Let It Snow!
Hillow, George, Stage Directions
The art of creating all sorts of flakes in all sorts of different ways onstage.
Well-executed snow effects onstage are lovely, but they can be tricky to create. Many years ago during a summer stock season, I was involved in a production of Barefoot In The Park, which requires a brief snow effect just before the Act I curtain. A stage direction requires a bit of snow to fall through a broken skylight and onto one of the main character's head to underscore his haplessness. Of course, we had to make this happen on a summer stock budget, which means no money at all. Questions arose: How realistic should the effect be? On how large an area must it snow and, for how long does the effect have to last? Will snow accumulation be a benefit or a burden to strike? For Barefoot, we wanted a very realistic effect with flakes that would visibly accumulate. Thankfully only a tiny fraction of the stage needed to be covered for a few seconds. Our solution was to position 'a shelf over the skylight with a handful of plastic snow on it. On cue, a stagehand blew through a short length of garden hose that was pointed at the snow.
In most cases, however, the solution is rarely so simple. The following is a summary of techniques and devices used for creating snow. I'll divide these into three categories of snow: the old-fashioned three-dimensional kind (plastic and paper flakes; machine-produced liquid flakes; ,and projected effects.
Snow effects, as seen in The Nutcracker or La Boheme, have been featured on world stages probably since the proscenium theater with its magic-creating fly system became the standard architectural space some three centuries ago. With all the other wizardry that our technical theater ancestors were able to, achieve behind that arch, making it snow must have been child's play for them. The simple device they created is called the "snow cradle," also called a snow bag or trough, which makes snow gently fall over the entire stage. Designs vary, but essentially a snow cradle is a strip of fabric roughly three feet wide and as long as the stage is wide. It is rigged to sling along the lengths of two adjacent battens in the fly system. The fabric sags between the two battens to form along trough that contains the snow. To make it snow, the flyman raises and lowers one or both battens so that the snow inside the trough is agitated and falls through slits along one side. The slots are alternately higher and lower than the snow; when the slot is below the snow in the trough, it snows; when the slot is above the trough, it stops snowing. Raising and lowering the batten causes an agitation that keeps the snow sifting through the slots. As a results it snows silently all over the stage.
For a truly sumptuous, operatic snowfall, at least two cradles are necessary: one upstage and one downstage. The rest of the snow effect is up to the lighting designer. Please note that no snow effect will look great unless the snow falls through shafts of side, back or top tight. Frontal lighting is next to useless for a snow effect.
The standard type of flake for this device is shredded plastic, which is inexpensive and available from a variety of theatrical suppliers. However, John Harris of Virginia Scenic, and Portsmouth, VA production company that builds scenery nationwide for opera companies and industrial trade shows, prefers paper flakes. "I like the paper flakes better. I use lots of plastic because it's inexpensive, but the really incredible look comes from handcut tissue paper," he says. On a cautionary note. Harris adds that plastic is slicker and issues this caveat: If you're producing The Nutcracker and you're using the plastic flakes, the troughs should be located way up and downstage to create paper safe dance use lone, or plastic using the paper flakes that are not as slippery to dance on. Virginia Scenic will se, but the really incredible long snow cradle from handabout tissue paper," he, says. …