continued Victorian theaters concealed the lighting. The original Whaley stage, if just two rooms and a platform, would have lacked mystery, since there are few places to hide the illusion-weavers. "Light was probably ambient," says Lotze, "just candles on stands, lamps overhead, like you'd see at a lecture, and not much magic beyond what the performers could inspire."
The theater Lotze and I walk into isn't Tanner's, but it's a gem: a 19th-century raked proscenium stage in miniature. The stagehouse, 9 feet across and 15 deep, has three sets of wings; a painted backdrop of a sylvan scene; a brownish-gold, damask-like curtain; and an organ stage right. Above two dozen crescent-armed captain's chairs, a hooded lamp has a large bowl, meant to burn a long while.
The most authentic feature: the rough-planked floor recalls the old theater expression "trod the boards" and could resemble what 19th-century actors performed on when working in the hinterlands.
If this were the Whaleys' theater, I ask Lotze, would you want to light it?
"You kiddin'? It'd be a blast! But you'd have to ditch your whole bag of tricks.
"To evoke the period, there'd be nothing above the stage. They'd have footlights with tin reflectors, though many designers of the time rejected them because they didn't shape faces well. You got mostly bright chins.
"They hid their light sources, so you'd have ladders of candles or lamps behind the wings, plus a row across the top and gaslights going up each wall inside the proscenium."
Before gaslight, theaters were candle- and torchlit. Both required maintenance: time out to trim wicks, replace spent stubs, and empty pools of wax and tallow grease. Many believe that theaters invented intermissions to perform these tasks.
"We've got a drawback," says Lotze. "Big 19th-century stages could roll wing-ladders back and forth to make new atmospheres. But even with filtered lamps and candles they couldn't change the picture that much. And here, since backstage's so small, you could change it even less. The lighting would be the same for everything they did: readings, political debates, Shakespeare. Actually, the style resembles today's big musicals.
"These things change, but right now the trend has everything coming into focus downstage center: the star's stand-and-deliver position. Musicals have countless individual cues, but the hot spot remains front and center, at least for now. In Victorian times, if you wanted shading or darkness, you had actors go back or to the sides."
As Lotze speaks, two actors turn from the footlights and walk toward the rear of the small Whaley stage. Boots scrape the floor, full dresses rustle, and a drunk tosses an empty onto San Diego Avenue, just missing horses hitched to posts and a two-mule buckboard slogging by in the mud. A wreath of candle and cigar smoke crowns the overhead lamp. The actors stop upstage, face each other. Benches creak as people lean forward, eager not to miss a word.
"...go back or to the sides," Lotze continues. "That's where the mystery was 150 years ago, and probably from the beginning. David Hays says lighting design may have started when cavemen first moved away from the campfire for scary effects.
"You see something?"
Naw. Just ghosts.