Olive Green Beast


(photo: Estonian violinist and singer Maarja Nuut at Viljandi Folk Music Festival, 2016)

This is an entry in Imago Theatre’s Daring Feminist Artistic Practice blog series.

When I think about what having a daring feminist theatre practice means, a lot of specifics come to mind: who we include, the stories we tell, how we tell those stories, how we work as artists. All those points have the same ambient value. Having a daring feminist practice means challenging tradition to the point of innovation.

Theatre has been strongly brewed in history where the voices, techniques, and stories that rose to the top were rarely female. When reflecting on that history, one example of this practice stands out.

Theatrical lighting used to be controlled by piano boards. The intensity of the lamp would be physically controlled by a series of levers. They were big and generated altogether too much heat to operate comfortably. It wasn’t that long ago that these were the standard. I think my father has a pair of flip-flops from before these went out of style. He still uses his flip-flops every summer.

I once saw a piano board and it was easy to believe the legend that they were made from old submarines. It was in the attic of a college, a pale olive-green beast, hidden under a thick dust cover. It was mostly kept as a relic to tell stories about. It was a part of the theatrical tradition before LED with DMX technology. The piano board showed us how far the technical arts have come and told us how lucky we were to have 21st Century technology at our fingertips.

The piano board is a relic because Lighting Designer Tharon Musser was instrumental in the creation of the first fully computerized electronic lighting console. During the install of A Chorus Line in 1975, Tharon asked for a “memory lighting console” that would allow the cues to perform faster and with more accuracy. She would go on to win the Tony Award for Best Lighting Design that season. A few years later every major theatre would be working with electronic consoles. 

Musser thought of a way to work, and tools to use, that didn't exist in the reality of the mid-seventies. With her vision, the day-to-day of lighting design and operation changed forever and the art form grew exponentially. She dared to challenge traditional techniques. She dared to innovate.

 (Read more about Musser and female Lighting Designer contributions to theatre history here.)