Life By Candlelight

— 'We'd do backflips to recreate that feeling," says lighting designer Eric Lotze, as we head upstairs at the Whaley House, "but you can't have it onstage."

We'd just left the dining room at the Old Town mansion, where a meal would have been a mini-light show: candles and kerosene lamps strobing lucent pulses onto the silverware, the gold fleur de lis-patterned wallpaper, the shiny grainwork on doors and molding.

"Any actual flame enlivens. But if all the instruments in that room were lit, the walls would breathe light.

"But we can't in theater for several reasons, a tremendous fire hazard, for one. There are laws against an open flame onstage. We can use some candles and cigarette lighters, and that's about it. Also, you don't want actors working with fire -- for their safety. Things happen you can't anticipate. But oh, if we could!"

In 2005, Lotze came close. For Cygnet Theatre's Little Foxes, he devised numerous gaslight effects. At the beginning and the finale he had over 20 lights flickering at once, each set three points below and three above its average level, and all running in random sequences. The stage walls wavered and actors shimmered as if photographed by legions of paparazzi, or sunlit underwater. The San Diego Theater Critics Circle gave Lotze the 2005 Craig Noel Award for outstanding design.

I've always wanted to have local theater artists look at examples of their craft in San Diego at large. Lotze met me at the Whaley House, at the corner of San Diego Avenue and Harney Street, to talk about 19th-Century lighting. We accepted that most furnishings and fixtures weren't original to the house but were from the period, 1868-1871. Instead of worrying about accuracy, we made subjective speculations about the theatricality of the lighting, moods and atmospheres, and the differences between then and now. In last week's column, we toured the downstairs of the two-story brick mansion that celebrated its 150th birthday in June.

The Master Bedroom To the right of the stairs, the largest of the four bedrooms: adjacent mirrors stand like sentinels, or inquisitors, overlooking an ominous black fireplace, marbletop dresser, walnut bed and ornate headboard (with bas relief bat wings?), and blue, hand-woven coverlet. Except for a round milk-glass lamp that softens shadows and casts no hard lines, the room has an almost oppressive stillness, as if hiding, or lying in wait for someone.

"Whoa," says Lotze stopping cold. "I've seen happier morgues. The window faces east, so they'd get some midmorning light, but that's about it. Mostly gloom. They probably didn't spend much time here.

"But then again," he says, peering through a glass partition that makes the coffee-colored furnishings float like a mirage behind our reflections, "they were used to darkness. In fact, not much would have happened after sundown, and they got up before sunrise to save on fuel."

I wonder how the Whaleys -- and Old Town's Estudillos, Carrillos, and Bandinis -- would react to today's electrically lit San Diego: so much brightness, plus the 24-hour river of head- and taillights up and down I-5 and I-8, literally crisscrossing near their doorstep. They would adjust, as we'd have to 150 years from now. But for a while the difference, a day inside of night, could violate their sense of natural order, possibly make them feel spooky -- or its opposite: too exposed.

Upstairs Rear Bedroom Southeast corner, the sun now down. To my eye, just another dark bedroom, for children or guests. Note the white chamber pot, the Whaleys' indoor toilet (the master bedroom's has a cover on it). Primitive. I'm ready to move on.

"I don't think overhead lamps put off that much light," says Lotze. "Use only one as a source in theater and the stage'd look odd, underlit. The wallpaper, all that period detail, would feel too busy. You'd probably have to fake it with added instruments.

"But look at this," he says, pointing to a shin-high kerosene lamp on a stand, "how it throws long shadows on the wall -- and how they seem to grow upward."

They do, as if reaching for something, or trying to break away.

"The more ornate the object," says Lotze, "like that pointed bedpost, the freakier the shadow it projects."

Expert eyes transformed a room I was ready to dismiss. Suddenly doubles appeared: the stationary forms plus their shady second selves lurking behind. A mirror duplicated the doubling in reverse. And the glass chimney of a lamp sprayed creamy, yellow-rose streaks across the ceiling, like cirrus clouds at sunset.

"I'm always amazed how light can totally change the character of a room," Lotze says, as we move down the hall. "Ditto," I mumble (adding to myself: and how much expert eyes have to teach).

