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Lighting the stage: a history of early theater lighting technology

ancient Greek theater

Theater lighting design has a major influence on the mood of a scene and the audience’s experience. Lighting can simulate different times of day, suggest intensity, show happiness, call attention to one particular actor or stage piece, and enhance the audience’s experience in many other ways. Theater, however, has existed far longer than the resources that make our modern connotation of drama possible.

From ancient Greek amphitheaters to Shakespearean plays in Elizabethan England, lighting has always played a role in drama productions, even before the advent of modern technology.

The first stage lighting: sunlight

It is no secret that drama became a staple in Greece long before the birth of New York’s Broadway. Ancient Greeks pioneered the modern genres of comedy and tragedy, and many Greek plays are still performed today.

Even these early Greek plays featured lighting cues. These cues, however, happened mostly within the confines of a world without electric lighting. Drama festivals played from dawn until dusk, and performances took place outside in large, stadium-like amphitheaters, lit only by the sun.

Because plays took place outside, stage companies had little control over lighting. Even still, the innovative Greeks used large mirrors to alter or reflect the sun’s rays as an early type of stage lighting. In addition, to establish a specific mood, the actors paused plays and took an intermission period until the sun’s angle suited the need for the scene.

It wasn’t until the rise of the Roman Empire that performances moved to indoor spaces like great halls. The Romans employed candles, torches and lanterns to illuminate the stage in these indoor spaces. 

The birth of stage lighting as an art form

Despite the limited possibilities of lighting control with flame-based light sources, later developments during the Renaissance increased the artistry of stage lighting.

During the Italian Renaissance, stages were lit with candles made of tallow, or animal fat. Stagehands monitored candles closely and snipped wicks or relit candles as needed. Candles, crude oil lamps, torches and hanging lamps provided light in the theater; the house, where the audience sat, was also illuminated for the entirety of the show. Despite limitations of the time, innovators were beginning to approach lighting as an art form.

Sebastiano Serlio, an Italian architect and stage designer, documented some of the earliest uses of lighting as an art form. In 1545, Serlio described rudimentary color filters for lights: glass vessels filled with liquids called “bozze.” The color of the light depended on the liquid contents: red wine produced a red, saffron produced yellow, and ammonium chloride in a copper vessel yielded blue. 

Stagehands placed these vessels in front of light as filters; the filters produced different colors of light to set the mood of a scene or create an early form of special effects.

Serlio also went on to identify the three important qualities of stage lighting: distribution, intensity and color. In this way, he became the first recorded author to credit light as an important part of the art of theater. 

Leone di Somi, an Italian playwright and producer, was another early innovator of stage lighting as art. Di Somi wrote a small book in 1556; the book detailed instructions for staging a dramatic performance, including how a stage should be lit. In particular, Di Somi differentiated between lighting scenes for comedy and for tragedy, and he became the first author to note the important effect of lighting on the tone of a play.

Another crucial innovation came in 1638, when author Nicola Sabbatini suggested in his book on theater that producers use metal cylinders over candles to create a system of dimmers. The use of these cylinders allowed stagehands to control the amount of light on stage and change the lighting depending on a scene. However, this was a highly manual process and required many stagehands. Therefore, it could not be facilitated easily and had to be used sparingly, so that the stagehands could keep up with the action. 

These three lighting innovations, along with others, harnessed the power of light to affect the mood onstage. However, they had disadvantages. Many old theaters caught fire and burned to the ground because of candles, and theaters had to limit the practice of manipulating candlelight due to safety and labor concerns.

Lighting Shakespeare’s stage: theater lighting in the Elizabethan period

William Shakespeare, a master of both comedy and tragedy whose works still influence modern writing across genres, is perhaps the most famous dramatist of all. Shakespeare is a unique case in theater history, as he became such a success that toward the end of his career, he had two theaters at his disposal.

The first was the now famous Globe Theatre, originally built in 1576 and later reconstructed after burning down in 1614. The Globe was an open-air theater featuring stadium seating. While the seats are covered, the top of the theater is open much like in a modern sporting arena; in Shakespeare’s time, plays were lit by sunlight. As a result, plays had to take place during the daytime, usually at high noon and only during good weather. Audience members had to use their imagination during scenes that took place at night, and Shakespeare’s company, The King’s Men, was limited to seasonal performances.

In 1608, however, Shakespeare’s season extended with the construction of the Blackfriars Playhouse. This covered theater invited a different sort of writing, lighting and music. The indoor theater was smaller but allowed for more control over the set as well as performances at night or in inclement weather.

The Blackfriars incorporated candles made from tallow, sheep or beef fat, which were cheaper than beeswax but required more maintenance due to their fast disintegration. Each performance required more than 100 candles. Stagehands stayed busy, as candles had to be replaced or trimmed four times over the course of the show, and chandeliers were manually raised or lowered to vary lighting effects.

The Blackfriars made dark scenes more chilling and amplified the experience of theater patrons by simulating nightfall, sinister events or quiet moments. However, many times, bright scenes followed dark scenes as an excuse for the stagehands to relight the candles. 

From candles to oil and the limelight: pre-electricity lighting technology

Candles remained the most popular and widely used source of stage lights until 1783, which marked the invention of the kerosene lamp with an adjustable wick. After this, many theaters began to employ oil lamps instead of candles. While oil lamps allowed for greater lighting control, they, too, required constant maintenance, smelled unpleasant, smoked and produced a green-tinted light. Additionally, these lights did not reduce the risk of fire that candles presented.

In the years leading up to the advent of the electric light bulb, further inventions allowed for even greater control and more innovative uses of lighting for the stage. 

  • 1803 – Henry Drummond invented the limelight, a spotlight that was made by heating a piece of lime with a flame of oxygen and hydrogen. A limelight was first used in Paris opera houses and, despite its green tint, was used as a follow-spot or to indicate sunlight. While it is not used today, the limelight is still famous as a colloquialism that equates the limelight to stardom and attention.
  • 1816 – Chestnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia became the first fully gas-lit theater.
  • 1845 – The Drury Lane Theatre became the first theater to use gas lighting in England.
  • 1878-1898 – Henry Irving initiated the first lighting rehearsals to practice stage lighting before a performance. Irving also began the use of transparent lacquers as filters for limelights, and he introduced the practice of dimming house lights at the start of a show.

The next innovation in lighting, Edison’s electric bulb, greatly improved the safety and efficiency of stage lighting. However, from early amphitheaters in Athens to Shakespeare’s Globe and Blackfriars, lighting has consistently been one of the most important aspects in a production for setting a mood, adding to the realism of the show and creating the theater experience that we know and love today.

Sources: "A History of Stage Lighting" via Northern Virginia Community College; "Evolution of Lighting for the Stage" via It's All About the Light; "Renaissance Stage Lighting" via Cass Studio 6; "As Shakespeare liked it" via The Economist; "Rebuilding the Globe" via Shakespeare's Globe; "Theatre Culture of Early Modern England" via Cedar Crest College

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