A History of Lighting Design: From Sunlight to Stage Light

Intern Madison Mahrlig studies Theatre lighting design and Arts management at the College of Charleston in South Carolina. Here she explains some of the developments in stage lighting history from the Greeks to present day. 



Image courtesy of: https://fineartamerica.com/featured/greek-theatre-granger.html

The first uses of lighting for theatre can be drawn back to the Greeks and the Romans who strategically built their stages in order to harness the full potential of the sun.  These stages were built on hills and faced so that the sun would come from behind the audience. This allowed the sun to hit the stage yet keep it out of the audiences eyes. They could perform their shows at different times of day to get a different kind of natural lighting. 

Problems with Sunlight:

  • Not all the light was kept out of the audiences eyes
  • With the development of indoor theatres, people could no longer rely on sunlight to be the primary source of lighting 


Image courtesy of: https://www.bristol.ac.uk/drama/jacobean/research3.html

Candles started to be used in the court theatres of Italy in the late 1500’s.  Sebastiano Serlio, an Italian architect was one of the first to talk about utilising candles in theatres.  This is where colour was first utilised with the use of amber, red and blue water in flask placed in front of candles. Thousands of candles were required to light a stage and were in chandeliers or footlights, where hundreds of candles would be on the edge of the stage to light faces.candles1

Nicola Sabatini designed a numerous amounts of lighting innovations that allowed lighting to be dimmed for the first time.  He did this by lowering metal cylinders on top of the candles to dim the light without putting the flames out. Sanatini also invented the spotlight by placing a polished sink behind a light source allowing light to be directed to a certain part of the stage. 

Problems with Candles:

  • Candles caused a lot of heat and oxygen depletion causing people to faint in the theatre
  • The wick of candles required trimming and relighting which is why intermissions were needed throughout the performance
  • Hot wax and grease would drip on the audience and actors 

Oil Lamp 

oil lamp
Image courtesy of: https://study.com/academy/lesson/theatre-lighting-history-design.html

Oil lamps were designed by Aime Argand and they provided greater illumination than the candles.  Because there were in closed, the flame was able to be steadied and therefore brighter. 

Problems with oil lamps:

  • Oil lamps along with candles were expensive to maintain and replace at the rate that they needed to be 





Gas lighting was revolutionary when it was first being used in the theatres and was a fourth of the cost of candles or oil lamps.  It was first introduced in 1815 at the Olympic Theatre. Gas was produced by heating coal at extreme temperatures for hours and then cooled and condensed into storage tanks.  

Gas systems allowed the lights to be controlled from a distance by how much gas was supplied to each set of lights. Light could also start to come from different angles as gas lighting instruments were developed.  Audience lights could be dimmed for the first time creating more realism. 


Gas lighting caused set design to change as designers had to take into consideration how painted elements would look with bright white or coloured light on them. Sets started to become more interactive because the actors could move behind the proscenium arch and could still be seen.  

The intense white quality of light also called for makeup to change.  Hence the invention of gas lighting kickstarted the modern idea of design that we think of today.

Problems with gas:

  • Hundreds of theatres burnt down due to leaks in the gas system 
  • Lighting was perfect from the sides and footlight but not from above
  • Oxygen was still being depleted from the theatre


Electric and Modern

Image courtesy of: https://msu.edu/~kusch/Sessions/MI%20441%20Session%201.htm

In 1878, Joseph Swan patent the world’s first incandescent electric lamp.  Gas was quickly out of the theatres and within one year the Paris Opera introduced this new type of lighting.  Although this lighting was revolutionary, no new methods of lighting were developed, the old footlights, strip lights and border lights were simply replaced by electrical lights. 


Overtime, brighter and larger lights were developed.  Designers started experimenting with colour and focus creating complex lighting plots.  With the invention of a lighting console lighting information could be stored and become more complex then having them on or off.  

LED lights which started to become popular in 2007 allowed for the colour of light to be changes from a console without any lighting gel or material needed.  These lights instantly change colour and although more expensive, allow theatres to cut down on the amounts of lights needed. Instead of having 10 lights with red gel and 10 with blue gel, a theatre could just use 10 LED lights.  More recently moveable LED lights are coming to the stages. These lights can be programmed to move to a certain spot on stage and cut down the need for hundreds of lights even more.  

Image courtesy of: https://www.americantheatre.org/2018/06/19/charge-of-the-led-brigade/


Prague Youth Theatre

Prague’s only English speaking youth theatre. Empowering students aged 3-17 to connect with one another, develop confidence, and create impactful stories. www.pyt.cz

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