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Theatre Arts

Missing picture
Architect(s) : Guillaume Tronchet

Modern theatre rightly occupies an important place at the Exposition des Arts Décoratifs. Not only does it have a large hall, specially built by the Perret brothers and which we have already mentioned, but it also occupies several small rooms on the first floor of the Grand Palais. In one of these rooms, mannequins in stage costumes are on parade, and in another, life backstage in the theatre is evoked. A third "wing" is reserved for avant-garde theatres: the Atelier, Dullin, the Limace, the Petite Scène, and the presentation of models of costumes and sets. Finally, on the ground floor, next to the Conference Room, are grouped a few curiosities and innovations of particular interest to the art of theatre. We will review the most characteristic ones. Readers of La Science et la Vie, who are kept abreast of current events, are already familiar with a certain number of them; we will only recall them for the record, but point out the most recent improvements.

A new system of stage lighting makes it possible to remove certain parts of the set. - The art of staging has hardly evolved for centuries, and, apart from a few original attempts made in certain foreign theatres and on a few avant-garde French stages, there are few innovations in this area. On the other hand, stage lighting procedures have made rapid progress and have made it possible to create enchanting shows by means of skilfully combined lighting effects. Lighting, which in theatrical terms is known as 'fixtures', began to play a major role in stagecraft from the middle of the 19th century. Gas lighting was first in vogue in the main theatres. A gas regulator - the forerunner of today's electric regulator boards - with an appearance reminiscent of church Torgues buffets. This similarity led to the name "organ set", which is still used today to describe electric regulators. After Gramme's invention, electricity soon became a fixture on the main stages, first in combination with gas, then entirely on its own. Today, with a few rare exceptions due to local circumstances, gas has been completely abandoned in theatres and replaced everywhere by electricity.

The lighting of stages requires, as one might expect, the use of special apparatus:
1° Main apparatus, with several circuits and variable voltage; these are: the /erses, for the lighting of the friezes; the racks and reflectors for backstage lighting and the transparencies; the ramps and tracks for lighting at ground level;

2° Auxiliary devices, which are almost always single-circuit and fixed-voltage; these are: spotlights, shutters, various lanterns; chandeliers, sconces, candlesticks forming part of the furniture in sets representing interiors.

The operation of these various devices and even that of certain accessories, such as orchestra stands, large chandeliers and sconces, and foyer chandeliers, must be controlled from the organ set on the stage. Some operations, such as the lighting of the backstage area, dressing rooms, etc., only take place once in the evening; the power supply is then connected to a special switchboard, which takes the load off the already complex organ set.

The most important circuits are, of course, the variable voltage circuits, which make it possible to obtain the effects of day and night, dawn and dusk, and to achieve certain colourings by graduating the intensity of the coloured lamps differently.

For some years now, technicians specialising in stage lighting have been concerned with removing certain parts of the scenery that are detrimental to the spectator's illusion, such as the friezes and hanging scenery. The removal of the friezes and hanging scenery meant that the portcullises and portals had to be removed, thus requiring a whole new lighting system.
a whole new lighting system.

After much trial and error, they succeeded in developing a device surrounding the stage on three sides and presenting a completely smooth white surface. This surface can be a masonry frame, or a canvas suspended from a semi-elliptical support, or any other device where the spectator cannot see the ends. The illusion of infinity is obtained through this surface, which we will call the "artificial horizon" or, more simply, the "sky".

The problem for the electrician is therefore
1° To light the stage on which the actors move and on which the scenery is set;
2° To light the backdrop representing the sky and the horizon and to make the image of the most varied natural phenomena appear at will: sun, rain, clouds, storms, etc...

The permanent illumination of the stage is ensured by means of independent intensive lamps, with or without interchangeable lenses and coloured glasses. They can be controlled together, separately, or in groups, from the organ room.

This lighting is complemented by a range of spotlights and reflectors, each with its own specific function.

Special light carts can be used to obtain particularly delicate aurora or twilight effects.

Finally, when, during the same act, it is necessary to achieve changing effects without any scenery manoeuvres, an ingenious device is used, the result of a combination of optics and photography, the cloud device. This apparatus was so called because it allows the most complicated cloud effects to be obtained, such as, for example, that of a sky full of small clear clouds, clouds moving slowly at first, then growing in size and gradually darkening, while the wind rises and pushes them along rapidly.

