I met up with lighting designer, Zia Holly, at 3pm this afternoon in the Science Gallery Cafe. Holly wrote a recent BA dissertation on the history of lighting design at the Abbey from 1904 to the present day.* She conducted research in the Abbey Archives, as well as interviewing Leslie Scott who, as the Abbey’s Chief Electrician, oversaw the transfer from the Queen’s Theatre – the company’s home following the 1951 fire – to the new Abbey Theatre in 1966.
Zia gave me a her chapter on the early days of the Abbey, as well as documents describing the various technologies in use during the period with which her research was concerned. She notes that, with Yeats’s emphasis on the primacy of the spoken word: “spectacle was not one of the key concerns of the Abbey in its infancy and it would be some time before the Abbey would seek to encourage or even credit design elements in its productions.” (unpubl. ts. p.7)
Hugh Hunt’s volume The Abbey: Ireland’s National Theatre, 1904-1978 (Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1979), carries actress Maire Nic Shiubhlaigh’s recollections of the theatre’s opening night, which gives a vivid impression of Abbey actors frantically doubling up as stage technicians:
“Back stage, Willie Fay, dressed for his part in one of the new plays, a wild wig slipping sideways over his elfin face, swung unexpectedly from a baton high in the flies, arranging the lighting.” (Hunt 1979, p.62)
This additional theatrical role of William Fay was not entirely arbitrary: Holly notes that, before being employed by the Management Committee to advise Joseph Holloway and supervise the renovations of the theatre, Fay had worked as an electrician (unpubl. ts., p.8). But the scene Nic Shiubhlaigh records tends to confirm the impression that the early Abbey was not very much concerned with stage lighting beyond what was required to illuminate the actors.
Indeed, the “modest and unpretentious” space of the proscenium-framed stage, just 21 feet in width by 16 feet in depth (Hunt 1979, p.58), would in any case have afforded limited scope for spectacular effects.
Photographs confirm that footlights were not in use at the Abbey at this time. Actor Udolphus (Dossie) Wright, like Fay, also served in multiple roles including, until 1952 as “master of the switchboard” (Hunt 1979, p.192), “in which capacity he indulged his passion for flooding the stage with amber light” (Hunt 1979, p.68, in Holly unpubl. ts. p.10) – an impression of the Abbey’s approach to lighting which, Holly notes, is borne out by production photographs of the period.
“Lighting as an art form relies on attention to detail and at these early stages of development, where design implementation relied on an understanding and mastering of complex and cumbersome technologies for its expression, it was essential, if art was to be the outcome, for its facilitator to have an enthusiastic and focused artistic desire coupled with technical know-how. The practical necessity of role-juggling, inevitably led to lighting being neglected beyond the standards of sufficiency.” (unpubl. ts. 10)
Many thanks to Zia for her kindness in time and access to her dissertation!
* Holly, Zia “Technology and the Rise of Lighting Design in the Abbey” BA Dissertation, Department of Drama, Trinity College Dublin, May 2010.
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