Putting a Face on Theatre
TheatreFace user Michael--a lighting designer working on a production of Tennessee Williams's The Glass Menagerie--posted this question about live flame and candles on stage earlier this week. His conundrum is a common one: how do we define what is "necessary" for telling the story of a production, and how do we achieve those "necessities" when they might be counter to accepted practice or--more importantly--local, state, or federal regulations?
If you've been reading along with me, you know how I feel about the technical design process, and that I stress with students that the fundamental place to start in tackling any design problem is with a design specification: what are we trying to accomplish, and what are our parameters for accomplishing it? Reading between the lines of Michael's post, one can find some of the key elements that he (and his team) feel are important for the final moment of the play.
Michael has already taken us past what can be the primary stumbling block for solving this kind of issue: instead of stating unequivocally that there must be real candles, he's described for us the effect that we must create. This makes any solution easier to discover. There are a number of ways we can create this effect:
Each of these solutions, when compared against the requirements Michael listed, falls short in some manner: Rosco's Candelabra, Flicker Candles, and City Theatrical's Flicker Candle Kit are all not-inexpensive; Evil Mad Scientist's LEDs, while inexpensive, will require some time-on-task to provide a battery power supply, easy-off-switch, and installation; the non-lighted candle solutions will require a level of suspension of disbelief with which, presumably, the director will be unhappy.
Unfortunately, no solution is the perfect solution--however much we might want it to be otherwise. Every option to solve a particular design problem will require some amount of balanced compromise amongst the triumvirate of time, money, and quality. Michael, based on our conversation, appears to have decided that while he can't spend a lot of money, he probably has the time to deal with installing and prototyping the flickering LED solution. (Michael, if you're reading this, post photos and let us know how it worked out!)
There's another issue, buried inside this discussion, of course: fire onstage. Michael has found an acceptable work-around to having live flame in this instance. But what if he couldn't? Or, what if local regulations made it illegal to smoke on stage, and he were producing a Noel Coward play? How do you deal with this situations?
Unfortunately, waiting until the production that requires a friendly code-enforcement operator to worry about these kinds of issues usually means you're too late. Theatre--especially at the academic, community, and smaller-regional/summer stock level has played the game of, "it's better to ask for forgiveness than for permission game," for long enough that most enforcement officers assume from the outset that we operate in an unsafe manner, thumbing our noses at regulations, codes, and laws. (In some cases, unfortunately, that reputation is well-deserved...) As a result, enforcement officers tend to be less willing to be flexible.
In truth, however, most enforcement officers are allowed some flexibility in interpretation, and, like all of us, would rather be accommodating than be the bad guy--at least as long as they don't feel they are being taken advantage of. Consequently, it pays huge dividends to start working with your code enforcement officials now--start talking about fire safety plans, ask for fire extinguisher training, inquire about safe workplace signage. Develop a relationship that makes clear your (and your theatre's) commitment to safety and adherence to regulations. Having set up a relationship together, you can approach the relevant officers at the start of the production process when those sketchy things like cigarettes, person-lifts, and live flame come up. Usually, your demonstrated commitment to safety, coupled with an appeal for assistance in making an effect happen in the safest way possible, will result in a smoother process for developing an effect that pleases the director, the designers, keeps the actors and crew safe, and makes your enforcement officials feel good about a) helping you toe the line of regulations, and b) helping you create magic on stage.