One singular sensation. That was all it took.
While A Chorus Line might be better known for its catchy lyrics than its revolutionary nature, the stage show’s 1975 Broadway debut was one of the most important moments in theatrical history. Lighting wise, that is.
Tharon Musser’s design was a world premiere in that it used the very first theatrical computer-led lighting control (known rather cooly as Sam) to program and run the changes each night. Sam meant the show’s lighting and cues were more dynanic and seamless than traditional methods, allowing for what Musser believed to be about double the changes and cues than if the show were done manually. A world-first for lighting design back then, today it’s the norm and you’d be hard-pressed to find a professional show that doesn’t use it.
In true theatrical style, Gershen Shevett who ran the lights at the Shubert Theatre (where the debut took place) commented the change took lighting design “from the Bronze Age to a moon shot.” But, a little like our historical records of all things outer space compared to the hard artifacts of the Bronze Age buried in back gardens, databases for digitally lit productions are extremely difficult to trace and impossible to look at in the same way as we do manually-lit shows.
While it’s possible to keep software records of when lighting cues take place or photos of particular moments, the main issue for recording digital lighting comes in that it can never capture what that moment actually meant. Lighting design is so much more than just data, it’s something that was part of a larger whole and recording a design should include the effect the design had on theatregoers as much as the software itself. Many experts compare it to the concept of storing computer games – “What exactly are you collecting? Are you collecting the software? Because then you need the hardware to collect it. Are you collecting the interaction? Because maybe a film of someone playing is the best way. Do you display the code?” commented Kate Carmody, a design curator. It’s this kind of debate that lighting experts are currently battling.
With the way records are made entirely different, and the way lighting works no longer manual and controllable by human hands, sketches or stage records no longer exist in the same way and can’t do justice to the dynamic nature and subtleties of work produced.
Fortunately, it’s a topic experts are taking extremely seriously, with a new project in the USA part funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities. The project’s aim, in the words of theatre curator for the New York Public Library Doug Reside, “is to preserve not just the data but what did the data mean.” An answer on what the best way to achieve this will never be clear cut or straight forward but, with experts considering and contemplating, there’ll hopefully be more consideration in the future and more likelihood of records being accessible for future shows.