Wings have been used in play scenery for as far back as any record shows. A wing is a rectangular frame made of lightweight lumber, usually made of spruce or pine. In the beginning, the 1750s, wing construction was most likely made using down and glue or mortise and tenon joints. Linen canvas was used to cover flats and wings. To form masking and entrances wings were placed at proper intervals at the side of the stage. Grooves in the floor and the ceiling supported the wings. Scene changes were made by sliding one wing offstage and revealing another directly behind it.
Borders were made of painted strips of canvas. They were used to complete overhead masking. During scene changes borders were raised using pulleys that were suspended from the ceiling. When they were raised it would reveal the borders behind them.
Drops were also known as cloaths. They formed the upstage background. They were made of canvas on battens. To expose the next scene behind, they were rolled or tripped.
A well-equipped wing-and-drop stage would have five sets. They were:
- A fancy interior
- A plain interior
- A garden
- The woods
- A street scene
s with limited budgets would work with only three sets of wings. They would double wood wings for street and garden scenes.
Well-equipped stages had four sets of borders. These included:
- Ceiling for fancy interiors
- Ceiling for plain interiors
- Leaf borders
- Sky borders
s were so simple that they were made in full view of the audience by stagehand
s dressed as servants. Apparently furniture was kept to a bare minimum and was also slid on and off of the stage by these servants.
The beginning of constructed, rather than painted, scenery is generally credited to John Burke
American theatrical productions paid little attention to historical accuracy during the eighteenth century. Costumes were mostly either contemporary, traditional, or improvised from material at hand. Properties and furniture were used as found, crudely built of wood or papier-mâché, or painted on the backdrop. It is thought that the first attempt at historical accuracy was made for the 1809 revival of De Montfort in New York’s Park Theatre.
Right from the beginning of theatre in America and right through the first half of the nineteenth century, staging was basically wing-and-drop style. Stages, at least for the most part, followed a given pattern. A large apron extended into the auditorium. The stage was generally slanted toward the audience. On each side were proscenium doors. There were permanent grooves in the wing positions.
Things began to change with the opening of Booth’s Theatre in 1869. In this theatre, there were no conventional raking (slanting of the stage), grooves, proscenium doors, and apron. There was a stage house that was built to a seventy-six-foot height so that drops could be framed tautly and flown in and out of sight. Wings were still used most of the time, but were now individually braced and set at irregular intervals in accordance with the directors dictations, not the stages. Another new thing was the hydraulic-powered traps that were used to lower heavy pieces of scenery to the basement, where other scenery could be slid in place and raised to the stage level. It should be noted, that this was not the first theatre to introduce any of the elements, but was the first to include them all in a total disregard for traditional conventions in staging.
For whatever reason, there is practically no record of how American scenery was built prior to the twentieth century. One of the first books on the subject was written in 1916 by Arthur Edwin Krows. It was called Play Production in America. This book was a matter-of-fact telling of what appears to be commonly used, and well-established practices.
Virtually every town that had a population of more than a thousand has its own opera house or an equivalent by the beginning of the twentieth century, and there were more than five hundred separate companies touring the US. Many of the theaters maintained a supply of stock sets, scenery to be used over and over for many different purposes. These included wings, borders, and drops for familiar street scenes, a woods scene, plain and fancy interiors, and garden scenes.
Three-dimensional set pieces found their way into the permanent equipment of many theatres. These were most likely an evolvement of box sets. One of the most persistent three-dimensional pieces was known as the “center door fancy” which was the only piece to be suspended in the flies when it wasn’t in use.
Certain standardizations of construction methods came along as drama courses began being taught in colleges and universities. With the advent of motion pictures, theaters and theatre companies have dwindled, but are still in just about every major county.