Five figures in theatre every architectural lighting designer should know

While the theatrical lighting and architectural lighting worlds may abide by their own laws and design conventions, there are nevertheless a number of often overlooked similarities between the two which offer huge opportunities for cross pollination and inspiration.

Within architectural or interior lighting design, we tend to talk about lighting having a certain ‘dramatic’ effect. Conversely, stage designers often create ‘architectural’ elements within their stage designs, which require some degree of architectural lighting knowledge to achieve the desired illumination effect. 

Further examples of cross-pollination between the two disciplines are to be found aplenty. New technologies from the architectural lighting world tend to find their way into the theatre – sometimes reluctantly. LED fixtures, for example, are still viewed with suspicion and contempt by many theatre lighting technicians who lament the passing of the classic tungsten par can.

From an architectural lighting designer’s perspective, it’s perhaps most interesting to note how scenographers and stage designers work within limited spatial boundaries. Typically, these boundaries also cross over into the financial, with limited resources encouraging scenographers to come up with inventive ways of illuminating different scenes. 

Although it’s sometimes inevitable that architectural lighting designers get sidetracked with the ridiculously broad selection of luminaires on the market; as a general rule of thumb, one of the main similarities of theatrical and architectural lighting designers is the shared desire to utilise light as a narrative tool and to create atmosphere. 

The following five figures are essential points of cultivation for any design-minded architectural or decorative lighting professional.

Adolphe Appia

Modern theatre stage design, and by proxy the notion of theatre lighting design, can arguably be traced back to stage designer Adolphe Appia and his light artist assistant Alexander von Salzmann. Appia was one of the first designers to understand the potential of lighting to do more than merely provide illumination of actors and scenic elements. 

The impressive symbolist space which Appia came up with in 1913, the so called ‘white cube’, is now considered to be the direct forerunner to many of the Bauhaus approaches to theatre and design. In fact, many of the would-be Bauhäuslers would have experienced Appia’s stage design first hand.

The cube was completely innovative for a number of reasons. Firstly, he propagated the idea that the theatre stage should not depict a real place, but rather, that the theatre should create an artificial space within which the focus of the audience was upon the text and actors.

To create this artificial space, Appia pioneered the use of luminous surfaces to ensure a revolutionary stage illumination completely devoid of shadows. Instead of utilising limelight – as was the norm, he cocooned the stage within a lightbox of sorts, using semi-translucent white fabric to adorn all sides of the stage, illuminated from behind with hundreds of incandescent light bulbs.

The ‘Appia Stage Reloaded’ as part of the 100 years of Bauhaus celebrations

Unfortunately, his white cube was shut down after a couple of years due to astronomical electricity bills from all those light bulbs. As is so often the case with creative revolutionaries, his work was not given the credit it deserved until many decades after his death. A recent reincarnation of his legendary stage could be experienced at the Festspielhaus Hellerau as part of the 100 years of Bauhaus celebrations. 

Josef Svoboda

If Appia can be credited with bringing light to the stage, then Czech scenographer Josef Svoboda can be credited with bringing a certain element of darkness and mystery.  Svoboda was the principal designer at the Czech National Theatre from 1948, and created over 700 designs throughout the next three decades. 

In an echo of Appia’s white cube, Svoboda was also keen to incorporate architectural elements into his designs, such as majestic staircases and platforms. In contrast to Appia, however, the role of light was to strategically permeate and punctuate the darkness upon stage – of which there was plenty. 

There was certainly a fantastic element to his use of light. Light was treated as a precious and delicate element, anchored within darkness yet spontaneously freed by a myriad of special effects, colour and material. 

His productions, such as the now infamous Laterna Magika, were also revolutionary in the employment of special effects, projections and closed-circuit television monitors, which allowed scenes to be seemingly multiplied in space and time. Another key feature were mirrors, sometimes enormous and used to reflect and distort the stage floor.

Key work: Laterna Magika

warmwhite recommends: Shakespeare, Jindřich V.

Robert Wilson

Lighting designer, scenographer and director Robert Wilson is quite possibly the most important figure for light within theatre. Although fundamentally grounded in theatre, collaborations with artists such as Merce Cunningham, Philip Glass, Tom Waits, William S Burroughs and even Lady Gaga have seen Wilson’s work successfully cross over into the realm of the trans-disciplinary, making its mark within the rich tapestry of contemporary art and design in general. 

Wilson is, however, perhaps best known for his revolutionary use of light within theatre, which by his own admission is, ‘the most important actor on stage’. Light has also been descried by Wilson as having an architectural quality, which can be seen most clearly in the fourth act of his Opera Einstein on the Beach with Phillip Glass, where a single elongated rectangular column of light rises in conjunction with the operatic ascent of the female vocal solo.

Although beautiful cyclorama gradients and light/shadow combinations within plays such as Quartett and the Black Rider make for impressive still images in themselves, the full effect of his use of light can only truly be appreciated in person, where the flowing and fluid movements of heavily textured light weave in and out of the fabric of the plays themselves. Little wonder, then, that his lighting designs have been compared to that of musical scores.

Key work: The Black Rider

warmwhite’s choice: Einstein on the Beach

Es Devlin

Over 25 years, Devlin has established herself as the world’s most influential set designer. Although the bulk of her initial work was in theatre, where projections and elaborate scenographic installations became a staple of her work, the latter half of her career has been characterised by numerous large scale concert set designs for the likes of Miley Cirus and U2.

She calls her work stage sculpture, with light acting as a primary tool to achieve dramatic means. Through a multifaceted use of light, Devlin has perfected the art of the mirage aesthetic, mixing reality, projections, mirrors and optical illusions to create a certain ‘smoke and mirrors’ effect. 

This effect can be seen right through the full spectrum of her career, from her first major design work supporting Harold Pinter’s Betrayal with an all around projected surfaces, to her 2018 design for U2’s Experience and Innocence tour. 

Devlin can also be accredited with pioneering the introduction of Augmented Reality within the stage environment. For the U2 tour, she developed an app which could be downloaded prior to entering the concert, allowing the audience to take photos of the AR images and live elements simultaneously. It will certainly be interesting to see how lighting designers grapple with the prospect of AR in the future.

Key work: Harold Pinter’s Betrayal

warmwhite’s choice: WIRE – FLAG: BURNING

Bert Neumann

The late Bert Neumann wasn’t really a lighting designer, but that doesn’t matter in the slightest. As head of stage design for Berlin’s Volksbühne, the iconic stage designs which he created were absolutely wacky, playful and absurd. Together with the polemic director Frank Castorf, Neumann was instrumental in shaping the theatre scene of post reunification Germany. 

Until his death in 1956, Bertold Brecht had been reshaping the theatre of his time with his so called ‘epic theatre’, which vowed to strip theatre of its escapism – a symptom of the realism and naturalism which were present in theatre at the time. It also stripped the theatre of any kind of lighting design due to its insistence on ‘alienation effect’, in which the stage was flooded with harsh white light throughout the duration of the play.

During the 90’s and 00’s, Bert Neumann, on the other hand, successfully alienated, or for better a word, overwhelmed the audience with an abundance of brash, colourful and ambitious stage scenery and architecture, sometimes insanely intricate and absurd, such as integrating functioning showers on stage. The lighting which interpolated these ambitious sceneries was equally as ambitious. From neon signs, to mirrored illuminated surfaces to colourful backdrops, everything and anything was possible. 

Neumann is here to remind the architectural lighting designer of the importance of experiment and non convention. 

Key work: Die Dostojewski-Trilogie

warmwhite’s choice: Der Meister und Margarita


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