One of the things that we get comments about with our western entertainment play “In the Company of Legends” is our footlights. In the old west, theater lighting consisted of open-flame oil lamps with floating wicks. The light was soft and required significant reflection to get it to illuminate a stage. Because the lighting was soft, lights were placed along the front edge of the stage, called “footlights” which reduced overhead shadows and illuminated the actor’s faces so people could see them.
The lamps themselves were gradually improved, and footlights remained a major source of stage light until the first half of the 19th century, when high-intensity lights such as the limelight made it possible to illuminate the stage from the front. In the open stage footlights are no longer used, which created a dilemma for us.
We decided that since the footlights added a certain historical feel, we needed them for the play. That meant we needed to build some that we could transport with us as part of our props. They needed to have an authentic look and match the time period for the set. This became a much more difficult task than any of us imagined.
After many weeks, I found a supplier in England and had them ship the “Light shells” – the part that shields the light (the part that the audience sees), so I could start building the lights. They turned out great and we afterwards found out that that our play could not actually function without them. Those big cowboy hats create shadows on the actor’s faces that makes it very difficult to see them – actually impossible without the footlights. We also found that since theaters no longer use footlights, we had to improvise how we turned them on and off.
In most theaters, there is a light technician with a control panel who controls the lights from the back of the house. However, since almost no theaters have a control to plug into on the front of the stage, we needed to use a remote control that allowed us to run the lights. I carry the remote in my pocket which has led to some funny new lines as the button on the remote shut off the lights due to me sitting down or some other movement. It’s created some additional comedy in the show from time to time!
We are sticklers for historical accuracy, right down to the lights!