We crept past a second children's bedroom, not because we're superstitious and the broken mirror on the dresser gave us a jolt -- okay, maybe a tad -- but because we were in a hurry to see what we'd heard so much about.

On November 1, 1868, Thomas Whaley rented his corral and the second floor of the house to Thomas W. Tanner for $20 in gold coin. Tanner built an outside stairway, removed a second-floor wall, and converted the front bedroom into a theater.

What kind's an open question: some say two rooms combined, with a platform at one end; others, some sort of proscenium stage.

Tanner's Troupe performed its first "exhibition" December 2, 1868, at 8:00 p.m. Tickets cost 50 cents (reserved seats, with good sightlines, 75). The company had four members: Tanner, his daughter Soledad, a contortionist, and a banjo player. According to a handout, they performed "moral, chaste, and versatile entertainment," including "drama, farce, comedy, singing, and dancing." An estimated 150 people attended the opening. They sat on benches and, since the smallish space would sardine that multitude, many probably stood on the balcony outside, peering through open windows and lubricating themselves against the winter chill.

Families had done theatricals in Old Town since the 1830s. The mission, its roof repaired and a second story added, hosted amateur productions in the 1850s produced (and possibly directed) by Maria Amparo Ruiz de Burton and performed by her husband Henry's soldiers. But the Tanner Troupe may have been the first professional company in San Diego. They lasted only two performances, however. Tanner died 17 days after opening night.

Victorian theaters concealed the lighting. The original Whaley stage, if just two rooms and a platform, would have lacked mystery, since there are few places to hide the illusion-weavers. "Light was probably ambient," says Lotze, "just candles on stands, lamps overhead, like you'd see at a lecture, and not much magic beyond what the performers could inspire."

The theater Lotze and I walk into isn't Tanner's, but it's a gem: a 19th-century raked proscenium stage in miniature. The stagehouse, 9 feet across and 15 deep, has three sets of wings; a painted backdrop of a sylvan scene; a brownish-gold, damask-like curtain; and an organ stage right. Above two dozen crescent-armed captain's chairs, a hooded lamp has a large bowl, meant to burn a long while.

The most authentic feature: the rough-planked floor recalls the old theater expression "trod the boards" and could resemble what 19th-century actors performed on when working in the hinterlands.

If this were the Whaleys' theater, I ask Lotze, would you want to light it?

"You kiddin'? It'd be a blast! But you'd have to ditch your whole bag of tricks.

"To evoke the period, there'd be nothing above the stage. They'd have footlights with tin reflectors, though many designers of the time rejected them because they didn't shape faces well. You got mostly bright chins.

"They hid their light sources, so you'd have ladders of candles or lamps behind the wings, plus a row across the top and gaslights going up each wall inside the proscenium."

Before gaslight, theaters were candle- and torchlit. Both required maintenance: time out to trim wicks, replace spent stubs, and empty pools of wax and tallow grease. Many believe that theaters invented intermissions to perform these tasks.

"We've got a drawback," says Lotze. "Big 19th-century stages could roll wing-ladders back and forth to make new atmospheres. But even with filtered lamps and candles they couldn't change the picture that much. And here, since backstage's so small, you could change it even less. The lighting would be the same for everything they did: readings, political debates, Shakespeare. Actually, the style resembles today's big musicals.

"These things change, but right now the trend has everything coming into focus downstage center: the star's stand-and-deliver position. Musicals have countless individual cues, but the hot spot remains front and center, at least for now. In Victorian times, if you wanted shading or darkness, you had actors go back or to the sides."

As Lotze speaks, two actors turn from the footlights and walk toward the rear of the small Whaley stage. Boots scrape the floor, full dresses rustle, and a drunk tosses an empty onto San Diego Avenue, just missing horses hitched to posts and a two-mule buckboard slogging by in the mud. A wreath of candle and cigar smoke crowns the overhead lamp. The actors stop upstage, face each other. Benches creak as people lean forward, eager not to miss a word.

"...go back or to the sides," Lotze continues. "That's where the mystery was 150 years ago, and probably from the beginning. David Hays says lighting design may have started when cavemen first moved away from the campfire for scary effects.

"You see something?"

Naw. Just ghosts.

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