scene design and stage lighting

scene design and stage lighting,

settings and illumination designed for theatrical productions.

See also drama, Westerndrama, Western,
plays produced in the Western world. This article discusses the development of Western drama in general; for further information see the various national literature articles.
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; Asian dramaAsian drama,
dramatic works produced in the East. Of the three major Asian dramas—Sanskrit, Chinese, Japanese—the oldest is Sanskrit, although the dates of its origin are uncertain.
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; theatertheater,
building, structure, or space in which dramatic performances take place. In its broadest sense theater can be defined as including everything connected with dramatic art—the play itself, the stage with its scenery and lighting, makeup, costumes, acting, and actors.
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; directingdirecting,
the art of leading dramatic performances on the stage or in films. The modern theatrical director is in complete charge of all the artistic aspects of a dramatic presentation.
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; actingacting,
the representation of a usually fictional character on stage or in films. At its highest levels of accomplishment acting involves the employment of technique and/or an imaginative identification with the character on the part of the actor.
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Ancient Greece

The Greek open-air theater was first a circular, flat orchestra pit located in the hollow between two hillsides. In 465 B.C. a small wooden hut called a skene (hence, scene), in which the actors changed costumes, was erected behind the playing area. When stone structures were erected the seating area was cut to little more than a semicircle and the skene became a two-story building with three doorways in front and an entrance by either side. It thus served additionally as the scenic background of the play. The floor in front of the skene was elevated, with steps leading down to the orchēstra, where the chorus was located; this narrow playing level was called the proskenion (hence, proscenium).

, c.496 B.C.–406 B.C., Greek tragic dramatist, younger contemporary of Aeschylus and older contemporary of Euripides, b. Colonus, near Athens. A man of wealth, charm, and genius, Sophocles was given posts of responsibility in peace and in war by the Athenians.
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 is thought to have first employed scene painting; such devices as periaktoi (revolving prisms with painted scenery), eccyclema (wagons for tableaus), and mechane (flying machines) were also used. Greek plays were performed in daylight, and the dramas were frequently designed to take advantage of the position of the sun. Also, theater sites were well-placed to gain the best effects of the natural light.

Ancient Rome

In the Roman theater the apron of the stage was created by extending the playing area over the orchestra, where important members of the audience were seated. The entire structure was often enclosed and built on level ground. The background, the three-door skene, was always a street; from the point of view of the actor facing the audience, off left indicated the town or adjacent points and off right indicated an exit to the country or distant points. A curtain was sometimes used to open the play; it was dropped into a trough as the play began. The Romans were probably the first to use torches and lamps at evening performances.

The Middle Ages

The religious plays of the Middle Ages were performed at first within, and later in front of, the church, with the separate scenes organized around an open space. This form of staging continued when the plays were moved into the street, but the individual platform scenes became more elaborately built up, and there was widespread use of machinery and traps. Information about medieval lighting is uncertain although it seems likely that torches, both moving and stationary, were utilized.

The Renaissance to the Seventeenth Century

The renaissance of scene design began in Italy. Sebastiano SerlioSerlio, Sebastiano
, 1475–1554, Italian Renaissance architect and theoretician, b. Bologna. He was in Rome from 1514 until the sack in 1527 and worked under Baldassare Peruzzi. Few traces exist of his buildings in Venice, where he lived from 1527 to 1540.
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, in his Architettura, Book II (1545), interpreted what he thought were classic ideas on perspective and the periaktoi and published the first designs on the definitive types of sets to be used—for tragedy, palaces; for comedy, street scenes; for satyr plays, the countryside. The first permanent theater in Italy, the Teatro Olimpico at Vicenza (1584), was an attempt to recreate the Roman scaenae frons with five permanent perspectives.

In his teatro all'antico, built (c.1589) at Sabbioneta, Vincenzo Scamozzi employed a "solid drop" background and enlarged the central stage arch to make one perspective. In the early 17th cent., Giovanni Battista Aleotti was the first to use flats (painted canvas stretched over wooden frames) with decorative props painted on them, and in 1618 he introduced the proscenium arch. The realistic stage setting was not known; designs were always symmetrical and in perspective. Later in the century the mechanical innovations of Giacomo Torelli facilitated the simultaneous rapid shift of all the flats.

Nicolo Sabbattini and Leone de' Sommi wrote on the use of lighting in the 16th cent.; in addition, they developed footlights and techniques for colored lights and for the dimming of lights. From the Renaissance period until the triumph of gas lighting in the mid-19th cent., great use was made of lamps, candles, and torches. Although they caused much work, odor, and smoke, ingenious effects were produced.

