When visiting some of the UK’s biggest and most opulent theatres, it’s easy to become overwhelmed with the sophisticated level of stage design, lighting and sound systems that help make a hit play technically magnificent.
During a performance, if we’re all honest, we’re usually too absorbed in the acting and storyline to truly acknowledge all the backstage effects that wholly contribute to the show. But then suddenly a magnificent set change on an impossibly adaptable stage or the impressive use of lighting reminds us just how much amazing effects can contribute to a show.
Understandably this is rather intimidating for an amateur theatre group or school/college performance space where professional equipment is a little more low budget than that of the top theatres. If a few spotlights and a stage curtain are all you have to work with, harnessing those special effects that really bring a performance to life can seem like an impossible task.
But it doesn’t necessarily take vast budgets and sophisticated installations to utilise those stunning effects you’ve admired in the West End Plays. Don’t believe us? Just take heed from some of these best-selling plays that have wowed us with those ever simple but powerful effects. With a little inspiration you too can create professional results on a shoe string.
The Woman in Black should be seen by every theatre lover for its ability to genuinely chill the audience to the bone. The woman in black is a spectral delight for fans of the classic tale (no spoilers, we promise!) and while throughout the play we’re used to seeing the swish of a cloak or a shriek here and there, it’s the final scene that really leaves a lasting impression on the audience.
Because in the end, it isn’t the eerie lighting using sophisticated control systems and trusses that grabs our attention, it’s the single spotlight that emits ripples of shock throughout the audience that really packs a punch. As mentioned, there’s no spoilers here, but go along and see for yourself; the power of a single spotlight should never be underestimated when creating spectacular performances.
Lacking those funds for a set designer? A whole world can be created on a small stage just through utilising an effect projector. In the case of Blood Brothers and Port, we saw this tool used to effortlessly change scenes without the need for clunky props and desperate stage hands clambering across the stage. An effect projector really is a simple concept, just use it to project shapes i.e. windows onto stage curtains or plain walls and see a whole scene emerge in seconds.
In the case of Blood Brothers, simple windows were projected around the stage to denote a housing estate whilst Port used a slightly more detailed projection to denote the doors of a pub from the outside. Although installing an effect projector can be a little pricey (around £1,000-£2,000) a good stage design company will be able to install it professionally and teach you how to use it to create fantastic results.
If Michael Morpugo’s beloved children’s book has always alluded you, then now’s the time to get to grips with this heart-warming story as it storms the West End in spectacular fashion. The real question on everyone’s lips before they see this spectacular play is how they manage to bring a horse to life on stage. The traditional nativity style donkey suit probably wouldn’t impress audiences too much, but a little help from the South African Hand Spring Puppet Company certainly would.
Using incredibly well sculpted puppets made from leather and aircraft cables, talented handlers expertly manoeuvre the puppets across the stage so the movement is representative of a real animal. Of course, creating that real-life horse effect just wouldn’t be the same without a fantastic sound system to convey the pounding of hooves. Again, this isn’t territory reserved for the finest theatres; every performance space can create realistic sound effects with a good (yet not hugely expensive) sound system. A professional sound system will also allow you to use a performance space for lessons and conferences, and can therefore prove to be an investment which really pays off.
Simple effects we can all achieve taken straight from the West End. The beauty of theatre is that we expect magnificence from simplicity, and taking some budget tips for those sell-out performances can help you to create a performance to remember too.
About the author:
Victoria Browne is writing on behalf of PG Stage, specialists in all aspects of stage design, installation, lighting and sound in the UK and overseas.