FAQs & Helpful Hints
season of Spring Recitals has arrived, and we at Theatre Effects
have had our hands full these past few weeks with orders for all
sorts of special effects. In addition to taking orders, we've also
been answering lots of questions from people new to using flash
pots, some of which I'd like to address this week. I imagine some
of our more experienced readers groaning now, and getting ready
to click on the next message in their Inbox. To them I say, "Wait
just a minute!" Take a look through the topics discussed here,
you may be surprised by what you didn't know!
So, what is a flash pot, anyway? Basically, a flash pot is a sturdy
container that can hold a pyrotechnic powder, and is usually wired
to fire an igniter. The powder can be standard flash powder, colored
flash powder, smoke powder, or flame powder. An igniter is just
a thin piece of wire (often Nichrome) that will spark when 110 volt
current is run across it. Some flash pots are battery-powered and
use a glow plug with flash cotton in place of an igniter. In these
pots, the glow plug ignites the flash cotton which burns like a
fuse into the powder, setting off the effect.
Theatre Effects sells several different types of flash pots. Which
of these is the right one for you depends on a few variables. First,
if you plan on doing any loud report (aka concussion) effects, or
if you want to produce flame columns, you'll need the Color Volcano
(#UL01). This pot is sturdier than our other pots, and can handle
the force produced by our Sonic Flash Powder. In addition, the extra-long
barrel on the Volcano allows you to produce four to six-foot columns
of flame when using our Flame Powder. While the Volcano is more
expensive than many of our other pots, it's the only one that will
do when creating a concussion effect.
If you're just looking to create a few small flash effects, and
want to keep your effects budget as low as possible, the Standard
Electric Flash Pot (#MU01) may be the answer. The standard electric
flash pot uses bare nichrome wires for igniters and can handle most
small effects. If, however, you want a somewhat sturdier pot that
uses our more reliable Surefire Igniters, you might consider paying
a little extra for the Ultra Flash Pot (#UL05).
The Color Volcano, Standard Electric and Ultra flash pots all have
one thing in common. To create their effects, they require 110 volts
of AC current. This is usually not a problem for performers working
in a club or theatre. But what if you don't have access to AC power?
What if you're performing outside, or the management at the venue
refuses to allow you to plug pyro devices into their house current?
It was for situations like these that Theatre Effects developed
the Electronic Flash Pot.
The Electronic Flash Pot uses two AA-size batteries to fire the
effect. Because there's no need to hook into an outlet, this flash
pot can be set up and used almost anywhere. In addition to being
a lifesaver to performers stuck without AC power, the Electronic
Flash Pot also allows a performer to become creative with the placement
of the flash pot. For example, a magician might want to hide a flash
pot inside a prop that rolls on stage. With the electronic flash
pot this is easy to achieve because the power is on-board, and the
controller is a hard-wired footswitch that blends well with the
Speaking of controllers, the other flash pots I mentioned will need
some sort of switch to control the current to the pot. All of them
come equipped with a standard electrical cord, but if you simply
load the pot and plug it into the wall it will fire immediately,
often tripping the circuit breaker as it does. Therefore, some sort
of switch is needed to control power to the effect. I recommend
the Ultra 4 Firing Panel or the Ultra 2 Footswitch, but performers
who are confident with their electrical skills may decide to create
their own. If so, bear in mind that a momentary switch (a switch
that only allows current to pass while the switch is being held
down) will help prevent accidentally tripping a breaker.
Choosing the right powder for your flash pot is a somewhat easier
process. Theatre Effects carries Flash Powder (in white, red and
green), Smoke Powder (in a rainbow of colors), Flame Powder and
Sonic Flash Powder. We also carry color additives for the Flame
Powder, and Sparkle Additive for the Flash Powder. The powder you
choose really depends on what look you want to create. A few basic
For an instantaneous effect (e.g. a magical appearance) you want
to use flash powder. If you want to add a little "magic"
to the effect, a very light dusting of Sparkle Additive will do
the trick. I've found that as little as an eighth of a teaspoon
will create all the sparks I need.
For a slower effect that produces thick clouds of colored smoke,
choose smoke powder. Please make sure that your space has adequate
ventilation, however, since you you don't want your audience coughing
through the rest of your show! Smoke powder works best if you wrap
it in a piece of flash paper or slow cotton to provide a longer
lasting source of ignition.
Now that you've chosen a pot and some powder, it's time to put it
to use! For you beginners (and studious veterans) I have a few tips
that will help ensure the success of your effect
First, don't leave the special effects for the last minute. Too
often, directors get caught up in the details of rehearsals and
don't even consider adding effects until the show is "just
right." If you don't leave time to practice with a special
effect, it will not look as good as it could, and it may even become
a hazard on stage! As a rule of thumb, I try to have special effects
ready for rehearsals by about a week before the show opens.
If you're using a flash pot with an off-stage controller, make sure
that the operator can clearly see the flash pot from his position.
If your operator can't see the pot, he can't tell if a performer
is standing too close to the effect. In general, there should always
be a ten-foot radius around the flash-pot that is free of performers.
Be sure to give the operator final authority on whether or not to
Plan your effect as carefully as possible! Try to imagine everything
that will be happening on stage when you want to use the effect,
and then ask yourself whether anything could interfere with the
effect, or pose a safety risk. When planning the position of the
flash pots, make sure that they are not located in a high-traffic
area -- the last thing you need is an actor kicking your flash pot
up against the back curtain!
Finally, as the hippie allegedly said to a man looking for Carnegie
Hall, "practice, man, practice!" If you've ordered your
effects in a timely manner, you should be able to have at least
three rehearsals with the effect in place. These rehearsals are
vital to work out any bugs in placement or powder loads, and to
get the actors comfortable working with the effect. My rule of thumb
here is that if an effect isn't in place at the beginning of "tech
week", it doesn't go in the show.
I've tried to offer a "crash course" in choosing and using
flash pots here, but I know there are probably questions I've left
unanswered. So, my final piece of advice is this, don't be afraid
to ask for advice! As many a teacher has reminded me, "the
only stupid question is the one you didn't ask."
Theatre Effects Customer Service Department
Effects, 11707 Chesterdale Rd, Cincinnati, OH 45246
Phone: 1-800-791-7646 or 513-772-7646 Fax: 513-772-3579
Copyright Notice - no portion of this article may
be reproduced without written permission. You may place a link to
this page on your website provided you do not hide it within a frame