These brief notes show how far the technique of electric stage lighting has come to perfection. The various effects which it now makes possible to obtain are a precious help to the authors, who manage, with such devices, to create the desired atmosphere and to facilitate the illusion of the spectators.

It is also possible to use the well-known physical principles relating to the absorption by opaque bodies of a certain number of colours of the solar spectrum and to the diffusion of certain others. Thus a body appears blue to us when illuminated by white light, because it absorbs all the complementary colours of blue. It will become black if illuminated with red light.

It is easy to see how theatrical decoration can benefit from this. If we represent, on the same set, for example, a powdered marquise in a brilliant costume, and a negro in a more basic outfit, we can make one or the other image appear at will, provided that each subject is treated in different colours and then lit with suitably adapted lights.

The applications of such a process are extremely varied, and foreign stages commonly use it. It seems that in France theatre directors are less eager. However, the big shows could only gain in unexpectedness and originality.

The luminous sets of Mr. Eugène Frey. - The first luminous sets were presented at the Palais de la Danse by Mr. Eugène Frey, during the 1900 Exhibition. They made it possible to replace, in many cases, expensive and complicated sets by simple projections similar to those of a magic lantern on an entirely white background. The difficulties encountered by Mr. Frey consisted above all in the need to keep the lighting on the stage intense, which was harmful to the brilliance of the projections. In addition, the projection equipment had to be installed behind the stage so as not to clutter it. We will not go into the details of the procedures, which were fully described in No. 61 (March 1922) of La Science et la Vie. However, Mr. Frey was not satisfied with the first results obtained.

By continuously improving his methods, he was able to extend the applications of the process. For example, it had been impossible until now to make the image of the sun appear on a background curtain in the form of a luminous disc of sufficient intensity, and so it had been abandoned. Mr. Frey has just succeeded in doing this in the following way: he concentrates the luminous intensity of a 40-ampere arc, usually used to cover an area of 9 metres by 12 metres (i.e. 108 square metres, the size of a luminous set), on an area of only 4 square decimetres.

It is easy to understand that, under these conditions, the sun's disc projected onto the landscape is 2,500 times brighter than the landscape itself; it therefore takes on a marvellous brilliance and gives the perfect illusion of the real solar disc.

This result is obtained by means of a projector similar to those used to project light scenery, but which, instead of being fitted with a very short focus lens, has a very long focus lens (750 millimetres). As for the image of the sun disk inserted at the back of the lens, it is not to the scale of the painted decoration, but occupies almost the entire plate. In this way, thanks to the dimensions of the solar disc on the plate and the length of the focus of the lens, the lowest possible magnification is obtained, despite the distance (about 10 metres), while making maximum use of the rays emitted by the arc over the 4-square-decimetre surface.

It is useless to insist on the interest of the luminous scenery, of which numerous applications have been made in the main theatres. They allow the slow evolution of theatrical effects to be followed much better than heavy scenery made of canvas or painted cardboard, which is more expensive.

The very illustrious company of the small wooden comedians of Mr. Paul Jeanne. - One of the most interesting attempts to renovate the Guignol is certainly that of Mr. Paul Jeanne, who created, at the Exposition des Arts Décoratifs, a sort of international cycle of the puppet, a real museum of the wooden doll.

First of all, we see - with all due respect - the Guignol theatre of Lyon, performed by the artists of Lyon with their local dolls; then another much less known production, which we believe has never been given in Paris - the Picardy puppet theatre, with its main character La Fleur. We also see the curious Liège dolls, with their legendary hero, the famous Chanchet; the English puppets, with Punch and Judy, and finally the Italian puppets and their paper sets.

It is a very happy reconstruction allowing useful comparisons between the foreign companies, each one evolving in its original setting and in archaic scenery. As for the text, so colourful, where I anachronism is de rigueur, it would be sacrilegious to touch it up with an ill-informed pen. This is a set that will be of great interest to folklore lovers and will amuse audiences of all ages.

Alongside this international cycle of Guignol, Paul Jeanne offers us a modern Guignol made up of the characters of his own invention, which make up his very illustrious company. Let us hope that this excellent initiative will give new impetus to Punch productions, to the delight of young and old alike.

©La Science et la Vie - 1925