Behind the scenes: Traps & flying angels

The Italians invented everything in Western theater, it would seem, including the notion of building cloud-gondolaelaborate machinery to produce astonishing stage effects. There’s an excellent article about it at the Italian Renaissance Theatre site, which I highly recommend for the theater nuts among you. (And aren’t we all, at some level, theater nuts?) They begin, as we might have guessed, with commedia dell’arte, which began on wagons in town squares and ended up in gorgeous purpose-built halls.

This gondola on the right inspired and informed the midpoint disaster in Moriarty Brings Down the House. No spoilers! This drawing shows it from the back. The front is covered with sparkly gauze, or so I assume, to look like a cloud upon which the actors descend, backlit, I assume, with rosy light.

Victorian spectacular theater

Booth tells that the now-familiar shape of a theater, with an auditorium sloping gently toward a big rectangular proscenium opening, was established during the early years of the nineteenth century. The most important data point for this post is that the working space behind the opening — backstage — was larger than the auditorium itself. “…the average fair-sized late Victorian provincial stage, designed to take the scenery of touring companies [that glorious panto from London], had a proscenium opening 30′ wide, then a minimum of 17′ 6″ on each side of that opening was needed for wing space and the accommodation of scenery and sub-stage machinery. Similary, the height of the stage behind the opening itself, say about 50′-60′ for the standard 25′-30′ proscenium height. The distance from the proscenium to the back wall of the stage, which was usually the back wall of the theatre and hidden from the audience by scenery, depended on the size of the lot the theatre was built on and could vary from 30′ to 80′. The area beneath the stage was excavated, ideally, to a depth of 30′ for the operation of the sub-stage machinery…”

sinking ship 1


This picture’s from the book. It shows a set for a scene in which a ship is tossed by stormy seas. See the pillars underneath the deck? They could be raised and lowered by machinery in the cellar beneath the stage. If this is late Victorian, that raising and lowering was done by a gang of men pulling on ropes.

There’s a movie, one of those 40’s movies about vaudeville days that I watched a bunch of to get glimpses of life backstage… I think it was Cover Girl with Rita Hayworth. She or someone did a cute little song & dance routine dressed in Edwardian garb in which flat pieces of scenery would rise up through slots in the stage floor, like a little cafe where the singers would pretend to sit. They weren’t small flats — easily 15′ tall and the same length. They must have been arranged beneath the stage under drop-down slots in the floor and raised by — well, machines in the movie and maybe the Edwardian period, but by half a dozen burly workmen down in the cellar hauling on a big fat rope. No wonder so many theater crew were former sailors! 

Up, up, and away!

So here I am, a Victorian set designer, looking at a proscenium arch about 25′ tall by 30′ wide. Am I thinking, Ah, the elegance of minimal lines in a pure space? I am not. I’m thinking every cubic inch of that territory, speaking three-dimensionally, must be filled with as much eye-popping shazaamery as my budget will allow.

To my great surprise, I can’t find a single illustration of an actor flying above the stage in a Victorian drama. They must have done it. Look at that cloud gondola above, from the 18th century. They certainly had the machinery. And we all know actors will do anything to make the show a success.

Ropes for raising and lowering actors in harnesses and gondolas and whatever else they could dream up were managed from the fly galleries — one left, one right. More sturdy former sailors up there managing all those ropes. I assume you reach these galleries by winding up many narrow stairs from stage level. There’s a catwalk that spans the stage, well out of sight of the audience above the proscenium, 40′ or more up.

Booth provided photos of the fly gallery at Tyne Theatre, Newcastle. The only image I could find of an actor in a flying harness was the one I actually remember myself — Mary Martin playing Peter Pan. A much-loved TV re-run in my childhood.

fly-gallery3 fly-gallery4 Mary_Martin_Peter_Pan_Broadway


Arise, demons, from the very depths of hell

Or fairies, or sorcerers, or barking dogs. Arise, anybody, really, provided you fit on the trap. The Encyclopedia Britannica informs concisely that there are several kinds of traps.

“The corner trap, for example, is a small, square opening, usually located at the side of the stage, fitted with a trapdoor or flaps that can be lowered out of sight. Through it, standing figures or objects can be lifted onto the stage. When a sudden, mysterious appearance is required, a star trap is used. The star trap is a circular opening with a lid composed of wedge-shaped sections, individually hinged to the circumference. An actor, standing below on a heavily counterweighted platform, can be projected through the opening with great speed. The sections of the lid are pushed up as he passes and immediately fall back into place, thus concealing his point of entrance. Another common trap with a long history is the grave trap, a large, rectangular opening in the centre of the stage floor. It is named for its most famous use, as an open grave in the graveyard scene from Hamlet. Most traps and their mechanisms are designed so that they can be taken apart and moved to any point in the stage floor where they are required or can be stored when not in use.”

We also have those long slotted traps I described above, for moving up whole painted flat pieces of scenery, like waves that might even rise and fall, or fish leaping the above the waves. 




Booth, Michael R. 1981. Victorian Spectacular Theatre, 1850-1910. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Booth, Michael R. 1991. Theatre in the Victorian Age. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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