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  • Stanley McCandless, Lighting History, and Me
  • Linda Essig (bio)

Recently, I was seated at a lighting-industry banquet with two of the elder statesmen of that industry. Our table happened to be situated directly below the lighting equipment that had been hung to light the platform stage for the evening's presentation. As we waited for the pecan-crusted salmon to arrive, one of the elder statesmen, a true pioneer in mid-twentieth-century lighting technology, looked up and then turned to the other, who has been a force in the buying and selling that funds the research and development of that technology, and said: "Look at that: the light's coming in dead-on to the stage! Haven't people heard of McCandless? What are they thinking, light straight on like that!" I mustered all the self-control I could to refrain from saying anything at all, let alone what I was thinking: "It's been eighty years since McCandless first published his Glossary of Stage Lighting [and subsequently the Syllabus of Stage Lighting in 1931 and A Method of Lighting the Stage in 1932]. Can't you break away from lighting a performer from 45-degree angles?" I respectfully kept my mouth shut; to say anything there would serve no purpose. What could be gained from asking this distinguished gentleman, whose career has impacted the theatre in many positive ways, to acknowledge that the lighting design paradigm he was devoted to, a method first codified by Stanley McCandless seventy-five years ago, would be better left to theatre history than contemporary lighting practice? Instead, we discussed travel plans and family and I acknowledged (albeit to myself) that I was dining with living history.

The study of design history is, of course, an important component of an overall theatrical design education. Most often, however, design history is considered as foundational to the set design and costume design curricula, where the flat, painted scenery of the 1930s and 1940s is viewed as past practice and the pinched waist and flared skirt silhouette of the 1950s is as much a period garment as a hobble skirt. Lighting design practices of those same periods are, however, rarely presented historically. In many lighting design studios, the lighting design methods of the 1930s are still given currency instead of being considered as a phase, now complete, in lighting design history. Yet both the student lighting designer and the professional lighting designer, like the set and costume designer, are best equipped to achieve innovation for the future when they view the historical past from the distance, and within the context, of the present.

McCandless's original method espouses only four functions of stage light: visibility, form, naturalism, and mood (McCandless, Syllabus 2–3). Later texts by others essentially adopted or slightly adapted these four functions to visibility, selective focus, modeling, and mood (Gillette), or selective visibility, composition, revelation of form, mood, and a fifth, information, meaning the conveyance of place and time-of-day information (Pilbrow), or selective visibility, composition, revelation of form, mood, and a fifth, "reinforcing theme . . . the compositional revelation of the thematic forms of the setting" (Parker and Wolf 375). These four functions provided a firm foundation for decades for designers who had a limited palette of technological resources with which to work. State-of-the-art lighting technology from the time McCandless's method was first published until the 1970s consisted essentially of only four types of fixed-focus lighting instruments (ellipsoidal reflector spotlights, fresnel spotlights, beam projectors, and floodlights for cyc lighting), all controlled by between twelve and seventy-two cumbersome manual resistance dimmers. Although the sophistication and quantity of the technological tools available to the lighting designer have increased exponentially in the last thirty [End Page 61] years, the foundational methodology of much—though not all—lighting education has remained rooted in McCandless's mid-twentieth-century paradigm until only recently.

I have been designing without either the benefit or the curse of McCandless's method for quite some time. I teach students of its historical importance as the first modern codified methodology for stage lighting while simultaneously requesting that they not employ it in their own work in...


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