Copyright The Columbia University Press

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. The Columbia University Press

scene design and stage lighting

scene design and stage lighting, settings and illumination designed for theatrical productions.

See also drama, Western; Asian drama; theater; directing; acting.

Ancient Greece

The Greek open-air theater was first a circular, flat orchestra pit located in the hollow between two hillsides. In 465 BC 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).

Sophocles 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 Serlio, 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 Bibiena. 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 Jones 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 Irving, 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 Appia, modern stage lighting was born.

In 1840, Mme Vestris 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 Antoine, Otto Brahm, J. T. Grein, and Constantin Stanislavsky) gained impetus, realistic and even actual objects were used. This trend toward realism and historical accuracy culminated in the photographic realism of David Belasco, 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 Craig with his stage of many levels, Jacques Copeau with suggestive forms and screens, Vsevolod Meyerhold with his constructivistic sets of skeletal structures and geometric forms, Max Reinhardt with his expressionistic sets of abstract distortion, and Erwin Piscator 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 MacKaye 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 Jones, Lee Simonson, Joseph Urban, Norman Bel Geddes, and Mordecai Gorelik; later such designers as Donald Oenslager, Jo Mielziner, Oliver Smith, Cecil Beaton, 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).


Copyright The Columbia University Press

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. The Columbia University Press

stage lighting

stage lighting and stage setting: see scene design and stage lighting.