Candle and Lantern Recipes, and Cigarettes

Many plays call for candles or cigarettes on stage. Here are some ideas for how to do these effects safely. The results often look better than the real thing would, they don’t get blown out by random drafts, and of course are much safer (and also legal). REAL FLAME IS NOT ALLOWED ON HARVARD STAGES.

For information about Candles and Lanterns click here.


Some days it seems that half of western dramatic literature depends on cigarette smoke. After all, what would A Streetcar Named Desire be without nicotine?

This creates some real problems on our stages. The issues of fire and cigarettes are obvious - a lot of people die at home in fires caused by cigarettes, so why expose actors and audiences to yet another hazard. Further, many health codes forbid smoking in public places, and allergies are rampant. Making an audience uncomfortable because of smoke is bad, exposing an actor to direct smoke is even worse. This is why we simply do not allow lit smoking devices on stages at Harvard.

However, we are able to suggest solutions. Obviously, where a show is not specific, it is usually far easier to suggest a character's angst and inner torment without specific props. Be creative, and look at the meaning of the play rather than previous production styles.

There are quite good fake cigarettes. The style illustrated is stocked in the General Store at Agassiz for less than 60 cents each. They have a bright reflective tip covered in simulated "ash" so that, as the actor moves, the tip will appear to glow.

Sometimes the smoke is more important than the fire. Jack's Joke Shop (226 Tremont Street, Boston, MA 02116, Phone: 617 426-9640) carries "Puff Puff Cigarettes" which claim "puff on these and watch fake smoke come out." There are many varieties of these, all depending on an actor blowing some powder out through the fake cigarette. We have convincing actors, right? These props work quite well, with a bit of practice.

Candles and Lanterns

You have two broad options:

You can buy them from someone else.

You can build them yourself.

Buy It

Imagine a scene where two performers sit across a table with a candlestick in the middle. It is romantic, and for props it is a pain. The common place to start is with a commercial module.

Shown is a product from Rosco Labs, available from many of our usual vendors. It has tiny lights inside a plastic “flame”, controlled by circuitry inside the stem, which causes the lights to flicker. Many physical variations are available, from a “basic module” (just the flame, lamps, and circuit ready for your decoration) to full candelabra. Most operate from a 9-volt battery (usually not included).


Rosco’s candles start at about $30 and go up from there. A few are available for borrowing at Agassiz. The selection may be a bit pot-luck depending on who has needed what, and what butchery has been done. Good planning is advised.

Other manufacturers make flicker candles, including City Theatrical. The decoration and price vary.

The nice folks at Backstage Scenic now stock a "Safe-T Candle" intended for table decorations. For about $7 each you get a flicker circuit and lamp on a base about 1.5" diameter - batteries included. This is a real bargain. The only drawback is they are designed to be turned off by blowing at them, which may or might not be what is desired. This could probably be hacked; at the price you can certainly afford to try.

If the show calls for flames in a fireplace or a similar effect, Agassiz owns some Le Flame bowls. These use thin silk blown by a fan, with colored lights illuminating the silk. From stage distances they can be scarily realistic. Again, availability is subject to the whims of fortune. You can see similar units in the windows of several Harvard Square merchants.


Build It
When candles are carried by an actor, in a candlestick, lantern, or birthday cake, the inevitable tiny motions of the actor’s hands can work in your favor. A very good-looking candle can be made for a few dollars. Start with a cheap flashlight:

The lights shown are less than $2 at most hardware stores. Pick a style that suits your show’s blocking. The location of the switch may be important.

Now to make flame. Start with some scrap gel in flame colors (ambers, reds, maybe even blue). Cut each color into a comb shape:

Do this with two or three different colors and overlap them:

Now wrap this around the lamp of the flashlight and secure it with clear tape. This looks pretty good as is. If your candle needs to be seen with the stage lights up, you can make the “flame” a more realistic shape with some judicious application of tape. Nail polish remover (acetone) can be used to shape the gel – it softens the gel, you shape the flame, and the gel retains a shape. Take care with acetone – use only in a well ventilated space and keep it away from sensitive skin or eyes.
Many of the cheap flashlights have easy-to-use accessible switches, suitable for actor control for effects like “lighting” the lamp or blowing it out. The small LED-style lights can even be palmed to create a quite realistic “match flame.”

If you need many “candles” operated by one switch, use the same general idea but buy the components at Radio Shack:

272-1128 LAMP 6-VOLT

There are lots of possible variants. The battery holder shown has a switch built in and takes AAA batteries. If you can find one with a switch that takes AA batteries, even better; the batteries will last longer. Each battery (AA or AAA) supplies 1.5 volts and they add up, so if you use two batteries you want a 3-Volt lamp. Four batteries require a 6-volt lamp. A lamp rated for a bit higher voltage than your batteries (say 7.5 for a 6-Volt system) will last a long time and look warm, which is good for a candle. Experiment.

Usually you want to wire the lamps in parallel:

You can use as many lamps as you want; the batteries will last much longer with fewer lamps. Bigger, fatter batteries have more energy (C cells are fatter than AAAs, for example). If you want to get mathematical, batteries are rated in milliamp-hours and small lamps are rated in milliamps, so a little division will give you an idea how long things will last. Most stage scenes aren’t very long, so the important thing is to make sure the lamps are turned off as soon as they are not needed.

If you want a switch, insert if between the red wire of the battery and the lamps. If (as for a lantern) on and off does not happen on stage you may be able to just unscrew the lamps between shows. A battery holder with a switch makes all of this easy. All of the parts for a three-lamp rig, as drawn above, should cost less than $10.

The lampholders can be decorated with gel, just like the flashlights.