Lighting as a Unifying Medium in Stage Design
Appia, Craig, Svoboda and Scenography

Adolph Appia and his Influence.

Adolphe Appia, born 1862 in Geneva, was a stage designer whose theories, especially on the interpretive use of lighting, helped bring a new realism and creativity to 20th-century theatrical production.

Adolphe Appia, son of Red Cross co-founder Louis Appia, was an architect and theorist of stage lighting and décor. He is probably best known for his many scenic designs for Wagner’s operas in which he rejected painted two-dimensional sets for three-dimensional 'living' sets, believing that shade was as necessary as light to form a connection between the actor and the setting of the performance in time and space. Through the use of control over light intensity, colour and manipulation, Appia created a new perspective of scene design and stage lighting.

Directors and designers have taken great inspiration from the work of Adolphe Appia, whose design theories and conceptualizations of Wagner’s operas have helped to shape modern perceptions of the relationship between the performance space and lighting. The central principle underpinning much of Appia’s work is that artistic unity is the primary function of the director and the designer. He advocated three elements as fundamental to creating a unified and effective 'mise en scene':

Dynamic and three dimensional movements by actors.

Perpendicular scenery.

Using depth and the horizontal dynamics of the performance space

Appia saw light, space and the human body as malleable commodities which should be integrated to create a unified 'mise en scene'. He advocated synchronicity of sound, light and movement in his productions of Wagner’s operas and he tried to integrate corps of actors with the rhythms and moods of the music. Ultimately however, Appia considered light as the primary element which fused together all aspects of a production and he consistently attempted to unify musical and movement elements of the text and score to the more mystical and symbolic aspects of light. He often tried to have actors, singers and dancers start with a strong symbolic gesture or movement and end with another strong symbolic pose or gesture. In his productions, light was ever changing, manipulated from moment to moment, from action to action. Ultimately, Appia sought to unify stage movement and the use of space, stage rhythm and the 'mise en scene'.

Appia was one of the first designers to understand the potential of stage lighting to do more than merely illuminate actors and painted scenery. His ideas about the staging of 'word-tone drama', together with his own stagings of Tristan und Isolde (Milan 1923) and parts of the Ring (Basle 1924-25) have influenced later stagings, especially those of the second half of the twentieth century.

For Appia and for his productions, the 'mise en scene' and the totality or unity of the performance experience was primary and he believed that these elements drove movement and initiated action more than any thing else (Johnston 1972). Appia’s designs and theories went on to inspire many other theatre creators such as Edward Gordon Craig, Jacques Copeau and Wieland Wagner.

Although his early training was in music, Appia studied theatre in Dresden and Vienna from the age of 26. In 1891 he propounded his revolutionary theories of theatrical production. Four years later he published 'La Mise en scène du drame Wagnérien' (1895; 'The Staging of the Wagnerian Drama'), a collection of stage and lighting plans for most of Wagner’s operas that clarified the function of stage lighting and enumerated in detail practical suggestions for the application of his theories.

In Die Musik und die Inszenierung (1899; 'Music and Staging'), Appia established a hierarchy of ideas for achieving his aims:

(1) a three-dimensional setting rather than a flat, dead, painted backdrop as a proper background to display the movement of the living actors;

(2) lighting that unifies actors and setting into an artistic whole, evoking an emotional response from the audience;

(3) the interpretive value of mobile and colourful lighting, as a visual counterpart of the music;

(4) lighting that spotlights the actors and highlights areas of action. He expanded his theories in a second book, L’Oeuvre d’art vivant (1921; 'The Living Work of Art').

Appia designed sets in Germany, France, Italy, and Switzerland. He collaborated with Émile Jaques-Dalcroze on numerous experimental theatre and dance productions. He also designed sets for La Scala opera house in Milan and for the opera house at Basel. His reputation rests on his theoretical writings rather than his relatively small output of executed designs.


Portrait photograph of Adolphe Appia (1862 - 1928),

Date: ca. 1900
Photographer unknown. Source Beinecke Library.  Original Image believed to be out of copyright.

