The History of Theatre Lighting


Lighting adds more to a theatre production than just brightness. In addition to helping the audience see the action clearly, theatre lighting sets a scene, casts visual emotion and moves the action. Theatre lighting's history goes back to the history of theatre itself, to classic Athenian dramas and comedies, and has evolved through the first flame-based lighting and effects to today's complex electrical lighting systems.


Without lighting, all other elements of theatre become moot. Theatre lighting, in addition to simply illuminating a scene and making it visible to the audience, also sets mood and directs the audience's focus. A skilful lighting designer uses warm colours of lighting to create coziness and shades of green to show an evil or sinister scene.

Classical Athens and Rome

In classical Athens and Rome, from 472 BCE to the fall of Rome in about 450 CE, actors performed plays outdoors, all day long in large festivals. Lit by sunlight, the performances ended when the sun set. Open air theatres such as Theatre Dionysus in Athens held large numbers of patrons and natural light illuminated the view. In Rome, gladiator events replaced tragedies and comedies in the open air theatres, but they were still lit by natural sunlight.

The Italian Renaissance

In the Italian Renaissance, from about 1430 to 1680, visual spectacle in the theatre became increasingly more important. The great halls housing productions often contained elaborate sets, curtains and special effects that used mechanical pulleys and stage hands to impress and inspire the audience. In these great halls, light from candles and oil lamps engineered into metal cans, could be focused for effect onto the stage. Upper-class citizens typically attended these plays.

Open air theatre still took place for the middle and lower classes. Lit by the sun on the street, travelling players performed improvisational theatre called "Commedia Dell'Arte" based on a set number of stock characters and plots.

Elizabethan Theatre

In England during the Renaissance, Shakespeare and the Globe Theater presented plays to wide audiences. Groundlings, poor people named after their seating location in the open air theatre, occupied seats without good views. Elite members of society took seats of prestige in the theatre and saw plays during daylight hours. Because artificial lighting was minimal, some of Shakespeare's lines refer to going to "hear" a play, and plays that happen at nighttime refer to the moon and lanterns in a joking manner. In "A Midsummer Night's Dream," for instance, the "mechanicals," while rehearsing their play, discuss the difficulty of a moonlit scene and how they will bring the moon into the chamber where the play will be held.

The 19th Century

Throughout Europe and the United States, theatre gained popularity in the 19th century. A more realistic and easily understandable acting style drew the emerging middle class to the stage. New York established itself as the American capitol of theatre performance. Candles and gas lamps lit theatres and stages during the evening performances. Musical theatre and burlesque brought immigrants not fluent in English out for entertainment, and the Industrial revolution broadened the ability of technicians to produce special effects. Mirrors, ropes, lenses and other tools helped focus light and give special effects.

Modern Theater

The invention of incandescent lighting in 1879 revolutionised theatre lighting. The first electric lighting in a theatre was installed in London's Savoy Theater in 1881, and by the 1890s, most theatres used electric lights. Today, lighting designers utilise electric theatre lamps with movable lenses and other accessories to achieve nearly any look on stage, to either complement or change a scene and to produce dramatic visual effects.

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