What a long way we’ve come! “oh yes we have!”8 Dec 2017

You cannot fail to see the adverts; pantomime season is well and truly upon us.  Sleeping Beauty, Peter Pan, Jack and the Beanstalk; what ever your preference, there are months of hard work on stage and back stage to get the production pitch perfect and beautifully staged.

But have you ever thought about how lighting and sound worked before the digital age of the 21st Century we all take for granted today?  Let’s turn back the clock and take a look at the evolution of theatre, lighting and sound.

Early History

The classic Greek theatron (literally, “a place of seeing”) was built in the open air, usually on a hillside, and placed so that the afternoon sunlight came from behind the audience and flooded the performing area with light. The larger Roman theatres were also outdoors, but the added luxury of a coloured awning stretched over the spectators softened the glare of the sun. Later, in the Middle Ages plays were primarily performed outdoors on the front steps of the church and the adjoining square.

In England the pagaent wagon, complete with actors and properties, was drawn through the main street of a town and until the 16th century, the theatre continued to be mainly an outdoor institution.

Moving Indoors

 It was the Italians who, under the patronage of the aristocracy moved performances indoors. An Italian architect (Sebastiano Serilo), gave considerable attention to theatre design, and in a treatise written in 1545 he discussed theatre construction and the creation of lighting effects.  His recommendations were:

  • placing candles and torches behind flasks filled with amber- and blue-coloured water
  • use torches and pine knots
  • open-wick lamps and tallow candles

And then along came our very own beloved William Shakespeare.  In England at the end of the 16th century, the Globe Theatre was used for summer performances of William Shakespeare’s plays, but in winter performances were given in the completely enclosed Blackfriars Theatre. Artificial light, produced mainly by candles, was used in several indoor theatres to light the stage and the auditorium.

The First Recorded Stage Lighting

The earliest known definite description of stage lighting may be found in Architectura Civilis (1628; “Civil Architecture”), by Joseph). Oil lamps and candles were set in a row along the front edge of the stage but out of sight of the audience.  In addition, vertical rows of lamps were set behind each wing at the sides of the stage.

The common method of lighting the stage and auditorium was by means of tallow candles mounted in crude hoops or chandeliers, hoisted aloft on pulleys to hang in dripping splendour! Not only were there the hot drops of wax to contend with but the twisted wicks had to be constantly trimmed during the performance.  This was the duty of the snuff boy who was also responsible for the dramatic transformation from light to darkness.

From Wax to Gas

The first major advance in several centuries was the introduction of gas lighting. Near the end of the 18th century, the Scottish engineer William Murdock developed a practical method to distil gas from coal for illumination. The first successful adaptation of gas lighting for the stage was demonstrated in the Lyceum Theatre, London, in 1803 by a German, Frederick Winsor.

The advantages of gas lighting were immediately realized yet no new methods of lighting were devised specifically for stage lighting. The conventions remained the same:

  • footlights
  • border lights
  • strip lights

In addition, even though an opening gas jet flame was much brighter than oil lamps or candles, there were also disadvantages to gas: heat, offensive vapours, and the serious fire hazard of the open flame!


As early as 1846, the Paris Opéra developed the earliest electric lighting effect, simply to represent a beam of sunlight. By 1860 the Paris Opéra had also developed a lightning machine, a rainbow projector, and a luminous fountain. Most important, the company made the earliest spotlight;  a carbon arc and reflector housed in a hood, which included a lens and a shutter.

The next great advance in lighting was the development of the incandescent electric lamp, in which light is produced by a filament electrically heated to incandescence. The invention of a practical electric lamp by Thomas Edison in 1879 marked the beginning of the modern era of stage lighting.

Gas was quickly discarded; within one year the progressive Paris Opéra introduced the new system and theatres around the world began to follow suit.

