Okay, not really. Lighting a fire in a crowded theater would be dangerous. Theaters are flammable. So are crowds. The whole thing would be a disaster.
So what do you do when the designer (the illustrious David Korins) designs a set that features a big old fireplace in a big old country mansion? Okay, the best thing to do is to build a propane fire. Propane fires tend to get hot and burn down sets, so you should make sure you build your set out of fireproof materials-things like concrete and heavy duty sheet rock. Also, you’ll need a very very friendly local Fire Marshall. And maybe some fire extinguishers on hand, just to be safe. If you don’t the time, money, or structural integrity in your stage floor to hold up all that concrete, then the next best thing is to have some of McCarter’s ingenious electricians (like Paul Kilsdonk and Todd Loyd) build you a home-made electric fireplace from materials they happen to have in stock. That’s what we did.
Paul and Todd started by thinking about all the places in a fireplace that generate light. There’s the ember bed below the logs (which is probably glowing red and orange), there are the logs themselves (which probably have some embers on them that are similarly colored), there are the flames (which flicker red, yellow, orange and blue), and then there is the light that all this casts on the fire box around it (the chimney is probably glowing, etc). All of these elements are probably flickering a bit and subtly changing colors, so you’ll need a lot of electrical channels to pull this off-the fireplace in She Stoops to Conquer uses about 20.
Here’s how they did it:
The ember bed: The ember bed was built by McCarter’s prop shop, mainly out of chicken wire screening and cheese cloth. Underneath that live ten 60-watt T-Lamps (that’s the bulb that you use in music stand lights), each on a different channel. The T-Lamp channels are set to brighten and dim, much like glowing embers. Turns out, we happen to have a lot of leftover T-Lamps sitting around from when we were hoping to use 100 of them in our production of The Royal Family in 1996 (they ended up having ugly filaments—long story that will have to wait for another blog entry). Over each ugly-filamented T-Lamp is a piece of red or orange color gel, which gives the whole ember bed a life-like and alive feeling.
The logs: Three of the logs in the fireplace are made out of log. Those don’t light up unless you apply flame to them—and as we’ve already discussed, that would be bad. The log in front, however, is made out of chicken wire screening and cheese cloth (just like the ember bed). Inside the fake log live 3 more T-Lamps, also with color gel over them. They also flicker (just like the ones in the ember bed).
The flames: Behind the logs are two pieces of white china silk, sitting over two fans. When the fans turn on, the silk dances around like—you guessed it—a flame. But since china silk doesn’t normally look like flame (unless you light it on fire), these guys are each lit by a set of lights (with color gel) which cause them to appear to flicker red, blue and amber. The lights hitting the silk are MR16 Birdies and MR11 Birdies. A Birdie is like a little baby lighting instrument that’s good for hiding away inside of set pieces and things like that. They come in different sizes (the MR16s, for instance, take a lamp with a reflector that is 16 eighths of an inch across), and can be covered with color gel (as these are). So each silk is controlled by one fan channel, a blue channel, two amber channels and a red channel. Those channels are on a routine that gives the whole thing a bit of movement as well.
The fire box: The warm light that the fire projects on the brick around it is made by four home-made instruments, each consisting of a socket, a bulb and a reflector and a bit of colored gel. Those cost $20 each if you buy the parts at the hardware store (or there is a $200 version you can buy pre-made from some of the major lighting houses—your choice!).
So how do you hold all these lights in position and get everything just perfect? Paul and Todd did a lot of testing on the best materials for this–you want something that will hold things securely, but you can always re-position if you decide the light isn’t just right. It also needs to be relatively flame-resistant. Their solution? Binder clips and rubber bands. And a few pieces of wire holding the logs in place.
And that’s it! A do-it-yourself onstage fire. A word to the wise: don’t try this at home! Both Todd and Paul are experienced electricians, and they did some rigorous testing of every component of this fireplace before they put it onstage (okay, the testing mostly consisted of turning it on and seeing what lit on fire, but still, you get the point).
Posted by Adam Immerwahr, Producing Associate at McCarter Theatre. With a major assist from Paul Kilsdonk, McCarter’s Master Electrician. Honestly, did you think Adam knew what the heck an MR16 was? I don’t think so!!