Monday, December 26, 2011

Stage Magic: A Thunder Machine

This is the first part of a series that explores medieval special effects as used in classical and medieval theater.  From the simple to the extreme, we will explore different examples of mechanical devices that could be used in our modern medieval marionette theater. 

Stage magic in a marionette theater can be done in several ways.  For those who are modernly inclined the use of various technological gadgetry, like stereo systems, iPods, and electric lights; sound effects can easily be used in almost any situation.

But what about our medieval project?  What if we wanted to keep a medieval feeling in our marionette performances but give the audience something more?  In order to ensure that we have special effects without high end technology, we have to do some research and find alternatives to what was used in the past.

Heron of Alexandria

Heron of Alexandria, known as "The Mechanical Man"

Around 100 BC, Heron of Alexandria was busy making inventions; a lot of them.  While much of his time was spent designing "miracles" for temples and weapons, Heron also developed mechanical stage apparatus which varied from the simple to the extravagant.  Luckily, his work has been preserved throughout the ages and we can look deeper into the mind of "the Mechanical Man".

The Thunder Machine

Looking at some of the works of Heron, we were able to find a Thunder Machine.  Thunder would often be used in classical Greek theater whenever a god appeared or left.  Heron's description of the device can be used to make on of our own, albeit a smaller scale.

But what did Heron's machine look like.  Luckily we have a reproduction of one of his drawings so we can look at it in further detail.

Reproduction drawing of Heron's device

Brass balls would be released from a hopper by a lever.  The balls would then roll down a series of shelves before finally resting on a tin sheet.  The sound would be a deep bass tones that would, effectively, sound very much like thunder.
Luckily there a few people who have reproduced this machine in modern times, and we can see examples of both Heron's work and the modern equivalent.

Smith College Museum of Ancient Inventions reproduces Heron's work
By contrast, a modern thunder machine; commonly used in modern theater

What Can It Be Used For?

Incorporating the Thunder Machine into our marionette theater could serve several purposes.  For example, the machine could be used for dark and stormy nights, the sound when the devil appears (or other nasty characters come on to the stage) or even for when a marionette casts a spell or breaks a curse.  There are many different ways that thunder could be appropriate for any number of marionette performances.

Final Thoughts

When The Batty Puppeteers creates this contraption, we need to be aware of the size issue.  Unfortunately, we have limited space when we perform our shows, so the Thunder Machine cannot take up a lot of space.  We will need to explore and experiment with different sizes to find the smallest size we can go while still getting the deep sound we desire.

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