At the turn of the 20th century, incandescent lamps were in almost universal use for stage lighting, but still, no new methods or techniques of lighting appeared. The conventions remained the same and merely electrified

  • footlights
  • border lights
  • strip lights

An Alternative

With rumours of motion pictures being developed, theatre production need to step up its game.  Belasco and Hartman collaborated and introduced a standard of realism in stage lighting that anticipated this new era.  In their lighting laboratory, Belasco and Hartman developed and refined many new lighting instruments. Individual sources were developed and in addition to footlights, border lights and strip lights, they were now able to use light to illuminate the acting areas from above the stage as well as from the auditorium.

So how has sound in theatres evolved and developed?

Sound Evolution

Prior to the 1930s, the manner in which sound in the theatre was produced had not changed for more than 2,000 years!  Music was played by musicians present in the theatre. Sound effects were produced by people who mechanically created sounds during every performance of the show.

In the 1930s, however, the recording industry expanded rapidly throughout the world. Along with recordings of classical and popular music, the first sound-effects libraries were developed. These recordings contained short tracks of many different sounds, from barking dogs to steam locomotives.  These sound libraries were actually first developed for the growing radio market and were soon adopted by theatre technicians.

However, there was a slight problem.  The playing of such material depended on a person’s ability to place a phonograph needle onto a record at just the right time and in just the right place.  In addition, the individual had to adjust the phonograph’s volume on cue; consequently, the quality of these effects was often uneven.

Advances in Sound Engineering

In the early 1950s there were several simultaneous developments in the audio industry that ushered in the modern era of sound in the theatre. Advances in electronic engineering greatly enhanced the fidelity of recording and playback equipment. Sophisticated amplifiers, loudspeakers, and speaker enclosures all contributed to a previously unobtainable level of realism in the reproduction of sound.

For the first time the effects and the music needed during a production could be played from a central location. The playback deck as well as the amplifiers and mixing and equalization equipment were now housed in a booth at the back of the auditorium. Portable loudspeakers were placed wherever needed on the stage or in the auditorium and the sound operator could direct the sound for a particular cue to its appropriate location at a specific loudness level

Vocal Reinforcement

The changes to sound in the theatre over the ensuing three decades were again technologically based.  The most significant change came in the area of vocal reinforcement. By the early 1960s, it was standard practice in productions of musicals to use microphones to help project singers’ voices over the orchestra. These microphones were typically spaced across the front of the stage for downstage pickup and hung in the fly loft for upstage pickup. But these systems were not ideal. In a typical installation, singers had to stand directly in front of one of the downstage microphones for best results. The cables connecting the microphones to the mixing console were also subject to radio-frequency interference caused by the stage lighting system.

The development of miniaturized wireless microphones in the 1980s significantly improved vocal reinforcement. Wireless microphones sent their signal to the mixing desk via a small low-power FM radio transmitter hidden somewhere on the actor. The microphone is often placed in the actor’s hair or mounted on a flesh-coloured headset mouthpiece.

Beyond Musicals

The use of wireless microphones soon expanded beyond musical theatre to every type of theatrical presentation. The advantages of audiences’ being able to clearly hear actors were obvious. Also, the ability to modulate the loudness of an actor’s voice allowed directors and sound designers to begin experimenting with the use of background music and effects throughout entire scenes in much the same way that movies and television used sound.


The other significant technological development to affect the sound industry in the 1980s was digitization. Digital sound equipment began appearing early in the decade enabling much greater creativity;

  • Signal processors
  • amplifiers,
  • mixing consoles,

Digital signals can accurately replicate an original sound and can be manipulated to enable practical engineering that might otherwise not be possible with analogue, however there is ongoing debate among sound designers as to the quality of sound produced by analogue and digital equipment. There is a popular debate centred on the aesthetic issue of whether digitally reproduced sound demonstrated the same “tonal warmth” as sound recorded using an analogue signal which is attributed to the effect of differing rates of digital sampling.

So, when you’re taking a break from the ongoing daily grind this festive season and enjoying the pantomime banter with your little ones telling Widow Twankee that “he’s behind her!”, have a look around the theatre and just think how far the sound and lighting production has come over the centuries.

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