The design and operation of an often complex array of theatre lights has a great impact on how the audience experiences a live show. A combination of fixed and moving lights, directed at the stage from different angles, must effectively light the set to create the intended ambience as well as lighting the actors to focus audience attention as the director or choreographer intends.
This spotlight would have played an important role in various productions, providing brighter illumination of selected actors and following them as they moved about the stage. It would have been used by skilled operators, who had to manage its many functions simultaneously.
The carbon arc light was the first type of electric lamp; it was very bright and so was used mainly for lighting public spaces. It also found niche applications such as lighthouses and blueprint machines; for stage lighting, it began to replace dim oil and gas lights and bright but dangerous limelight in the late 1870s. In the 1950s, the carbon arc spotlight began to be superseded by safer and more convenient xenon arc lights.
Most likely, this spotlight was used in several venues during its working life. As a high-cost item that was not in constant use at any one venue, it could have been hired out or sold on from owner to owner to reduce the capital outlay needed for stage shows, which are often risky ventures.
The spotlight represents certain stages in the history of Sydney's Capitol Theatre. A theatre first opened on its Haymarket site in 1916; named the Hippodrome, it featured a tank for aquatic shows that could be covered by a hydraulically-operated platform when a regular stage show was planned. The building was owned by Sydney City Council and leased at first to Wirth Bros Circus, which could not run it profitably and had it converted to an 'atmospheric theatre'. Thus the Capitol Theatre came into being in 1928, showing movies supplemented by live acts; it featured elaborate decoration and lighting that created the effect of a Florentine garden.
The theatre's fortunes were affected by the Great Depression. The live acts disappeared from its programs, and it showed films sporadically. In 1945 some of its decorative features were removed, and more were stripped out in 1972, when the theatre was made ready for the successful live show Jesus Christ Superstar. The theatre again languished in the 1980s and was in danger of being demolished, but public opinion, influenced by the recent loss of the Regent Theatre, turned in favour of saving it. Council agreed and approved its restoration, this time to a lyric theatre. Many elements of the Florentine garden were recreated, and it was at this time that the spotlight was offered to the Museum, a fitting reminder of the importance of lighting in creating the magic of the theatre.
Strand "Sunspot" mirror arc lantern specification, Strand Electric, undated.
Strand Archive website.
J S Kerr, 'The Haymarket and the Capitol', National Trust, NSW, 1990.
L Murray, 'The Capitol Theatre restoration', City of Sydney , 2003.
Curator, Engineering and Design,