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  • Computer Modeling As A Tool For The econstruction of Historic Theatrical ProductionTechniques
  • Frank Mohler (bio)

During the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries many of the production techniques that became the basis of modern stagecraft were developed or refined. Because the effects created by these techniques were both visual and kinetic, verbal descriptions cannot adequately recreate the experience of the spectacular effects. One of the ways to gain an understanding of the production techniques used in the past is to stage productions in the surviving theatres from the period. Although this has been done in some theatres including the eighteenth century Drottningholm Court Theatre, most of these productions have been staged as tourist attractions, not as techniques of scholarly research. In addition this procedure is possible only when a theatre from the period has survived with its theatrical equipment intact. The use of these theatres carries with it the potential for damage to the theatre and any historic equipment and scenery.

Unfortunately the few extant illusionistic theatres from the seventeenth century no longer contain their original scenery or machinery. The earliest surviving illusionistic theatres with their original scenery and machinery are the court theatres at Drottningholm, Gripsholm, and Cesky Krumlov, 1 but none of these theatres utilizes the counterweight-operated wing change common on both the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century spectacular stages.

In the absence of surviving theatres, several techniques can be useful. In rare instances a full size replica of an historic theatre may be constructed, such as the International Shakespeare Globe Center in London. But since it is unlikely that a full-scale replica of an illusionistic theatre will be constructed, historians will probably be limited to the use of scale models of such theatres to help explain the effect of the productions and the operation of the machinery. Model theatres fall into two basic types: physical (usually wooden) and virtual (computer-generated). Both types depend upon the existence of drawings of the theatres, scenery, and theatrical machinery. Fortunately a wealth of drawings and other material exist for the Baroque period. The [End Page 417] value of such models, of course, depends upon their accuracy, which in turn is dependent upon the quality of the source material available and the ability of the researcher to analyze the source material.

It is possible, especially when a physical theatre for a period is lacking, for a model to receive such wide publication that people begin to accept the model as a true version of a theatre, as occurred with the John Cranford Adams’ model of the Globe Theatre. As Robert Sarlos correctly pointed out:

The dangers inherent in model building are nevertheless apparent; they become blatant when the theoretical reconstruction essays, based upon insufficient data, are turned into mass produced scale-model kits, or into pseudo-historical edifices for performances in a fake Shakespearean style. 2

There is obviously a difference between building a model using detailed drawings and a model that must be based upon a great deal of conjecture. Although neither theatre is extant, constructing a model of the stage house and equipment of the 1770 Palais Royal would be quite different from constructing a model of the stage and tiring house of the 1599 Globe, since detailed drawings exist for one but not the other. It is possible, even when scaled drawings are available, that some details may be incorrect; however this occurs even when modern buildings are constructed. In addition, even in cases when drawings for a theatre exist, certain conjectures are sometimes necessary.

The Physical Model

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Figure 1.

Physical model of Palatina manuscript theatre.

Figure 1 shows a physical model of the illusionistic theatre shown in Palatina manuscript 3708. 3 It was built utilizing a scaled floor plan and a variety of other views of the theatre and its machines that were available in the manuscript, but none of the drawings accurately showed the height of various parts of the structure. Therefore, assumptions had to be made concerning matters such as the degree of the rake of the stage and the height of the catwalks and the roof. During the early stages of construction of the model, its various...

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pp. 417-431
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