Over the course of history the church has provided the genesis of many theatrical forms. The worship of Dionysus was introduced into Greece sometime during the 13th Century B.C. The Greeks honored their gods with festivals during which plays by Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides were performed. The Dark Ages, in Europe, saw the near elimination of theater. The church may be credited with the revival of drama during the middle ages. Although the importance of the Mass discouraged innovation, other services were more amenable to the introduction of drama. The service of the Hours often included playlets. Liturgical dramas described events from the bible and were performed inside the church. Passion plays, due to their scope, were performed outside the church, but remained a church sponsored activity.
The development of the theater from the 16th Century into the 20th saw drama removed from the church and relocated into theaters, auditoriums and opera houses. The off-Broadway and off-off-Broadway movement of the 1950’s and 1960’s encouraged theatrical productions in both theatrical and non-theatrical spaces and returned theatrical performances to churches. Since then the church has been home to community theater productions, youth plays and religious productions celebrating holidays and other significant yearly events.
The performance of theatrical productions has also influenced church architecture. The Jesus Christ Church of Latter Day Saints, in Salt Lake City, UT, has created one of the largest places of worship in the world. Seating 21,000, it includes complete facilities for lighting, rigging, sound, television broadcast and moveable seating. It is used to seat those who attend the Church’s General Conferences, which are held twice a year, in October and April. At other times of the year, the auditorium can be reconfigured to host pageants, concerts, special events, and music performances. This variety of uses is becoming more and more common in existing and new places of worship.
While the Church of Latter Day Saints is atypical in the sophistication of its lighting system, it must solve the same basic problem as other churches that wish to include theatrical presentations as part of their ministry- – how to accommodate the different tasks required of the lighting system in a seamless and easy to understand manner. Day-to-day tasks may include: Mass, services, community service (i.e. feeding the homeless,) weddings, musical performances and meetings. Theatrical presentations may occur as stand-alone events or be incorporated into a service. In either case both architectural and theatrical lighting must be employed.
As recently as 15-20 years ago, architectural and theatrical lighting systems had discrete fixtures and control systems that could not be combined. A specific choice had to be made as to how much of what kind of lighting would be installed. Lighting for day-to-day tasks was handled with permanently installed and focused fixtures that were controlled by switches or local dimmers. Lighting for theatrical presentations was usually ad hoc using rented stage lighting fixtures and dimmers. Most likely many readers will have encountered this scenario and we will not dwell upon it here.
Today, the distinction between architectural and stage lighting fixtures and control has blurred considerably. New places of worship now typically include centrally located theatrical dimmers to control both fixed and portable lighting fixtures located inside and outside. Often moving light fixtures, with diacroic filters, are incorporated allowing one fixture to serve different uses with infinitely variable colors. Ethernet networks allow flexibility and possibilities for system expansion. Systems such as ETC’s Unison and Strand Lighting’s Premier allow programmed presets for day-to-day tasks without requiring access to the main control console. A time clock function allows different lighting presets to be activated automatically for interior and exterior lighting. ETC, Strand and other manufacturer’s consoles are fully integrated and allow simultaneous control of focusable and fixed lighting fixtures.
A retrofit of your lighting system is feasible as a stand-alone item or as part of a larger renovation. Either way, a similar approach should be taken to ensure an appropriate design and installation.
Justify the Need
Before your church and congregation will commit to any capital project, they will have to be convinced of its need and value. This will require that you keep records and try to quantify the need (i.e. what can’t you do now that you would like to do.) A recent article in the March/April issue of Church Production discusses this in great detail.
Decide What You Want Your System to Do
There is a great deal of information available and many new and interesting toys. It is easy to miss the forest for the trees. Look at your current system and how it is used. What works and what doesn’t? What new demands can you see in the immediate future and beyond ? Are there any safety concerns? Organize this information and write it down- don’t keep it in your head.
It is the lucky techie who gets everything they want – – and I have never met any lucky ones. Develop a budget based on the goals you wish to achieve. Remember to leave some wiggle room in your budget; it is almost impossible to get more money, but you will certainly be asked to spend less.
Take Advantage of Available Help
While most techies and designers have experience in the operation and maintenance of a lighting system, very few have ever designed one. There is more to it than just selecting the equipment. You will be working with architects, engineers and contractors who may have more or less experience than you. If possible, talk with the staff of other churches that have completed similar projects to yours. Surf the web and visit the library. Read publications such as this one. Seek help from members of the congregation. The more you know, the better you will be able to determine and articulate your needs, especially if the project budget is not sufficient.
For small straight forward projects, with an identified system brand, a manufacturer’s dealer or representative can assist you. For a medium project without too many bells and whistles, a systems integrator can be very helpful. These firms will not only supply equipment, but will also design the control network and ensure that all required components are included. They have experience working with engineers and contractors and will provide them with the necessary information during installation and testing of the system. They can also offer warranty services.
For large projects, a theater consultant and architectural lighting consultant should be engaged. These consultants work with lighting control systems every day and will be able to help distill your ideas and to offer suggestions. As well, they are also fluent in the design and construction process and can act as your advocate for what can be a multi-year process.
Remember, it is your lighting system and your church. You will be living with the decisions you make for many years. If there are no consultants involved, then you will be the only person who understands your needs. If you do not participate, you will likely be disappointed. Consultants only want to design a system that fits your unique needs and will welcome your input. If you do not provide it, they will do their professional best, but that will not ensure that you get what you want.