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Stage Production Workers

History

Theatrical performance is among the most ancient of human art forms. Primitive societies wore masks and costumes during ritual ceremonies designed to ward off evil spirits and to promote the welfare of the society.

Greek theater also made use of masks and costumes. As Greek theater developed, its costumes became more elaborate and were used to emphasize characters' status within the world of the play. Greek theater was originally performed in a large circle, and the scenery was minimal; around 460 B.C. a wood skene, or stage structure, was added to the back of the circle through which the actors could enter or exit the circle. Painted scenery was attached to the skene; special effects included cranes for flying actors over the stage. As theater became more professional, people began to specialize in the different areas of theater, such as controlling the scenery, directing the action, and creating the costumes. An important development in early theater was the addition of the raised stage.

By the time of the Romans, theaters were freestanding structures that could be covered and held large audiences. Scenery was often mounted on three-sided prism-like structures that could be rotated to change the scenery during a performance. Medieval performances were often extremely elaborate. Performances were generally held outdoors, and sometimes on wagon stages that moved through a town during the performance. Special effects were often spectacular, with flames and smoke, flood, and realistic massacres complete with flowing blood, hangings, crucifixions, and the like.

Nonreligious theater rose into prominence during the 16th century. The first dedicated theater was built in 1576 in London, followed by many other theaters, including the famous Globe Theater where the works of William Shakespeare were performed. Costumes, primarily representing contemporary dress, were often highly elaborate and quite costly.

The Renaissance and the rediscovery of Greek and Roman theater brought scenery back into prominence in the theater. The development of perspective techniques in painting and drawing led to more realistic settings as backdrops for the performance. More methods were developed for changing the scenery during the performance, although these scene changes continued to be made in front of the audience. Flying machines and other special effects were added; and, as theater moved indoors, stages were lighted by candles and oil lamps.

Many of the features of present-day theater evolved during the 17th and 18th centuries. A new profession emerged: that of stage designer. One of the most influential of these designers was Giacomo Torelli, who invented a mechanical system for raising and lowering settings. Earlier settings, however, were not generally designed for a specific performance, and costumes were not often historically accurate. By the end of the 18th century, stage direction, which had generally been given by the playwright or by one of the leading actors, became a more recognized part of preparing a theatrical performance.

Lighting and scenery developed rapidly in the 19th century. Gas lamps replaced candles and oil lamps, and innovations such as the limelight (a stage light consisting of an oxyhydrogen flame directed on a cylinder of lime and usually equipped with a lens to concentrate the light in a beam) and the spotlight were introduced. Stages began to feature trap doors, and scenery could be raised from below the stage or lowered from above the stage. Many theaters incorporated hydraulic lifts to raise and lower scenery, props, and actors through the trap doors.

The look of a theater production, in its costumes, settings, and props, became at once more realistic and more historically accurate. Settings became increasingly more elaborate, and the introduction of panoramas gave motion effects to the stage. Special effects included the use of real animals on stage, volcanic eruptions, sinking ships, and storms complete with wind and rain. During this period, it became more common that a play would remain in the same theater through many performances. These elaborately planned and staged productions required dedicated directors to oversee the entire production. Another innovation of the 19th century was the use of a curtain to hide the stage during scene changes.

The art of stage production changed considerably with the introduction of electricity to theaters at the end of the 19th century. It became possible to use lighting effects as a major interpretive element in stage productions. Stage machinery became more elaborate, even to the point of moving a whole stage, so that sets could be transformed in new ways. In the 20th century, recording and amplification techniques introduced a wider range of musical and sound effects than ever before. These changes added new dimensions to the tasks of stagehands and other workers.

Today, stage production workers are involved not only in theater performances, but also in film and television performances, which utilize many of the same techniques. As they do on theater stages, workers in television and film do such tasks as building and changing sets and controlling lighting and sound effects.

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