Influence of Culture and Technology on the Stage Design


Revolution of the theatre has taken place through different stages throughout human history. These range from Hellenistic Theatres to the present theatres. The earliest productions were limited given the nature of the theatre buildings. The theatre buildings did not accommodate multiple features of plays and other scenes of theatre.1 The early design was driven by culture as opposed to the recent design which is greatly shaped by technology.

Development was geographically different given that each country had a different theatrical system. This is until much later when the similarities became evident after religious rituals became non- performing arts.

Church theatres were the most dominant at the time when medieval religious art was used to educate the believers on the various rites and observances of their religion. This was done for example through dramatization of the Bible characters which was effective in teaching especially the New Testament. Staging conventions was a major concern for the church as the number of followers increased and the need to attend to the “flock” triggered the expansion of the staging system.

In this chapter the author is going to discuss the influence of culture on current theatrical system. The researcher will be looking at the alteration of theatre design before and after the 20th century and how culture had affected these alterations. Several cultural aspects of the society which have led to the alteration will be looked into. One among them is technology.

Technology, Culture and the Alteration of Theatre Design before and after the 20th Century


Before embarking on the discussion of projection technology and theatre design, it is important to note at this juncture that culture in any given society is reflected through various aspects. These include the form of art in the society, the building style in the society among others. Technology is such one characteristics of societal culture. Technology itself is a reflection of human culture. Technology on its part affects several attributes of the society. This includes the building style that is adopted among others. To this end, the researcher is going to look at how technology has impacted on the change in the design of theatre before and after the 20th century.

Projection Technology, Culture and the Alterations in Theatre Design

This equipment has been successfully used to project images in motion in theatre screens. This technology has made it possible to host a large audience in a given theatre. In fact different stages can be used with just one projector reflected towards the audience. Another aspect of this innovation is that three or more auditoriums can be used with just one projector. Discovery of xenon made it possible for a projector to work from different auditoriums. Changing scenes from one point to the other has been effective especially in the multiplex cinemas.

Acoustics and Theatre Design

The design of theatres has helped in solving the acoustics problem after audibility was enhanced by the use of a sound system. The sound system is divided into various categories. These are for example A and B chains. The chains contain powerful amplifiers as well as public address systems referred to as the speakers. These are stationed at different corners of the theatre and therefore the acoustics problem is not experienced in present day theatre system. One amplifier is used with one speaker mounted at the back of the screen. Dolby effect is used in the theatre to project the sound. It is technically referred to as the stereo variable area whereby several wires are used to project sound both on the right and on left channel. For the sound to be clear and effective, three speakers are staged at the back of the screen, one at the left, another at the centre and the other to the right. There are also many speakers placed at the back of the auditorium to create a surround system.

Different tracks installed sent sound to different speakers in the theatre. For example the left track transmits sound to the speaker on the left side while the right track is connected to the right speaker. On the other hand, the centre track combines sound from all the speakers and channels it to the centre of the auditorium. This enables the audience to hear even off screen sounds. With an increase in the level of innovation, sound quality has improved with the increase of more than 80 Hz in the system. The subwoofers are connected to the amplifiers to boost the sound from the normal speakers. There also equalizers to transmit quality sound to the audience.

Auditorium Design

With the recent alterations on the structure of theatre, attention has shifted to the increase in size of the structures to enable them accommodate thousands of people at a go. The problem that was associated with this large number of spectators was the relationship between the audience area and the picture size. In the past, the auditorium was organized in such a way that the audience seated on the front row could have a “………view of the stage twice the picture width while the back row was to view the stage six image width”.

The structural idea still exists but with improvements in technology, structural alterations have taken place. Today, the concept has been replaced with the use of focal lens to increase or decrease the size of the image. This is depending on the seating capacity of the auditorium. To get an exact or more accurate focal length, the lens distance which is also referred as the throw is multiplied by the width of the hole inside the projector through which light enters into the projector. The result is divided by the picture width. Alterations in the structure of theatre as a result of technology are evident from the screens used. It is noted that today theatre screens have holes that allows sounds from the speakers mounted at the back of the screen to be audible.

Reverberation in the auditorium is a major problem especially in large theatres. This has been addressed through structural adjustments of the theatre. The problem has been addressed partially by ensuring that the theatre is suited with a tight ceiling and large interior spaces. In addition to this, the wall is curved to avoid the existence of parallel walls since they cause reverberations of sound. This is when sound is reflected between the two parallel walls. Right angled features are also avoided in theatre architecture today.

