Computer Modeling as a Tool for the Reconstruction of Historical Theatrical Production Techniques

Wednesday, December 1, 1999 - 1:00am


This page offers a computer model of a seventeenth century stage house based upon MS 3708, Biblioteca Palatina, Parma. A fuller discussion may be found in Theatre Journal 51.4, December 1999.. The manuscript consists of 24 scenery drawings and 15 machinery drawings and contains no text. The library catalog indicates the drawings are probably for the Teatro Farnese, which is in the same building as the library. However, that is not possible since the manuscript contains a scaled floor plan that does not resemble the Farnese theatre. Cesare Molinari has identified eleven of the drawings as scenes for La Divisione del Mondo, which was produced at Teatro San Salvatore in Venice in 1675. Many of the machinery drawings relate directly to the scenery drawings.

Stage House

Drawings from the manuscript show the layout of the stage house. The stage floor and catwalks are shown in several drawings, but only the floor plan is in scale, requiring conjecture about the rake of the stage floor and the height of the catwalks.

Several of the manuscript drawing show a unique feature of the seventeenth century stage house: a midstage elevator and a upper stage in the inner stage area. A lateral winch in the substage area opeates the elevator and two winches at the top of the stage house raise the front section of the upper stage.

Drawings in the manuscript show the location of traps in the downstage area: small corner traps with elevators to raise performers and traps extending across the width of the stage for wave machines.

Scene Change Machinery

The Palatina Manuscript contain a nearly complete visual description of the mechanized flat wing and border scene change. The wing change consists of wing frames rolling in tracks in the substage area and extending through cuts in the stage floor. There are 2 wing frames in each of six banks on each side of the stage. The wings in each bank are joined by a rope and pulley arrangement to allow one wing to be pulled offstage as its mate is pulled onstage. One wing in each bank is attached to the central shaft. A counterweight rope is attached to the large drum section of the shaft to rotate the shaft as the counterweight falls. [Note: the wing-changing is not shown in drawing of the mechanism, but is implied by the large drum section which corresponds with other seventeenth century wing-changing devices shown in Motta and Skippon.]

The Palatina Manuscript also shows the mechanism for the border changing device. Similar to the wing-changing machinery, it consists of a central shaft with a large counterweight drum and is located within the roof trusses. The shaft is rotated by a falling counterweight lowering the border frames into view. [Note: the manuscipt also contains sky borders on traveler tracks. These are discussed in Mohler, Frank. "A Brief Shining Moment: An Effect That Disappeared From The Illustionistic Stage." Theatre Symposium 4, 1996, 83-90.]

A unique feature of this mechanism is that it will allow to the border frames to be level at the catwalk position for ease of changing the scenery on the frames, yet the borders will align on a line of perspective when lowered into view.

The following animations show the scene changing mechanism in operation.

The virtual theatre observed from the audience point-of-view shows the magic of the seventeenth century scene change. This animation also includes the raising of the mainstage sea machines.

the development of scenice spectacle


usittThis material is made possible, in part, by a grant from the New Initiatives Fund, United States Institute for Theatre Technology and by grants from the University Research Council, Cratis D. Williams Graduate School, Appalachian State University.


Dr. Frank Mohler
Department of Theatre & Dance
Appalachian State University
Boone, NC 28608

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