For as long as there have been theatres and audiences, there have been theatrical effects. In our centuries of staging entertainment (both religious and secular) throughout history, there are several timeless stage effects used in centuries past, and which are still ageless and effective, and very much in use, today!
Some of the most timeless stage effects are elegant in their simplicity and ingenious in their execution. Following are just a few of my favorites:
1. The Trap Door
The trap door is a hidden door within the stage floor (or wall) which allows for spectacular entrances and exits from a hidden place beneath or beside the stage. It's a truly timeless theatrical effect that was first used by the Romans, but which remains popular ever since its more widespread introduction during the Middle Ages and their "mystery plays," and culminating with the Elizabethan age, when they became a regular and creative part of everyday theatrical production. Shakespeare's Globe Theatre famously featured a trap door, which allowed for entrances from beneath the floor, thanks to a stage floor that was raised over five feet in height -- ample room for a performer to hide with ease, if not with comfort. TV “Buffy” fans will be interested to know that this understage area was called "Hell," and the trap door was called a ""Hellmouth."
One little-known aspect of the trap-door's usefulness was that, centuries before today's sophisticated sound effects, performers in Elizabethan times could hide beneath the trap doors to mimic such sounds as barnyard animals, battle-cries, and more as the action occurred.
The trap door was also used in 1847 in the first stage productions of the bloody tale of Sweeney Todd (then called Sweeny Todd), with the barber's chair connecting to a trap door of its own. Over a century later, this very same approach would be used for Hal Prince's staging of Sondheim's classic interpretation of the tale.
The “Vampire Trap” is another variation of the trap door, and was a spring-loaded contraption reportedly created for the 1820 staging of The Vampyr, by the infamous Dr. Polidori. This trap was installed in either walls or floors, and parted and quickly reclosed to give the impression of instantaneous appearance or disappearance.
2. Weather (Thunder and… Snow)
It's one of theater's easiest yet most beautiful effects, that gentle shimmer of whiteness falling onstage to simulate snow. The earliest snow effects were accomplished simply and ingeniously, using cut-up pieces of cloth in a “snow bag,” or “snow cradle,” a perforated bag with strings on either end. When shaken gently high above the stage from opposite sides, the snow cradle generates a gentle and very pretty fall of snow. While today’s more basic snow effects also commonly use a rotating ‘drum’ cranked above the stage instead, the snow cradle is still in use today by smaller or budget-conscious theatres, while those with higher budgets can also turn to sophisticated DMX snow machines or fluid-based snow machines. While plastic or material flakes can be a hazard onstage, the advantage of a snow machine is that it creates a snow that looks real, yet which disappears on contact with the stage – vital for productions involving dance or choreography, where it's important to minimize any chance of slipping on the stage surface.
Meanwhile, when it comes to thunder, the ancient Greeks used drums, while the Elizabethans used sheet metal. When shaken or pounded, the sheet metal sounds eerily like a clap of thunder from afar. (So if you don’t have your sound effects CD handy, shake a little sheet metal instead!)
3. Stage Blood
Stage blood has been in use for millennia, with performers using jars of paint or animal blood in religious productions as far back as the Greeks and Romans. Violence primarily occurred offstage, with a cart wheeled in after the fact to display the bloody aftermath (an image that still makes me chuckle a little -- "Look! Antigone didn't make it after all!").
As the centuries passed, those jars eventually graduated to hidden bladders of sheep or bovine blood that could be easily burst by the embattled actor onstage to satisfyingly bloody effect. In the late 1800s, Paris's Theatre le Grand Guignol infamously used a variety of animal parts, entrails, and offal in its gory theatrical effects to disgust, horrify and fascinate audiences at the small theatre, and even after the theatre closed in 1964, the name itself continued on, becoming forever associated with a macabre or especially bloody theatrical spectacle.
Stage actors now use 'squibs' or plastic pouches of stage blood -- which probably smell just a little bit better than those bladders of sheep's blood -- and they're animal-friendlier, too.
4. The Turntable, or Trebuchet
The turntable, or trebuchet, is a classic theatrical device first popularized for regular theatrical use around the fourteenth century. The turntable is a simple yet elegant concept that not only allowed for actors or scenery to be swapped out with ease for effect, but which also allowed for greater movement and action upon the stage, and which could also be used to denote the passage of time. Perhaps most famously in recent years, director Trevor Nunn ingeniously utilized the turntable as a way of moving between characters and all major scenes for the mega-musical Les Miserables.
5. "Flying" or "Deus ex Machina" Devices
The ancient Greeks used the 'deus ex machina' as a cranelike device to lift the god who would save the day into the scene, and whose name literally translates to "machine of the gods." The use of rigging or machinery to lift performers or scenic elements into the air is called "flying," and it's still very much in use today. From Medea, to Spider-man, Turn Off the Dark, there's something primal about seeing an actor in the air.
The term 'deus ex machina' remains in use even today, but now denotes, usually in a negative manner, a kind of perceived cheating on the storyteller's part, with the use of some unbelievable or 'divine' intervention to resolve a story. Woody Allen charmingly plays homage to this idea near the conclusion of his film Mighty Aphrodite.
What are some of your favorite stage effects?