A theatrical technique that allows the puppeteer to make certain objects and characters or puppets appear before the public whilst at the same time hiding others and themselves. Black/black light theatre (sometimes called “curtain of light”) is derived from the “black cabinet”, an illusion designed to take advantage of imperfections in the human eye by producing an optical trick that renders black materials indistinguishable from a black backdrop. Such cabinets in the West were popular in the 19th century and were used by spirit mediums, purportedly allowing spirits to appear and jewels and other objects to seem to appear from nowhere.
Progress in electric lighting methods opened up new, exciting possibilities for this illusion in the world of entertainment, leading the French puppeteer and illusionist Dicksonn (whose real name is Alfred de Saint-Genois) to expand the principle of the “black cabinet” to a much larger scale, that of the full theatrical stage in the Théâtre Robert-Houdin. It must be remembered that the American dancer Loïe Fuller (1862-1928), famous for her vaporous veiled entrances, was the first to dance on a glass stage electrically lighted from beneath and to use luminous projections to give the impression of dancing in a much larger space.
Elsewhere, in the 1920s, Konstantin Stanislavski was looking for a new path for his theatrical work. By chance, a piece of black velvet had been put on the back of a chair placed in front of a “leg” (a type of stage curtain) of the same fabric. The top of the chair “disappeared”, leaving only the bottom of it, resembling a stool. Thus, by chance, he rediscovered the magicians’ black cabinet. He wrote: “Finding the background that would eliminate depth and offer …a uniform black surface, no longer in three but two dimensions: the floor of the stage, flats covered in black velvet that can be confused with the far wall that is equally covered in black velvet; the depth of the stage disappears and the entire frame of the stage would open itself to darkness. One could, on such a background, trace as if on a sheet of black paper white lines or diverse colours, blotches, drawings that could exist alone, in their own right, and for themselves, in complete independence, in the enormous cage of the black stage.” (Konstantin Stanislavski, My Life in Art).
It was in 1951 that French puppeteer Georges Lafaye (1915-1988) reinvented black theatre through new experiments designed to test its dramatic potential. He directed several erotic plays of a top hat and a feather boa (John et Marsha, 1952); a newspaper that, folding and multiplying, mimed a crime of passion whilst the reader disappeared into the shadows (Fait divers News Item, 1953); an abstract game between a dot and a line (Point à la ligne Full Stop); a Strip-tease without human presence, where only the clothes appeared and disappeared; and more. Shows such as Sonate à Jérusalem, La Vigne de Nabot (Naboth’s Vineyard), Jeux d’ombres (Shadow Games) combined automatic projections onto transparent black and remote-controlled shapes. With his creative genius, Georges Lafaye pioneered the possibilities presented by black (or black light theatre), leaving few new dramatic and aesthetic paths for his successors to discover. The technique spread notably in Czechoslovakia following an encounter with Yves Joly. The first to employ this technique in that country (in 1957) were the puppeteers of the troupe Salamandr, attached at the time to the Divadlo Spejbla a Hurvínka (Spejbl and Hurvínek Theatre). This experiment inspired numerous Czech artists (Jiří Srnec, the Lameks, Naia Munzarová, Ivan Kraus, Jiří Procházka, among others) in the 1960s.
The scenic devices used for black/black light theatre consists of draping the entire stage with black covering. The light is managed from downstage and equipped with parallel beam projectors, at the least in both wings (stage left and stage right) hidden from public view by the proscenium. Lighting assists. Special projectors with “optical lenses” (French: “nez optiques”) are orientated in order to send a narrow beam or curtain of light that acts as puppet playing space. The manipulators, dressed, gloved and hooded entirely in black, are invisible, disappearing into the black background. The puppeteers are only revealed when they are in front of the ray of light. Whilst this device does not allow one to play with much depth, it does facilitate manipulation using the entire height of the stage. To do this, the puppets can be equipped with long rods if needed to hold them at a height, and the stage furnished with other black objects as needed for mounting or using the space.
The puppets must be operated from behind, technically close to Bunraku puppets. They can also be manipulated with the help of horizontal rods. The puppets of Alain Duverne for the French television show Les Guignols de l’info (Puppets of Info) broadcast on Canal+ use the technique of black light theatre for scenes for removing the puppeteers within the camera frame. In Métamorphoses, a black light theatre show by Philippe Genty, the ostrich ballet put eleven birds on stage. The puppeteer’s arm, inside a sleeve, acted as a neck. The lower part of the neck was adorned with a boa ruff, and it ended with a beak and two large eyes placed above, crowned with a feather headpiece. The puppeteer’s hand was placed inside the head and animated the beak. Two small, thin legs, manipulated with horizontal rods, completed these droll creatures. The manipulation was perfectly synchronized. At the Charleville-Mézières festival of 1979, the British Barry Smith presented Pierrot in Five Masks, manipulated by three black-clad puppeteers who were almost camouflaged by the lighting.
Another form of spectacle, related to “black light theatre” is played with the same manipulation techniques, using light invisible to the naked eye and only revealed by the scenic devices being treated with special paints that react to the ultra violet rays emitted by the light tube.
In Prague today there are nine theatres doing what is called “black theatre” or “black light theatre”. They are Laterna Magika, National Black Light Theatre, Archa Theatre, Divaldo Palace, Reduta Theatre, Ta Fantastika, Divaldo Metro-Frantisek Kratochvil (founded in 1975), Black Light Theatre Wow Show, and Image Theatre. The Czechs began performing this technique in 1961. Some shows involve puppets and animated objects, while other performances are more like dance and mime shows. These “black light theatre” shows are popular with tourists and the quality of the experience varies from theatre to theatre. In the United States, the company Ta Fantastika was founded by Czechs who eventually returned to Prague with their company. The company performed at a Puppeteers of America festival in Claremont, California, in 1985, and Prague has been a centre for puppeteers to learn this technique over the last fifty years.