Edward Gordon Craig (1872 - 1966)

Date: ca 1910
Photographer: Unknown

Josef Svoboda.

Date: ca. 1970
Photographer: unknown (reproduced from website

What is Scenography? 

The term 'scenography' includes all of the elements that contribute to establishing an atmosphere and mood for a theatrical presentation: lighting, sound, set and costume design; essentially, the 'mise en scene' attributed to the concepts set out by Adolph Appia..   'Scenography' has evolved from historical roots in classical antiquity and connections to the architects of the Renaissance era largely due to the theatrical activity in Eastern Europe in the twentieth century.

Michael Eagan writes:

Browsing in a bookstore in Prague, it was amazing to see that a large section was devoted to books and publications on the subject of stage design and scenographic art.

There were works on history, theory and criticism and an array of impressive monographs of various scenographers and their work, many of them lavishly illustrated with drawings and photographs. Judging from the sheer range and size of this section of books, it was clear that scenography was considered as equally important as other sections on painting, sculpture and architecture. Most of the works were in Czech, but there were several in Polish and German. Only a small percentage of this body of literature is translated or published internationally, consequently, this tremendous output of creativity and energy remains largely unknown outside Eastern and Central Europe.

The Prague Quadrennial

Much of the awareness of scenography as an art form is due to the Prague quadrennial, an exhibition of scenography and theatre architecture. The quadrennial was established in 1967 and takes place every four years in Prague, a city which many consider to be the most beautiful in Europe.

A city of ogival cupolas and needles in the sky, Prague is situated around a bend in the River Vltava, spanned by the magnificent Charles Bridge. .  .  .  The Gothic spires of Prague Castle and Saint Vitus Cathedral may be viewed from a modernist structure on the other side of the river, across a remarkable cityscape of roofs and domes. All of the complexity and variety of the architectural ensemble of the city co-exists happily, side by side. It is evident that esthetics and design have always been considered important here, making it difficult to imagine a more ideal city than Prague for an international exhibition of scenography, where the theatre has always been a viable and important form of artistic expression.

Even throughout the long period of Soviet domination, the theatre persisted (although sometimes subversively), and scenography continued to be an integral part of it. In some ways, because all of this artistic activity was taking place effectively behind the Iron Curtain, theatre production continued to flourish, shielded as it was from the rest of the world where it had become perhaps somewhat less relevant. It was a perfect setting for channeling some of this artistic energy into design for the theatre.

Since its inception, the Prague Quadrennial has evolved into a truly international forum for scenography. The best and most cutting-edge in stage design and theatre architecture is shown in an astounding selection of drawings, models and photographs, and there are a number of conferences and seminars given by leading world-figures in scenography.

There are the latest and most advanced ideas from Asia and South America as well as from Europe and North America. Scenography is subject to and influenced by the most current trends in design — as much as any other discipline — and it is endlessly fascinating to see the various regional and national versions of these styles. A graffiti-inspired design from contemporary Britain can be seen alongside Japanese minimalism and Brazilian post modernism.

The Bauhaus Movement in architecture and design and German Expressionism in painting and the theatre are both important artistic and intellectual antecedents to modern scenography. They established a design sensibility and esthetic that took root in Central and Eastern Europe in the period between the two world wars. After 1945, much of this region was cut off from the international community. While the rest of the world continued to be preoccupied with more literal and pictorial forms of representation; Eastern European artists, designers (and scenographers) seemed to be more concerned with a simpler kind of design that sought to find a visual metaphor, distill the image and evoke a mood.

This is not to say that this new scenography remained hermetically sealed behind the Iron Curtain, and although designers in Western Europe and America were slower to adapt, these design developments seeped out of Eastern Europe and gradually became known everywhere as a new vocabulary and lingua franca for contemporary scenography. In fact, the Soviet government actively promoted and supported all kinds of cultural and artistic exchanges. Not only did it seem harmless enough, but it reflected a kind of glory back onto an 'enlightened' communist regime.

Josef Svoboda: godfather of modern scenography

It was in this climate that Josef Svoboda (1920-2002) became known internationally as the godfather of modern scenography.

