Typically, the front curtain is opened at the beginning of a performance to reveal the stage set and closed during intermissions and at the end of a performance. The most common material for the front curtain is a heavy velour material, often with pleated fullness sewn into the fabric to create a more opulent appearance.:49
There are several types of house curtains, which vary in construction, operation, and cost. Depending on a curtain's type, its fabric may be flat or pleated, and it may drape, hang, or do both. Some types open by rising into the fly space above the stage; other types travel horizontally, or travel vertically but gather near the proscenium top and thus do not require a fly space. Some require mechanical power to operate whereas others may be operated by a person, by pulling an operating line (a rope) or directly pulling the curtains.
The Austrian curtain or Austrian drape, also called a puff curtain, has multiple vertical and usually nylon lines distributed evenly across the length of the fabric (often a thin satin, charmeuse, or chiffon material that bunches up well). Each of these lines runs through a pulley at the top of the curtain and then over to a head block. From there, they each lead and down to a mechanical winch necessary to raise the curtain which is typically much too heavy for one person to raise. As the winch turns and curtain rises, it is collected in a series of swags accentuated by horizontal pleats called festoons sown into the curtain from top to bottom. In this sense, it has both vertical and horizontal fullness. Austrian curtains reached their height of popularity in the mid twentieth century. They are visually considered very aesthetic, require little fly space overhead, and are relatively simple to operate as long as the winch can bear the load. However, they are very complex to rig and are usually the most expensive kind of curtain to construct.:52
A variation on the Austrian is the waterfall curtain: in this version, instead of horizontal festoons, the curtain has vertical pleats like a traditional theater curtain, but it still gathers from the bottom in a number of swags. The waterfall has a pipe batten along the bottom edge to ensure the lines rise evenly.
A brail[nb 1] curtain or drape appears as a pleated panel much like a traveler curtain when in the lowered position. It is rigged, however, as an Austrian curtain: the multiple lines leading through rings sewn to along the seams on the back side of the curtain cause the fabric to gather along the bottom in swags as the curtain is raised. It has a faster action than a traveler curtain, and like an Austrian it requires little fly space.
An olio (or oleo [nb 2]) drop, also called an olio curtain, roll drop, or simply an olio (though never an olio drape), consists of a single large canvas called a drop, which is attached at the bottom to a long rigid tube. The canvas is often decorated with a mural. Olio curtains were popular in vaudeville theatre as they require a minimum of overhead space, were simple to construct, and in most cases could be operated by a single person.
Each end of the rigid tube of the drop has a single coil of rope called an "operating line" wrapped around it. One end of each operating line is secured to the fly space. The line descends from the fly space and loops around the tube once, then rises back up to the fly space and through a pulley. The other end of the line attaches to a counterbalance in the form of sandbags before running back down to the stage floor. When the two lines are pulled, the sandbags descend in unison, causing the tube to rotate and rise, thereby rolling up the canvas onto the tube and revealing the stage.
An olio requires a sturdy roll tube to prevent sagging. The larger the tube diameter, the more readily it will descend when the ropes are loosened.:52
The most common type of front curtain is called a draw curtain, traveler curtain, bi-parting curtain, or just traveler. Traveler curtains remain at a fixed elevation and open and close horizontally, breaking in the middle, and consequently require a minimum of fly space. They always hang freely and therefore are seldom referred to as "drapes". The curtains are typically made of velvet and decorated with a series of vertical box pleats along the top edge. They are the least costly kind of theater curtain to construct and are relatively simple to operate.
The tableau, tab, or tabbed curtain, also called opera drapes, though iconic of the theater setting, is the rarest of curtains to actually be employed on the stage. It consists of two overlapping panels (often but not always pleated) secured along the top to a batten, with the lower onstage corners or center points of the panel edges attached to lines or cables. These lines run through series of rings behind each curtain diagonally, and then through pulleys in the batten and down to the floor. When the cord is pulled, the fabric is lifted diagonally up and out, away from the center. In this position, it does not fully clear the stage, instead creating a frilled tent-like viewing frame for the performance– it is because of this tendency to limit the audience's view that it is rarely used except in very small venues. However, as the top of the curtain never moves, it requires no track (like a traveler curtain) and as the curtain itself is never actually raised, neither does it require any sandbag counterweights (like an oleo or an Austrian).
The Venetian curtain, also known as a profile or contour curtain, has multiple vertical lines distributed across the length of the single panel of fabric, which is usually made with as much as 200% fullness and must be thin and soft so it gathers well. The curtain is opened by pulling on the lines. Each line is independently operated, making it possible to control the shape and height of curtain openings. This type of curtain is typically the most difficult type to operate because of the many independent lines.
A wipe curtain, named after the film editing technique called a wipe, is a single large curtain that is rigged in a manner similar to traveler curtains. Unlike travelers, which consist of two curtains that part at center stage, a wipe opens from the left or right side of the proscenium and travels horizontally across the entire stage.
In some instances of both historical and modern theatres and opera houses, pictures or murals have been printed onto the front curtain, typically to accentuate or complement the architecture or stylistic theme of the theatre. Graphics projected with gobos may create a similar effect, or depict images relevant to the production. Stage lighting instruments may project coloured washes onto the front curtain. These washes help accentuate the front curtain. The instruments that project the wash are known as "curtain warmers."
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- This is also frequently spelled "braille" and "braile" without discrimination, though "brail" is the most common spelling.
- The spelling of the word olio versus oleo is disputed and vague, and is interchangeable– they are both pronounced the same.
- Anderson, Robert (1980). Theatre Talk: An Illustrated Dictionary of Theatre Terms and Definitions. Pioneer Drama Service. p. 38.
- Friedman, Sally (1994). Backstage Handbook: an illustrated almanac of technical information. Broadway Press. ISBN 0-911747-29-X.
- Holloway, John (2010). Illustrated Theatre Production Guide (Second ed.). Burlington, MA: Elsevier. ISBN 978-0-240-81204-5.
- I. Weiss. "I. Weiss Portfolio, Balboa Theatre - San Diego".