A revolution in scene design occurred in the late 17th cent. with the initiation of multiple or oblique perspective by Ferdinando Galli BibienaBibiena or Bibbiena, Galli da
, family of Italian artists of the 17th and 18th cent. Giovanni Maria Galli da Bibiena,
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. He used either two points of perspective or only one placed indiscriminately. The great scene designers of the period were also the great architects and artists. Their designs, baroque and heavy with movement and detail, became increasingly fussy; the set, in conflict with the actor, became the main attraction.

In France the first permanent theater had been the Hôtel de Bourgogne (1548), and in England, the Theatre (1576; later known as the Globe). The early English designer Inigo JonesJones, Inigo
, 1573–1652, one of England's first great architects. Son of a London clothmaker, he was enabled to travel in Europe before 1603 to study paintings, perhaps at the expense of the earl of Rutland.
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 was influenced by the Italians, although in his time scenery was reserved for court spectacles; Shakespeare's plays were given on a bare stage. The Restoration period saw the development of a "popular" theater, although it was still primarily for the upper classes.

The Eighteenth Century

With the Enlightenment in the mid-18th cent. there was a revival of classicism, and the unity of place was strictly observed by designers. They experimented with strong darks and lights and tried for the first time to infuse their designs with atmosphere. Toward the end of the century the curtain was first lowered to change the scene, and the scrim (gauze drop that becomes transparent when lit from behind) came into use.

Lighting became a problem only when the theaters were entirely enclosed. At that time lights (torches, candles, oil lamps) and reflectors surrounded the stage, and footlights came into use. Later chandeliers and candelabras became fashionable. Much use was made of colored lights made with mirrors reflecting colored water; shadows were painted on the flats. The auditorium itself was not darkened for the performance.

The Nineteenth Century

The 19th cent. brought extensive changes in lighting and scene design. Gaslight was first introduced (1817) in England. Although it was responsible for many theater fires, gaslight had, by 1849, the advantage of being centrally controlled. Sir Henry IrvingIrving, Sir Henry,
1838–1905, English actor and theatrical manager, originally named John Henry Brodribb. He made his debut in 1856 and achieved fame in 1871 with his portrayal of Mathias in Leopold Lewis's The Bells, a role he often repeated.
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, at the end of the century, was first to darken the auditorium completely. He also was first to experiment with the color and intensity of gaslight. The first spotlight was the limelight (1816); it was followed by the arc light (1846). With the invention (1879) of the incandescent bulb, light became the primary scene painter. Through the efforts of Adolphe AppiaAppia, Adolphe
, 1862–1928, Swiss theorist of modern stage lighting and décor. In interpreting Wagner's ideas in scenic designs for his operas, Appia rejected painted scenery for the three-dimensional set; he felt that shade was as necessary as light to link the
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, modern stage lighting was born.

In 1840, Mme VestrisVestris, Lucia Elizabeth (Bartolozzi)
, 1797–1856, English actress and manager, the first woman to be a lessee of a theater. The daughter of a music and fencing teacher, she made an unsuccessful marriage at 16 to Armand Vestris, her ballet master.
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 successfully employed the box set (three solid walls joined together) complete with a ceiling. The concept of the invisible "fourth wall" forced the acting area to be located behind the proscenium arch, thus eliminating the need for a wide apron and glaring footlights. Decorative props were still painted on the flats, but as the naturalistic movement (in the theaters of André AntoineAntoine, André
, 1858–1943, French theatrical director, manager, and critic. In opposition to the teachings of the Paris Conservatory, he formed (1887) his own company, the Théâtre Libre.
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, Otto BrahmBrahm, Otto
, 1856–1912, German theatrical director, manager and critic. Inspired by the work of Antoine in Paris, he founded a theater, the Freie Bühne, in Berlin in 1889.
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, J. T. Grein, and Constantin StanislavskyStanislavsky, Constantin
, 1863–1938, Russian theatrical director, teacher, and actor, whose original name was Constantin Sergeyevich Alekseyev. He was cofounder with Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko of the Moscow Art Theater in 1898, which he would remain associated with for
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) gained impetus, realistic and even actual objects were used. This trend toward realism and historical accuracy culminated in the photographic realism of David BelascoBelasco, David
, 1853–1931, American theatrical manager and producer, b. San Francisco. He was actively connected with the theater from his youth, and while associated with Dion Boucicault in Virginia City, Nev., he was first exposed to scenic realism.
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, who even incorporated smells into several productions. The invention (1839) of the photograph was a further influence toward realistic settings.

