of visual multitrack fashion, with instant access to all audio elements, allowed my work greater artistic expression. Jon Gottlieb, sound designer
The sampler--an instrument so flexible that musicians and technicians can both claim it as their own. Paul Arditti, sound designer
MIDI--starting out as a way for electronic musical instruments to talk to each other, it has become so much more.
In-ear monitoring--I can't think of another innovation more important to the hearing protection of all performers. It has allowed the quality of amplified sound to increase as well, by the reduction of onstage "mud." We can mix more quietly, and still achieve the results we want, with everyone being able to hear every word. Garth Hemphill, sound designer
Electric guitar--It changed the music industry forever, and fostered the growth of electronic music and related industries, i.e., pro sound.
Wireless microphones provided freedom of expression and movement for drama and music. Wally Clark, Associated Sound
The loudspeaker--nothing else comes close as a product invented and developed in this century that revolutionized public entertainment. Noral D. Stewart, Stewart Acoustical
Digital sound created the seamless addition and modification of sound elements. Tim Knipe, Scenery West
Plastic--once thought to be the proverbial "second fiddle" to products manufactured out of other media, the association of the word "plastic" with products that have been customarily manufactured utilizing wood, steel, glass, plaster, or some other traditionally recognized material no longer raises eyebrows within the industrial manufacturing communities. Today, recognized and appreciated for its obvious technological attributes, plastic has evolved into an integral component within all industries without exception. Moe Kessler, Outwater Plastics
Adhesive tape--also known as gaffer's tape, electrical tape, splicing tape, masking tape, etc. The entertainment industry would literally fall apart without it. Eric Cornwell, lighting designer
Fire curtains--a major safety item, automatically closing units were introduced in 1906 by John R. Clancy. Tom Young, J.R. Clancy
Water-based products have made for a safer and healthier environment.
Cordless and wireless technology has expanded the possibilities and made tech lives easier. John Wright, Lexington Scenery & Props
Fiberglass enables the 3D construction of sets and environments that was not feasible before. Tim Knipe, Scenery West
The Americans with Disabilities Act--it's changed the shape of buildings and auditoria in terms of levels, size and shape, and access throughout. It has assured that patrons (and performers and staff) of all mobility can take part in the theatre experience. At the same time, it has affected the cohesiveness and "bonding" of an audience through larger seating areas. It's a product ("process") that will continue to affect theatre design into this century. Todd Hensley, Schuler & Shook
The mobile phone--a late arrival, and not necessarily a welcome one, but it's up there with the biggies. Hardly any entertainment industry professionals can survive without one, and neither, apparently, can many members of the audience.
The Maglite--specifically, the Mini-Maglite. Worth including for the integral spare bulb alone. Genius. Paul Arditti, sound designer
The TV has raised more awareness than any other invention on the planet for arts and culture. David Shaw, Dove Systems
The motor vehicle--without it, traveling shows of the size we now have could not exist. Service and delivery couldn't be achieved as efficiently as now. Cliff Wilding, Lighting Engineering
Until Walt Disney developed the concept of the theme park (Disneyland in the early 50s), there were no theme parks. Until that time, families attended amusement parks. The development of this concept is a milestone in family entertainment and spawned a huge industry. Bill Groener, PRG
Following are other picks we felt were worthy of inclusion.
The Ball-Point Pen
The ETC Source Four
Gerber & Leatherman Multitools
Lodestar Electric Chain Motors
Two-Pin and Ground Connectors
The Vari*Lite VL-1
And our Favorite Pick of All: The George Foreman Grill
Imagine a time when actors selected their own costumes without regard to character, scenic designers devised painted backdrops, and sound and lights were controlled by directors, where there were directors. As the century turned some 100 years ago, audiences were just getting used to sitting in dark houses and experiencing a Wagnerian "mystic gulf" between themselves and the actors. They were reeling from Appia's sculptural lighting and Craig's movable screens, which constantly shifted the theatrical space. They would now encounter Meyerhold's constructivism, and the actors who ran and climbed on scaffolding, ramps, and platforms, and the expressionism that used grotesque lighting to turn theatrical daydreams into nightmares.
By the middle of the 20th century, they--we--found ourselves incorporated into Eugene Lee's environmental sets, while other artists brought film, projections, and television onto the stage. And we discovered that theatre could happen anywhere--in the street, in a found space.
We've come a long way, technologically and imaginatively. ED asked some prominent designers to tell us where and how. Ming Cho Lee, who has designed for theatre, dance, and opera, began first as an assistant to Jo Mielziner in 1954, and later to Boris Aronson; he's taught at Yale Drama for 32 years.
What's has changed around him over the years? What hasn't?
"Theatre is a living organism that is constantly evolving and changing," he says. "The grand people such as [designers Robert Edmond] Jones [and Lee] Simonson of the new theatre of the 20s and 30s brought American theatre away from the Romantic Realism of the 19th century and created a design that reflected the psychological truth of the play."
A developing interest in the classics, tied in with the rise of the non-profit resident theatre in the 60s, coincided with an increased influence of Brecht's anti-illusionism. Design, says Lee, became "more formalistic, less pictorial, less realistic, more sculptural, more emblematic."
In later years, the computer came on the scene, as did the color xerox. "While this [trend] does not affect the initial impulse of the designer, it does provide him or her with a broader visual vocabulary--the most obvious perhaps is the broad use of photographs," Lee says.
For his part, the designer says his work over the past decades has become "more imagistic, less iconic, and more eclectic, with a bolder use of color," a development he credits to the work of Robert Wilson.
Recently, Lee says, clothes have become more important to him in the process of formulating a design as well. "Perhaps, as a designer, I've begun to think more as a director and dramaturg," he notes. "Questions such as 'What are the people wearing?' and 'Where and when are we setting the play?' have become more of a starting point in my approach to a design. The process is less linear, more exploratory."
