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Welcome to Episode 194 of That Shakespeare Life, the podcast that goes behind the curtain and into the real life and history of William Shakespeare by interviewing the experts who know him best. 

When Shakespeare performed scenes like the ocean waves of the Tempest, the flying acrobatics of ghosts, or had his characters change location from the streets of verona to the castles of Kings of England, there were technologies, machines, and specialty techniques used in the 16th century to accomplish these feats of nature and fantastic visual effects on stage. 

Our guest this week is an expert in early modern performance illusions and the machines used to create them. We are delighted to welcome Frank Mohler, professor emeritus of the Department of Theater and Dance at Appalachian State University. He joins us today to share the history of 16th century flying machines, set changes, trap doors, and even elevators that were used in Shakespeare’s lifetime. 

Join the conversation below.

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Dr. Frank Mohler began at The Ohio State University in Engineering Physics, but graduated with a B.A. in theatre, a M. A. in theatrical design and a Phd. in theatre history. Over his career, Dr. Mohler created more than 125 set designs and 170 lighting designs, in addition to over 20 publications and 50 invited lectures or papers. He has also been involved in theatre production as an actor, fight arranger and in theatre management. Mohler has been an active member in a number of professional organizations including the United States Institute for Theatre Technology and the Southeastern Theatre Conference, the largest comprehensive theatre organization in the world, which he served as president. Mohler has received many grants and awards throughout his career for teaching, scholarship/creative activity and service including a University of North Carolina Board of Governor’s Excellence in Teaching Award and the Suzanne Davis Award for Service to Theatre in the South.

In this episode, I’ll be asking Frank Mohler about :

  • Frank writes for an article on the Appalachian State University website that we will link to in the show notes for today that “Sabbattini described a [flying machine] that allowed a person to be lowered to the stage without using a cloud so that he may immediately walk about and dance.” The technology for this device was very crude compared to the effects that followed a few years later.” Frank, what was the method of flying on stage that incorporated a cloud? 
  • Sabbatini was in Italy, so were his methods being applied by someone like Shakespeare? 
  • Would lightning have also been artificially created on stage for Shakespeare’s lifetime?  

… and more!

Here’s what’s available for this episode:

  • Sketch of Sabattini’s Scenic Stage Reconstruction: Illustration provided by Frank Mohler
  • Portrait of John Lowin: Engraving by Thomas Holloway after a painting at the Ashmolean Museum, potentially depicting the first actor to play Shakespeare’s Henry VIII
  • The Great Picture, depicts Lady Anne as a child and an old woman, with family
  • Sketch of Italian Renaissance Theater: Features the actor lift discussed by Dr. Mohler, courtesy of Frank Mohler
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Books & Resources Frank Mohler Recommends

The Renaissance Stage, edited by Bernard Hewitt. This book consists of English translations of
works by Sebastiano Serlio, Nicola Sabbattini, and Josef Furttenbach.

The Theatres of Inigo Jones by John Orrell. The book describes the indoor stages designed by
Inigo Jones and his assistant John Webb. It discusses some illusionistic productions at the
Stuart court.

The Development of the English Playhouse by Richard Leacroft. It has many drawings and
photos of English playhouses over the ages including influences from the continent.
Spectacle.appstate.edu. A website devoted to the study of Renaissance and Baroque theatrical
spectacle. It includes computer animations of spectacular theatre devices.

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