Scenic Design

This is also referred to as stage design in theatrical art. The scenic design has undergone a series of structural alterations from ancient backgrounds to a modern state of the art theatre. Today, the designers consist of professionals who are educated and trained in theatre arts. The stage in these days is designed to make sure it appealing to the audience by reflecting the theme or the concept of the play or act staged. This involves a range of elements such as colours and shapes among others.

Modern stage design is carried out by qualified designers in collaboration with other experts in stage performance. This is especially so when moving the stage from one scene to the other. In the process, valuable information is passed on to the other team. This is for instance the technical directors as well as the prop masters involved in the staging.

Stage Design Between 17th and 20th Century

Elizabethan Stage Design

Theatres in Britain were altered by people from different classes. The individuals changed the face of the theatre and some of the features therein. The first group consisted of individuals from high class in the society who preferred opera theatre art. They opted for a different type of theatre system specifically suited for staging operas. The other group consisted of the working class who were the majority in London. This group preferred theatres with acting scenic illusions as well as moving stages. This led to the fall of the Georgian theatres since the size of the audience increased with little space available for them.

Since then, efforts to come up with suitable stages in theatre have continued to face many challenges. This is given that an amicable solution was not found soon enough. Different contributions were made by different artists who came up with a lot art work to be performed. But this was difficult given that the stage was not adequate. For example the Olympia theatre under Lucia Vestries was a bit different from the previous theatres but it was still not adequate. This is due to the high demand on the part of the audience. Its significance was evident after the manager of the Olympia Group took control of all activities on the stage by placing them under one unit. She also introduced a box set stage in 1832 which was characterised by normal hinged doors instead of the previously used side wings. This was a structural alteration of theatre. Since then many actors and stage directors disregarded the use of side wings and instead embraced the use of rigid walls. A unique stage sunk by hydraulic mechanism was also introduced in the late 19th century.

The staging system was to be improved to include realistic visual arts. It was noted that the proscenium type of stage was ideal for illusion art. In this case, proscenium was used to separate the auditorium from the actors. It was first used in Italy in Farnese Theatre but was not modified to serve that purpose. By then it was just used temporarily. Boxes were replaced by open balconies in the late 19th century. The introduction of machinery in this period facilitated the emergence of complex stages that comprised of flying actors. Improvements on the earlier staging were also in the process. For instance, the Elizabethan traps used in the 16th century were modified into ghost slides in which it seemed as if the actors were rising from the ground and sliding into the air.11

Stage lighting was another structural alteration that was brought about by culture in this period. The lighting was improved between the 19th and 20th centuries. The discovery of gas- light played an important role in the lighting of the stage. Light spill was used to prevent light from illuminating unwanted scenery during performance on the stage.

Staging in Rome and Italy

In Rome, stages consisted of raised platforms to enable the audience to have a clear view of the performance. The seating arrangement was almost circular and at the back of the stage there was a structure that was used as dressing rooms for the actors. The back room was also used in controlling back scenes. The back scenes did not have curtains and instead doors that faced the audience were used. In the 16th century, the stage was decorated with materials from Greece but this changed later and was replaced by the use of architectural design with beautiful ornaments.

In Roman theatres, the stage was entirely used by performers who used the entrance from the wings. Different entrances into the stage signified different scenes. For example a town scene was played through the use of the entrance on the left. When the actor exited through the right door, it was known that he was going for a forum.

Italy on the other hand had a different staging system. As scene changing became a major problem in Italy in the 17th century, there was a need to make some improvements to address the problem. This was achieved when structural alterations were made to enable a smooth transition from one scene to the other. This was by getting rid of the visible wings so as to expose the other scenes as they take off. Grooves were mainly used on the stage to put the flats in place and also to turn around the wings when exposing the incoming scene. There was a problem in switching from one realistic scene to the other. This persisted until in the middle of the 18th century when designers invented the use of the special effect which was employed in medieval arts.

Through the use of special effects, the intermezzi actors switched from using characters in the bible to general objects and animals including human beings. Equipments were used to suspend actors in the air making it possible to act with a variety of characters. Clothes with different colours were used to change the scene or represent clouds by lowering them to the stage.

