Affecting Effects

by Michael S. Eddy

In the May issue, we look at special effects for the theater. When you look closely, there are special effects in almost every production of one sort or another. Sometimes they are right out front—or over your head—and sometimes they are subtler—a key prop or a small bit that an audience might take for granted like a champagne bottle or a hidden weapon, a clever costume element, a bruise on an actor’s face, but when integrated well they have an emotional impact, a narrative resonance. 

I remember the first time I saw Phantom of the Opera and besides the falling chandelier, the boat traveling between the hundreds of flickering candles on a river of fog made an indelible impression on me. The same goes for the moment in the original Les Misérables when Javert jumps from the bridge; part of it was a flying effect, scenic automation with the bridge flying out, and a lighting effect that LD David Hersey employed one of his gobo rotators to create a swirling vortex on the fog that surrounded Javert as he “leapt” to his death. Then there was the pull of his overcoat upwards to give the sense of him falling downwards. It was a beautiful moment, a moment that has stuck with me. I often mention it as a moment that shows everyone was in the same production meeting, everyone shared a vision of what falling should look like to the audience. It perfectly underscores the concept of collaboration; the whole creative and production team working together to produce a seemingly simple, but very affecting moment that has stuck in my memory for many, many years. It is these sort of moments that exemplify when technology and art combine to be theater.

Collaboration is key to the theatrical arts from the director interpreting the writer’s words and intentions to the scenic and costume designers bringing these characters to life and giving them the surroundings and trappings to help the actors breathe life into them. The lighting designer illuminates this world and works closely with the others on the team to make this cohesive whole that we as an audience will share over the course of the production. The sound designer—and it is a design—creates the aural landscape of this world and mixes it all together to add that layer of realism; bringing the world of the play to reality. Video and projection—and yes, this too is design—have an equal share of the creative pie bringing in another medium to help create the world of the playwright’s words and to tell the story.

Add in to this mix, the highly skilled theatrical production practitioners: stage managers, technical directors, props artisans, electricians, carpenters, audio engineers, costumers, and technicians; all who bring their skills and artistry to the production and build this hand-crafted thing that is theatre. No matter the tools or the space, theatre has always been a bespoke product. It’s a result of care, thought, knowledge, love, and commitment that makes it all come together night after night transporting an audience into a new world. Perhaps the emotional transformation of an audience is the most memorable and sought-after theatrical special effect.