You don't have to be Ming Cho Lee to be welcomed into the process. Scenic designer Christine Jones, a relative newcomer, has moved far fast. "Most directors I work with invite me to be a partner in creating the event of the play," says Jones, who has worked with directors to make adjustments to new scripts or adaptations of existing ones. "During the rehearsal process, designers are often welcomed as an objective eye for the director, just as the director can be an objective eye for the designer. In technical rehearsals, I sometimes sit next to the director and we will whisper back and forth about everything from how the flowers look to how the actors should spin in the last moments of the play. Sometimes I question if I am stretching past the boundaries of my position, but find more and more that there are no boundaries, and that my input in a wide range of areas is not just welcomed, but desired. It is not always the case, and even when it is, it is something which develops. It takes a little practice for a handful of people to dance together without stepping on each other's toes."
Jones notes that designers have become more prominent in today's theatre. Consider "the appointment of John Conklin as associate artistic director at Glimmerglass Opera, Anita Stewart as the artistic director at The Portland Stage in Maine, a position she shared until recently with Chris Akerlind. It is becoming more accepted that designers have a vision that reaches beyond the conceptual, spatial, and decorative necessities of a particular play to consider larger issues of producing theatre," says Jones, who feels Julie Taymor's development from designer to director heralds a trend of openness "to the idea of designer as a creator of the event of theatre as opposed to the creator of the set, or the clothes, or the lights."
But like producers, who don't always know when or how money for the next show or season will appear, designers today find themselves at the mercy of money. Costume designer Carrie Robbins laments that economics has taken a stronger hold on theatre as the last century progressed. "Nowadays, the design is often driven by the amount of money one has. You used to start out designing to solve whatever the problems of the piece were, and then you had to put some numbers to it," says Robbins, noting that today she's asked to make "X" number of costume changes with "X" amount of money. Recalling the days she would spend hours on a single sketch, she reports that most costume designers today don't have time to give serious attention to drawing. "I see more designers talking their way through designs and doing much more casual drawing, working it out in three dimensions, or [at a] sculptural level in the shop. Willa Kim always worked that way," she says, "but most of us didn't."
Robbins was asked in December to do a show that went up in February, an "easy" show, the producer said, because it required six actors. Problem was, the show had 40 characters. "I had to turn it down," says Robbins. "We're expected to work faster and on our feet." Robbins says her NYU students have changed over the years, and not for the better. They want more answers, and they want them quickly. "They are less willing to put in the time it takes to think, research, draw, and rework an idea. If they're doing a big Shakespeare project, they ask, 'How many drawings are due?' " Recalling her student years when "We closed the school down night after night, talking about ideas," she finds it disheartening when students think she is misusing their time if class runs over five minutes.
Not everything went wrong for costume designers last century. Computers have simplified lists and shop orders, and it has become possible to reproduce a rendering digitally, than make changes with a touch of the button. On Cyrano, Robbins didn't find it difficult to please Frank Langella, a demanding actor, because she could show him a garment in a different color or fabric instantly. "If a director says 'I love the dress but I don't like the neckline,' and the drawing is already in the computer," Robbins finds the change manageable. When she did Rags at New Jersey's Paper Mill Playhouse, she designed fabric on the computer and cloth was printed from what she did. "That's really exciting. You can work out many variations spinning off the same set of drawings."
Robbins points out that since scenic designers have been using computer-generated images more often, it's now possible to design and hang scenery the same day. "The pressure to be fast is somewhat resolved by technology," she says, for when scenic designers can make changes quickly, there is less demand that costume designers alter their garments to conform to a set that took time to construct.
New equipment has also opened new possibilities for lighting designers, nothing so much as the computer control board. Jennifer Tipton says, "When cueing was manual, the execution was sometimes awkward and the timing was never the same." But for Tipton, the change has implications not only for execution but for the creative process. "Computer control of cueing has allowed a sense of air and breadth...The changing light can be more at the command of the designer. It can happen almost as quickly as the designer can think it. It changes the whole attitude, the way of thinking."
Some of the other technological advances come with a downside. Tipton feels the new electricity-saving bulbs are wonderful for their conservation of energy, for instance, but finds their color not as clean as that of the old bulbs.
Sound design, the baby, grew with the century. David Smith, who teaches at North Carolina School of the Arts, says that it has been around before we named it such. "We talked about 'the sound man,' " Smith reports, noting that a book about sound in the theatre, written by Harold Burris-Meyer and Vincent Mallory, appeared in 1959, drawing on their experience doing sound effects for dramas during the previous 20 years.
"Nothing progressed from there for a long time," says Smith, "until sound reinforcement for musicals, beginning with Hair." Smith points to the end of censorship in England, which made nudity possible, and the 60s liberation in America. With these came loud bands and voices that couldn't be heard without help. "Today we have two kinds of sound designers: those who reinforce sound and those who use sound to say something," Smith reflects.
"Two revolutions helped us--the home studio revolution and the computer revolution," Smith adds. The first makes it possible for anyone at home to make music. The second allows a sound designer to take the voice of someone singing out of tune and correct it in real time. "The talent from TV that sold the tickets in musicals and couldn't sing could be improved instantly.
"Equipment is appearing so frequently, it's easy to think that sound design is all about equipment. It's not. "Any stage manager can buy thunder. Does that make them sound designers? That thunder storm can be used to say 'suddenly' or 'prolonged,' 'magical' or 'real,'" he says. Although the art has developed, the recognition for it hasn't, at least not enough. There are no Tonys for sound design. While Broadway sound designers were accepted into Local 921 of IATSE in New York, nomadic non-Broadway sound people still have no representation. "We still haven't arrived 100%," says Smith. Maybe this century.