Development of Stage Equipment

The discovery of electricity significantly affected the stage design and production of art. Stage lighting was a major problem that was fully solved by electricity. This led to stage beautification and in addition, the problem of scenic change was also solved. Electricity was in high demand to help in switching from one cumbersome scene to the other especially after the naturalistic period.

The first ever revolving stage was introduced in Munich. This innovation enabled a transition from one scenic setting to another by elevating stage with a new set of scenes as the previous scene was lifted and withdrawn from the stage. The revolving stage led to orchestra pit apron lifts which were used to create a contrast between the stage and the auditorium. There was the problem of spectators confronting the actors but apron lift addressed by moving the scenic events.

Post Modern Theatre

This structural design originated from Europe in the start of the 20th century as a postmodern philosophy. It was triggered by the rise of modernisation as humans started aspiring to have a modernist theatre. The theatre was characterised by state of the art facilities such as computers and an efficient lighting system. The force behind the development of the postmodern facility was no longer cultural but technological in orientation. This in turn made the audience gain personal understanding of their beings. This is as opposed to the previous association of individuals at communal level.

Postmodern theatre was characterised by the use of different techniques in the formulation of modern art. This was based on the fact that modernism has taken root in many places in the world. Therefore this criterion could only be addressed using modern means.15 First, the societal norms are constantly changing and therefore the perception and the presentation of theatrical arts was formed to be at par with the changing scenario. Secondly, it is noted that the world is shifting away from linearity by embracing multiplicity. As a result of this, there were peripatetic art elements hence the postmodern art.

The post modern theatre facility is characterised by different backgrounds and textualities in which the former are imitations presented as original works. Several authors have referred to this form of art as a stolen heterogeneous art elements incorporated in the current media scenes. Meta- theatre is clearly defined by this art in which the real scenes are always shifting and in the process, self consciousness is felt. It is argued that there is no high or low aspect of modern art. The argument is that interpretation is “……..only and entirely done by the viewer’s inner judgement (and) this is not supposed to be viewed otherwise”.


This structure has an outer upper space and it started in ancient Greece and Roman as an avenue for entertainment. The amphitheatres had large seating areas arranged in ascending order. They were an improvement on the normal theatres and they achieved this by combining two arch shaped auditoriums. The acts and other performances took place in the middle of the stage. An example of modern amphitheatre is the stadium. Some stadiums have a roof while others are open.

Amphitheatres are closely associated with semicircular theatres of ancient Greece. In ancient Greece, theatres were formed from sunken gorges but later in the 17th century they were constructed on the ground. This is for example the Roman amphitheatre of Arles which was used for many activities such as bull fighting, wrestling, gladiator combat and dancing.

The modern amphitheatres have several features depending on the use of the facility. One of the outstanding features is the band shell which is a curved surface constructed to enable sound to bounce back to the audience. Some band shells are constructed both on the stage and behind the audience to facilitate in the amplification of acoustics.

Materials used in Traditional and Contemporary Theatres

In ancient times, locally available materials were used in constructing theatres. The materials were significant to the culture of that time. Stone and wood was used to put up the stage. Audience in most cases sat on wooden benches or stones placed around the curved area. Most of the stages at that time consisted of open spaces but the Italian stages were roofed with thatches which were referred as the shadow of the heavens. In ancient Rome, wooden stands were used to raise the stage especially in the tragedy and Hellenistic eras. The stages sometimes collapsed and killed the audience.

The theatre system changed with the change in cultural practices. Materials used for the construction and preparation of theatre have changed significantly in recent times. With advances made in the technological sector, different materials are used to construct theatres as opposed to ancient theatres. Electricity has enabled the construction of mechanical stages with elevators that can switch different stages for different scenes. Use of glass has made modern theatres more appealing than the traditional theatres. Modernisation has led to the use of modern structures as opposed to the cultural theatres where decoration was done from the cultural point of view.

Urban Landscape and Theatre

From the discourse given above, it is evident that different dramas gave rise to different shapes of theatres. For example renaissance from ancient Greece and Rome had a great impact on the current urban landscape and theatre construction. The Romans loci for example are still being used in locating the urban structure. They used the Campidoglio above the Medieval City which was significant in theatre construction. The landscape was ideal since the background faced the lower side of the hill in the middle of the city. Urbanism as a cultural element is therefore influential in theatre location and it appeals for a central and converging point.22


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