Special Effects

So What is Special?

In theatre terms a special effect can be almost anything that is designed to produce the effect of something else. A lot of effort will be made to make the scenery and costumes appear genuine but the illusion is not complete unless the stage has the right atmosphere. For example, a few lights would produce the effect of light from an open fireplace, not a real fire.

Sound Effects

Probably one of the most noticeable effects when it goes wrong on stage is a sound effect. A character may turn on a radio to hear no sound, waiting to say their line referring to the music that is supposed to be playing. If the music is heard then it is probably too loud for the actor to be heard over. This difficulty can only be avoided by experiment with the equipment and lots of practice.

Most sound effects may need to be pre-recorded on tape but sometimes a live effect is more effective and easier to produce on cue. Door bells, ringing telephones and similar domestic sounds usually sound odd when pre-recorded. Use a real doorbell, you could even incorporate it in the set. Telephones are especially prone to mishaps when the ringing is not genuine. Trying to co-ordinate picking up the handset with the end of the effect is almost impossible. A real telephone is the best answer, with a small ringing converter bought, made or hired to make it ring.

Always be aware that as with any other effect it is the audience that we are trying to impress, so make sure that they benefit from the effect rather than the actors. If you are supposed to be able to hear distant music or thunder it may not be necessary for the actors to hear it, as long as they are confident the effect will play at the right time, and at the right volume for them to be heard over!

Gun shots are another really awkward sound effect to get right. Ideally you will have a gun that fires blanks, but it is inevitable that on at least one performance it is going to fail to fire properly. Always have a stagehand who can see the action on stage ready to "smack" two pieces of wood together (like a Music Hall "slapstick") in case the gun does not fire. It will probably sound just as effective as the real thing!

Lighting Effects

Often a production will be set in a particular season or time of day. Lighting can be used to reinforce this, especially if reference is made to the weather or if the set features a window with an outside view. To create a sunlight effect through a window experiment with one or two lanterns shining through the window so that they cast a shadow of the window frame. This will help emphasise where the light is supposed to be coming from. If it is dark outside use a steel coloured gel for a moonlight effect and possibly shine the lantern through a branch of a tree to add to the effect.


Everyone in the audience is amazed when the fairy magically appears in a cloud of smoke, but the "magic" is really a small pyrotechnic charge detonated by a low voltage from a safe distance. The fairy can be made to appear by having her in the wings well upstage of the charge and stepping in place as the audience readjusts their eyes after the accompanying flash of light. Other pyrotechnic devices can produce coloured smoke, roman candle effects, sparks or just a flash of coloured light. All of these effects give some sound, smoke and light in varying quantities. For an explosive sound you need maroons in a bomb tank. Literally miniature bombs, they are very effective.


Scenery does not usually do anything but stand there looking impressive, but occasionally your set will be part of the action..


There is no substitute for using common sense when working with electricity. Make sure the mains is turned off when plugging in effects. Take special care with pyrotechnics and smoke machines - follow the manufacturers' safety instructions.