Without light, the theatre cannot exist, that much is certain. As actors, as audience members, as technical visionaries, we are only as powerful as the light we are given. The extent to which we depend upon light in performance has changed dramatically throughout history, however, as light technology developed and expanded. In the history of performance, the artistic community is constantly victim to the limits of lighting technology, and exponentially altered by breakthroughs. From the utilization of candles and natural light to isolated light and electricity, the histories of illumination and theatre are virtually inseparable, and continue to push the boundaries of live performance.
Like any journey, it is necessary to begin with a single step – the evolution of lighting in theatre began with the resources available to the ancient Roman and Greek societies; sunlight and candles. As such, performances and events were held at the height of the day, so as to allow the most natural light to fill the stage. While this method successfully brought the stage to life and made the actors and scenery visible, it did little to create dynamics, establish mood, or manipulate the audience’s perspective and emotion. Rather than a creative tool, lighting was viewed as a solution to a problem – a product born out of necessity. Innovative uses of light were limited to grand demonstrations that often became the centerpieces of Greek and Roman theatre. For example, large burned houses graced center stage, but any other indications of lighting were strictly two-dimensional, painted on the backdrop. While this forced the audience to focus their energy and attention on the players and the action, it also limited their experience – without lighting to suggest a certain environment and mood, those watching the performance were left without a foundation. Having only heightened text and elaborate spectacles to guide them, much of the subtlety, specificity, and emotion must have been lost in translation.
Additionally, indoor performances, primarily requested by courts and nobility, specifically used candles and torches as sources of illumination. Candles were placed at the front of the stage, between the wings leading to the stage, and above both the stage in order to frame the players. Chandeliers were also hung above those in attendance, to create a sense of audience. This marks both the first appearances of footlights in the theatre and, though basic, the beginning of a formulaic structure for lighting a performance space. Issues prevailed, however – there were still no successful methods for specific lighting, unless an actor held the light themselves to illuminate their face, nor were colored lights or gobo devices available. Though lighting was making its way into the theatrical world, it was purely technical, not called upon to be inventive, create illusions or accomplish tasks at this point in time.
Limited design innovations were mostly rooted in the scarce...