Scenic Design: A History of Change and Innovation
by Janet Irwin
Design for the theatre is usually broken down into four categories:
- Set (including props)
This website focuses on sets, or scenic design, while remembering that all design elements work together. Before we look at what we see onstage, let’s consider the history of buildings and structures where plays take place.
Our debt to the Ancient Greeks
The western tradition of theatre began in ancient Greece. Ruins of the earliest theatres – great outdoor amphitheatres – are still standing in places like Greece, Italy and Turkey. What a treat to see these structures and marvel at how well they served their purpose.
The designers of those theatres understood that maximum communication between the stage and audience was essential. Theatre was the place where citizens gathered to hear vital issues discussed, declaimed and dissected. The tragedies and comedies of the great Classical playwrights stirred their audiences to passionate dialogue, argument and intense political engagement. Those huge amphitheatres allowed literally thousands of spectators to see, hear and share the onstage action that was so important to their daily lives, without the audio amplification that we now take for granted.
Even then someone needed to make sure that actors were seen and heard in order for the dialogue to continue, and that hasn’t changed.
Those early architects and builders considered
- How sound traveled both for the human voice and the accompanying music,
- What natural daylight would fall on the stage,
- What the actors would wear (masks and elevated shoes) and
- What stage machinery might enable the special effects needed to allow for the visits of gods to mortals.
The actual “set” design as we think of it now was minimal. For the most part, the actors’ voices, music and dance carried the story. Costumes were chosen for maximum visibility for the actors. Lighting was the bright hot Mediterranean sun.
What Has Happened Since
The history of design for theatres and for the sets on which theatre is played since ancient times is a fascinating story of change and innovation.
Over many hundreds of years, performances have popped up on urban European streets, in churches, on traveling wagons, in castles, in courtyards, in purpose-built auditoria and on sites designed for other purposes, like factories, hospitals, and train stations. Early stage sets were portable – banners, structures built on wagons – but later innovations include the fascinating and sophisticated stage machinery in Baroque theatres allowing ships to sail and sea-storms to sink them.
The indoor theatres we use today – often splendidly equipped with the latest technology – owe a lot to what evolved over the centuries. The Teatro Olimpico, designed by the Italian architect Palladio in the late 1500s, is the oldest surviving enclosed theatre in the world, and its design was inspired by a Roman architect’s plans many centuries earlier.
The Twentieth Century
The modern concept of design for the theatre, and the emergence of “designers” developed during the twentieth century. It was not until the 1920s that scenic design, or set design, was listed in the theatre programs as a production rol e.
The modern set design er emerged early in the new century. A t that time electrical lighting was in its early stages and its use in theatres was rudimentary but poised for the huge advances to come. Actors usually supplied their own costumes and the notions of coordination, colour, texture and esthetics were pretty ad hoc. Audio amplification had yet to be invented.
But, architecture, carpentry, painting and non-electrical lighting for the stage were well established and the period from roughly 1900 to 1970 was a highly innovative one for many scenic designers. Influenced by the Bauhaus Movement, and other important developments in the visual arts, theatre design established itself as a distinct discipline and proceeded to develop conventions for what would be seen on Twentieth Century stages.
The 21st century builds on the past, with the important difference of accessible and steadily advancing technology. The increasing use of computer generated imagery, computerized lighting systems, robotics and technologies that allow stage walls and floors to move, rise and drop at the touch of a finger to a keyboard mean that the future of stage design will be one of innovation and stunning visual effectiveness.
To learn more about some of the many important moments, movements and artists in theatre history, use your web browser to research:
Classical Greek Theatre
The Globe Theatre
Castle Theatre, Cesky Krumlov
Drottningholm Palace Theatre
Perspective theatre scenery
Edmund Gordon Craig