Trained as an architect, he began to design for the theatre early in his career. Along with his increasing reputation as a leading Czech artist, he had acquired the support of the cultural officialdom, which afforded him unprecedented permission to travel abroad, so that along with the Bolshoi Ballet, Svoboda was an important artistic export promoting the high culture of the former Soviet bloc.

Throughout this period, he gave numerous conferences and seminars at prestigious European and North American universities and designed extensively for theatres around the world. In Canada, he gave workshops in scenography at both Dalhousie University in Halifax and the Banff Centre for the Arts. During this time, Hamilton Southam (founder and former Executive Director of the National Arts Centre) saw an exhibition of Svoboda’s drawings and models that was presented in the NAC Salon, off the main lobby. Impressed by what he saw, he urged Bruce Corder (then director of opera production) to engage the famous scenographer, and subsequently he designed The Queen of Spades (1976), Ariadne auf Naxos (1977) and Idomeneo (1981) for the NAC Opera.

Svoboda’s scenography was already known in America, due partly to the great success of his Laterna Magika, staged in the Czech pavilion at Expo ‘67 in Montreal. It was universally acclaimed by theatre and architecture critics as the future of scenography, and was a blending of live theatre with projections and film techniques, in which actors entered and disappeared directly through projection screens composed of wide elasticized strips.

This production was originally created in the early 1960s for the famous experimental theatre in Prague known as the Aquarium. Designed by the Czech architect, Karel Prager, it was largely state-funded. It is a huge cube-shaped building, clad on the exterior in square frosted-glass tiles, and was intended as a showcase for contemporary and avant guard theatre productions. Its location was significant - virtually next-door to the National Theatre, home to both the Czech National Opera and Ballet.

It is an imposing architectural complex in the Beaux Arts style of classical revival, and an important expression of Czech national pride as its construction was financed through public subscription in the nineteenth century. There is an inevitable dialogue between Laterna Magika and The National Theatre which together represent the extremes of theatrical art in Prague: the most experimental forms of production juxtaposed against the classical and ultimate in establishment theatrical art.

The term 'set design' has a certain artisanal connotation but scenography has a long history and pedigree. As early as the first century B.C., Vitruvius spoke of stage design in De Architetura, today known as The Ten Books on Architecture. He wrote of how theatres built by Greeks and Romans in classical antiquity were conceived by architects as places for public assembly and spectacle. Theatre design and architecture have long enjoyed a privileged relationship.

Historical Interrelation of Architecture and Scenography

The separation of stage design from architecture is a modern notion. There has historically been less specialization and more cross-pollination of design disciplines. Indeed, Baldassare Peruzzi and Sebastiano Serlio, who designed the earliest theatres and perspective sets in the Italian Renaissance, had both studied architecture. Andrea Palladio, perhaps the most famous architect of the sixteenth century, designed the Teatro Olimpico ('Olympic Theatre') and its permanent sets at the end of his illustrious career. Inigo Jones, the English architect, designed stage sets in the eighteenth century, transferring perspective ideas learned in Italy to the theatre in England, and Joseph Furttenbach did the same thing in Germany. The Italian design clan of the Galli da Bibiena family worked extensively in scenography in many of the major European court and state theatres, popularizing what we know now as theatre a l’italienne. All of them had a firm grounding in architecture. .  .  .  .

The relationship between scenography and architecture

It was in this way that the relationship between scenography and architecture was forged. The annotation is identical in both cases: scale drawings of a plan, section and elevations, and often scale models. Architecture has always historically been expressed this way, and scenographic concepts must ultimately be represented in the same manner. The essential difference, of course, is that the stage is a fictional universe, a neutral space for imagined places. Even the most distorted early perspective sets are obviously plan-driven.

The modern theatre owes much to its historical and traditional connections with architecture, and lighting and sound design have been tossed into the mix because technology has made it possible to control and reproduce them, along with set and costume design. These four separate but inter-related disciplines are included in producing the scenography.

The director is involved throughout, but the look and feel of the performance is ultimately the result of a collective creative process. This idea of a design committee is taken literally in many contemporary European theatres and is often the practice in Montreal theatres - wherein no individual design credits are given, and the scenography is signed collectively by a group of 'conceptors' (concepteurs).

