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Candle, candle, burning bright

posted by Karen McKevitt on Fri, Apr 29, 2011
in Our shows , Prop shop

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When you come to Three Sisters, you may eventually catch a slight whiff of a particular scent in the air. Yes, that’s the scent of a candle lit by a real flame. These days, flames are often faked with electric light, but director Les Waters and the creative team wanted the authenticity of a real candle flame, often carried by Emily Kitchens, who plays Natasha. But what does it take to have fire on stage?

Emilywithcandle Emily Kitchens in Three Sisters. Photo courtesy of

Well, it usually depends on what fire effect the play demands, notes Berkeley Rep’s properties manager. For The Glass Menagerie in 2006, the props team had to cut the candles to size so they burned out by the end of a scene. This was no small feat as air currents and temperature in the theatre all affect the length of time it takes a candle to burn. But Three Sisters has no special burning-time requirement, so getting a flame on stage mostly came down to bureaucracy.

Whenever you use fire on stage you must get a permit from the city. Permits vary depending on the type of the fire effect. Pyrotechnics like in this season’s Great Game required a fire permit, hiring a specialist, and obtaining an additional license. But for Emily to carry a candle across stage in Three Sisters, we just needed to submit a ground plan that shows the movement and locations of the flame to the city of Berkeley and to pay a nominal fee once the city approved the plan. If the blocking changes -- as blocking often does in tech the week before previews -- an amendment needs to be filed.

Of course, additional safety procedures are in place. Even for an effect as small as a candle flame, someone is nearby (usually in the wings) with a fire extinguisher. If the matches are extinguished on stage, the props team puts gel activator in the ashtrays to ensure the match really goes out.

Sure, it’s easier to use a fake candle with an electric flame, but for me at least, the real candle enhances the setting and feel of the play. I may have only peripherally noticed both the organic movement of the real flame, as opposed to an oddly static electric flame, and the subtle scent of a real candle, but suddenly I felt as though I were really in that old house. After all, we often associate a place -- especially home -- with a specific scent, be it mom’s cooking or, in this case, the faint scent of wax and flame.


Nice article on a nice blog. Candles are burning bright tonight. Thanks a lot for sharing your thought.

soy candle | Tue, Jun 21, 2011

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