Theatre was the first enterprise to use light to create emotional impact rather than for pure functionality. In early 17th-century England, theatre came indoors. From the time of the ancient Greek theatron, or seeing place, drama
had remained an almost exclusively outdoor art form,
lit naturally. Now that it had been enclosed and made
weatherproof, it was lit predominantly by candles.
Controlling their light was rudimentary and achieved
mainly by changing the heights of candelabras. The
light was diffuse, flickered, and was of low intensity.
Oil lamps followed. When gas light arrived in theatres
at the start of the 19th century, it was marginally less
prone to burning theatres down, and was easier to
control, but the method remained much the same:
footlights positioned at the front of the stage, a
horizontal row of lights above for general lighting, and
lights in a trough reflector in the wings to illuminate
specific parts of the set.
The Savoy Theatre in London became the first public
building anywhere in the world to be lit with electric
light, in 1881. Theatres in Boston, Stuttgart, Munich
and Vienna followed swiftly, and by the beginning of
Previous pages: Ciaran Bagnall’s
atmospheric lighting and set
design for the Royal Shakespeare
Company’s 2015 Othello
Above: when Richard Pilbrow lit
Lionel Bart’s 1962 musical Blitz
at the Adelphi, London, he used
colour in ways not seen before.
Opposite: Ariel in the Royal
Shakespeare Company’s 2012
The Tempest lit by Jon Clark