Historically, conception has been a reference to the set designer. This is the traditional usage, common in western Europe and America, along with specific credits given to costume, lighting and sound designers. This is normal, in that usually it is the set designer who first gives an architecture to the space of the stage.

So it is that the term 'scenography' has evolved from its historical antecedents in classical antiquity and its connection to the architects of the Renaissance. Largely due to the theatrical activity in Eastern Europe in the twentieth century, it has broadened its meaning to include all of the elements that contribute to establishing an atmosphere and a mood for a theatrical presentation.

[Text draws extensively on The origins of stage design through architecture by Michael Eagan]


Prague at Night
Prague Castle at Night

Ido,emeo 2
Design for Idomeneo, Re di Creta, by Mozart produced at National Arts Centre Opera, Ontario with design and production by Svoboda.

Date: 1981
Photographer: Unknown ©NAC, Canada

Ariadne auf Naxos produced at National Arts Centre Opera, Ontario with design and production by Svoboda.

Date: 1977
Photographer: Unknown ©NAC, Canada

The Queen of Spades produced at National Arts Centre Opera, Ontario with design and production by Svoboda.

Date: 1976
Photographer: Unknown ©NAC, Canada

Lohengrin 1
Wasserbild.  Painting in oil on wood of Act 2 setting of Werner Herzog's Bayreuth Festival production of Lohengrin with designs by Henning von Gierke.

Date: 1987
Reproduced from Henning von Gierke, Bühnenbild und kostume zu Lohengrin, published by Verlag fur moderne Kunst, Nürnberg

Rötelskizze.  Sketch in crayon on paper of Act 2 setting (In der Burg von Antwerpen) of Werner Herzog's Bayreuth Festival production of Lohengrin with designs by Henning von Gierke.

Date: 1987
Reproduced from Henning von Gierke, Bühnenbild und kostume zu Lohengrin, published by Verlag fur moderne Kunst, Nürnberg.

The banks of the Schelte. Act 2 setting of Werner Herzog's Bayreuth Festival production of Lohengrin with designs by Henning von Gierke.

Date: 1989
Reproduced from Bayreuth 1989: Rückblick und Vorschau published by the Bayreuther Festspiele

Note the water in the upstage area and the subtle low-key spotlighting as advocated by Adolf Appia.  Lighting design by Manfred Voss

Laterna Magika, Prague.

Laterna Magika (interior), Prague.

Located on Narodni Street, a famous Prague Street that separates Old Town from New Town is the unique ice-cube shaped Laterna Magika. Part of the National Theatre, Laterna Magika dates back to 1958 and features productions under the title Nová Scéna (New Scene) that include elements of modern and contemporary dance.

The first period of the theatre was under director Alfred Radok and stage designer Josef Svoboda who together premiered the troupe at the EXPO 58 in Brussels, Belgium at the Czechoslovak pavilion under the name Laterna Magika. After the success of the performance in 1958 a new theatre was constructed in 1959 and named after the first troupe. Continuing with the theatre’s success at home and abroad the second period of Laterna Magika started at the EXPO 67 in Montreal, Canada and at the EXPO 70 in Osaka, Japan. These performances not only premiered at foreign EXPOs but also travelled the world.

Laterna Magika specializes in a special type of theatre, non-verbal, that uses a combination of film projection, dance, sound, lights, pantomime, black light theatre elements and more, but completely without words making this non-verbal theatre a delight for everyone.

Carlo Galli-Bibiena
Baroque 1
Modell de Bühnendekoration Johnischer Palast by Carlo Galli-Bibiena.  (Model of the stage decoration by Carlo Galli-Bibien for the Ionian Palace, 1774 in Stockholm  for the marriage of Herzog von Södermanland at the Drottingholm court theatre)

Date 1774
Reproduced from Faszination der Bühne: Barocke Bühnentechnik in Europa, published by Verlag C u C Rabenstein, Bayreuth.

Further Thoughts on Mise en Scene

For further information on this topic, please follow this LINK.



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