A revolving stage is a mechanically controlled platform within a theatre that can be rotated in order to speed up the changing of a scene within a show. A fully revolving set was an innovation constructed by the hydraulics engineer Tommaso Francini for an elaborately produced pageant, Le ballet de la délivrance de Renaud, which was presented for Marie de Medici in January 1617 at the Palais du Louvre and noted with admiration by contemporaries.
Kabuki Theatre Development
The first major use of revolving stages began in Japan during Kabuki performances. In the 1750s, Namiki Shōzō, previously just known for his work as a theatrical dramatist in Japan, introduced a stage design know as a “mawari butai.” The literal English translation is “revolving stage”; however, the denotation is quite different from the modern understanding of the word. Initially, the stages were wheeled circular platforms that were fixed on a stage and turned manually. A wall running through the diameter of the circle allowed a quick reveal of other Kabuki performers and chanters. Although the platform did indeed revolve, the problems of visual scenic changers still hindered the spectacle. Through trial and error methods involving the issues still at hand in the Kabuki theatre, the platform eventually became flush with the immobile sections of the stage. This in-turn placed the mechanism below the stage and hid the manual labor. After this downward shift, the manual technology only increased. One circle, in the 1820s in Japan, was placed inside another circle and was used for various transitions. Some special effects included one boat passing another by the two rings turning against each other. This was just an example of many tricks that the Kabuki theatre developed. Revolving stages were a huge step towards the stylized form Kabuki theatre is known for today. They made it possible to implore supernatural transformations and come up with creative entrances and exits. Modern Kabuki theatre companies still employ a rotating stage but in a much smaller capacity. For the most part, the wall on the circle is flush with the wall behind the chanters, and a rotation is used to allow new head chanters to be revealed seamlessly.
Early Western Development
The very first revolving stage in the western world was built by Karl Lautenschläger (1843–1906) in 1896 in Munich, Germany. Lautenschläger studied under Carl Brandt at the court theatre in Darmstadt from there he went to Munich, where he worked for 22 years and became the head machinist at the Royal theatre. He is known for his revolving stage, sometimes called the Lautenschläger stage, which later acquired the legacy of being called the new Shakespeare stage. The stage was installed at the Residenz Theatre for a performance of Don Giovanni, an opera by Wolfgang Mozart. The revolve at the Residenz Theatre was fifty feet in diameter and was raised slightly off of the regular stage floor. With the proscenium a little less than a fourth of the revolve was visible to the audience. Lautenschläger used electricity to power the turntable, with the table turning on rollers, which run on a circular track. This particular revolve was split into quarter sections and allowed four scenes to be set at the top of the show. The rotating stage allowed for depth, like landscapes with views in the distance and more three-dimensional set in front of the walls of the revolve.
For theatres like the Dresden, that did not have an underside to their stage, each sector of the revolve would have “wo wheels operating directly on the stage floor and propelled by a small motor fixed to the underside of the turntable. Some revolves had only two separate sections while some had as many as seven. Not all sections had to be split into equal proportions. Sections could be very shallow or very deep according to what the scene required. Rectangle sections were even used many times for indoor scenes. Some revolves had sections that connected to each other to give the appearance of travel and help give the set perspective. Eventually traps, elevators and rotating stages combined in some theatres. The individual sections of the turntable could be lowered and raised to and from the underneath the stage to make scene changes even more efficient.
In 1889 the Munich court theatre hired Lautenschläger to design a stage that was more efficient for Shakespeare productions. His rotating stage seemed to be the perfect solution to Shakespeare. Other theatres and other companies performing Shakespeare quickly began to use the rotating stage and it started to become known as the new Shakespeare stage. This was probably the biggest role for the rotating stage in its history.
Pros of Early Western Designs
- As a designer lays out the taverns, houses, and cobblestone streets to have sectioned off on the circular set, he could imagine an actor walking from one location to the next as a part of the scene. Some directors even employed the rotation of the stage with a purposeful view from the audience allowing them to see the characters walk from one setting to the next.
- The sectioned design created interesting wall structures to build usually costly sets on. The structure provided for much more interesting scenic designs, especially when concerning the outdoor hills and mountains. The angled frames of the stage dividers were often used to support interesting tree structures or tall rolling hills.
- Time was the biggest problem solved by the revolving stage. There was a particular problem with Shakespearean plays that required so many changes of scenery that some runs were as long as one could imagine a 20-act play would be. The scene changes were a fraction of the length before. It only took the time to rotate a 1/4 or even a 1/6 way around the circular stage.
Cons of Early Western Design
- Angled walls often provided a problem. It was impossible, as a scenic designer, to incorporate a horizon of anything on stage because there was no such back wall to support the perspective of it.
- The height of certain sets in certain sections proved to be an issue as well. When large buildings or tall constructions of the inside of a house were built in one section, they generally exceeded the length of the framing walls. When the stage spun, the audience could then see the buildings in other scenes. This would offset other places such as the inside of a house or a wide-open field.
- The vibrations from the early designs of the mechanical revolving stage were off-putting in an auditorium.
Today rotating stages are still in use. ''Les Misérables'' is probably one of the most notable modern uses of a rotating stage. It was recorded to have made sixty-three rotations each performance during its original run in London. It is common practice to reverse the rotation of a rotating stage as frequently as possible to prevent cables from becoming twisted, and eventually breaking.
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