The Twentieth Century

Scene designers in the early 20th cent., opposed to naturalism, strove to show the essence of a play through simplification, suggestion, and, often, stylization; selective realism was the keynote. The scene designer was directly responsible to the director who was by now the unifying head of a production. Edward Gordon CraigCraig, Edward Gordon,
1872–1966, English scene designer, producer, and actor. The son of Ellen Terry, Gordon Craig began acting with Henry Irving's Lyceum company (1885–97).
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 with his stage of many levels, Jacques CopeauCopeau, Jacques
, 1879–1949, French theatrical producer and critic. A founder (1909) and editor (1912–14) of the Nouvelle Revue française, he established the experimental Théâtre du Vieux Colombier in Paris (1913–24) in order to
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 with suggestive forms and screens, Vsevolod MeyerholdMeyerhold, Vsevolod
, 1874–1940?, Russian theatrical director and producer. Meyerhold led the revolt against naturalism in the Russian theater. Working with the Moscow Art Theater, he experimented with his own directing ideas until the outbreak of the Revolution.
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 with his constructivistic sets of skeletal structures and geometric forms, Max ReinhardtReinhardt, Max,
1873–1943, Austrian theatrical producer and director, originally named Max Goldmann. After acting under Otto Brahm at the Deutsches Theater in Berlin, he managed (1902–5) his own theater, where he produced more than 50 plays.
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 with his expressionistic sets of abstract distortion, and Erwin PiscatorPiscator, Erwin
, 1893–1966, German theatrical director and producer who, with Bertolt Brecht, was the foremost exponent of epic theater, a genre that emphasizes the sociopolitical context rather than the emotional content or aesthetics of the play.
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 with his theatricality and educational approach—all brought imagination and creativity to realistic design, which had become cluttered and uninteresting. The technical innovations of Steele MacKayeMacKaye, Steele
(James Morrison Steele MacKaye), 1842–94, American dramatist and inventor in theatrical scene design. After studying in Europe he went to the United States (c.
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 also came into general use.

In 1902 the cyclorama or sky-dome, a semicircular backing of whitewashed plaster or cement used to reflect light and thus create an illusion of depth, was invented. After 1912 lights were placed in the auditorium to allow for more natural angles of illumination for both the actor and the set. The projector lamp, a spotlight that could be dimmed, was invented in 1914; after 1919 colored "gels," or gelatine, were placed over the lights. By 1922 stage lighting had become a scientific study.

After World War I the United States became a leader in the field of scene design with the work of such men as Robert Edmond JonesJones, Robert Edmond,
1887–1954, American scene designer, b. Milton, N.H. With his design in 1915 for The Man Who Married a Dumb Wife, a new era of scene design began in the United States. His use of color and dramatic lighting enhanced his imaginative sets.
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, Lee Simonson, Joseph Urban, Norman Bel GeddesBel Geddes, Norman
, 1893–1958, American designer, b. Adrian, Mich. as Norman Melancton Geddes. He began his career in 1918 as a scene designer for the Metropolitan Opera.
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, and Mordecai Gorelik; later such designers as Donald Oenslager, Jo MielzinerMielziner, Jo
, 1901–76, American theatrical scene designer, b. Paris. Mielziner made his Broadway design debut in 1924 with The Guardsman. He designed sets, and usually the lighting, for more than 200 productions, including
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, Oliver Smith, Cecil BeatonBeaton, Sir Cecil Walter Hardy
, 1904–80, English scenery and costume designer, photographer, writer, painter, and diarist. After designing his first stage show (1935), Beaton worked on numerous productions, including Lady Windermere's Fan, Vanessa
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, and Peter Larkin gained prominence. Since World War II, with the rise of the "theater of the absurd," trends in scene design have become eclectic, ranging from realism to surrealism.

Some set designers, such as Ralph Keltai, try to capture the major mood of a play through abstract expression. Others attempt to re-create the sense of a period in which the play is set or set old plays in modern surroundings. If there is a unifying element it is the acceptance of Gordon Craig's insistence upon unification of the various theatrical arts. Therefore, whether the set and lighting are naturalistic or surrealistic, the attempt is made to integrate these elements with the acting, movement, and text of the play.


See B. Hewitt, ed., The Renaissance Stage (1958); A. S. Gillette, An Introduction to Scenic Design (1967); A. Nicoll, The Development of the Theatre (5th ed. 1967); H. Burris-Meyer et al., Scenery for the Theatre (rev. ed. 1971); J. Rosenthal and L. Wertenbaker, The Magic of Light (1972); S. Rosenfeld, A Short History of Scene Design in Great Britain (1973); W. F. Bellman, Lighting the Stage: Art and Practices (2d ed. 1974); R. L. Arnold, Scene Technology (1985); J. Collins, The Art of Scene Painting (1987).