Light Book Club

To celebrate the second anniversary of our first Performing Light symposium, we are launching an online book club! We want to use this as a space to cultivate discussion and thinking about light in performance. The idea is that we can use this as a digital meeting place, where we all read the same piece of research, and share our responses, thoughts, and questions with each other over the next month. Discussion will open on Monday 18th of February and run until the 18th of March.

We have nominated Scott Palmer’s article ‘A Choréographie of Light and Space: Adolphe Appia and the first Scenographic Turn’ as our shared reading. This is an open-access article, available to all, for free, here. This article looks at a key moment in the history of lighting design in European theatre, and points to some highly significant links between Appia’s ideas about light on stage and his practical experience in theatre production. So, we think this will provide an excellent jumping-off point for discussions around legacies of thinking about light in performance and the important overlaps between research and practice in light for performance.

Participation in this e-symposium is open to all, and we hope you find the discussions and questions that arise to be as inspiring as we have found our live events to be! We really look forward to your thoughts, comments, and questions, as well as this opportunity to share ideas about light with each other. To aid the discussion, we will be posting a new question or provocation every Monday morning, and we also invite contributions or responses outside of these prompts.

Please use the comment space below to add your voice to this open conversation about light, practice, and research in performance. We are looking forward to your contributions and an engaging discussion.

Week 4 (11th March) Provocation:

One of the things Palmer does in this article is to examine Appia’s discoveries about the theatrical possibilities of light in the context of the specific staging practices of the late nineteenth century. The emergence of electric carbon arc and limelight sources introduced much more intense beams of light than were previously possible. Palmer argues:  ‘it is the impact of these technologies, rather than the advent of electric lighting, that underpins Appia’s notion of ‘active light’ which is so central to the scenographic revolution of the twentieth-century stage’ (34).

If that particular nineteenth century mixture of lighting technologies – the softer gas light and the more powerful limelight and carbon arc – was of such fundamental importance to Appia’s re-imagining of the aesthetic and dramaturgical potential of light on stage, might the same be true in our own context?

How might we begin to recognise how the specific technologies of our own era invite contemporary understandings of performance light?


10 thoughts on “Light Book Club

  1. So – am kicking off and hoping some of you might be brave enough to respond….I wrote this paper because I was fed up of reading that Appia was simply a theorist and somehow divorced from practical applications of light. During the research for my Light volume I went back and began to translate some of his writings from the French and it is clear that they have often been misinterpreted when re-framed in English.

    I began to wonder ‘What was it about Appia that allowed him to conceive of such a revolutionary shift in thinking about light for the theatre?’ – “Why him in particular?’ – his ideas were certainly formed before Edward Gordon Craig’s similar sensibility…We might think of how each of us was first inspired by or entranced by theatre lighting – and why we got involved in this particular practice situated across art and craft? We know that Craig was inspired by the blue lights as an 8 year old standing in the wings of the Lyceum Theatre with his mother (The Corsican Brothers in 1880) Appia was 16 years his senior and we know he had experienced lighting from an audience’s perspective in many of the major opera houses in central Europe – but these he notes were often disappointing visually.

    When researching Appia’s first period in Dresden (which had not previously been acknowledged as critical in his artistic development) – I realised that the particular combination of music education, drawing/art classes AND critically a period of internship at the Opera House was central to the emergence of a new lighting philosophy. The coalescence of these specific conditions – especially working alongside German lighting engineer, consultant, and entrepreneur Hugo Bähr brought together the skills and understanding that was necessary to revolutionise thinking about the potential of light.

    I imagine Appia working in the wings using or at least witnessing the portable arc-lights and their dramatic bright focused beams on the stage – that created dramatic shadow (‘Active light’) and of course what that did to the two-dimensional scenery designed to be seen by gaslight (exposing its crude construction and revealing it as scenery!). So given that Appia was working with the master of German (and central European) lighting why does he not acknowledge this directly in any of his writing – or write about this internship? Why was he so reluctant to mention the specific technologies and techniques involved in the creation of effects that he witnessed first hand? Was there a commercial sensibility (Bähr was the main seller of lighting equipment) – or more likely the fact that Appia didn’t want his artistic ideas to be somehow ‘tainted’ by reference to the technology itself? Was there a need for art to be separated from the craft to be taken seriously? Or was he just not very interested in the workings of theatre equipment? (He admits to struggles in describing these technologies when writing in French) – and in later years when he returns to Dresden of course he works again with a lighting engineer Alexander von Salzmann to be able to realise his work at the Hellerau Festspielhaus. Was he just not very technically minded…? Do you need to be in order to be a LD?

    I’m genuinely interested in your thoughts on this article – and happy for critical responses! Don’t worry if you don’t feel that you know much about these historical figures/moments – Should we ignore the craft when thinking/writing/discussing light? There are some big questions which go well beyond this particular article!!- (both in academia and in lighting practice)

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    1. Three years ago, I decided to apply for a PhD programme in Portugal on stage lighting design. I was at the beginning of my research when I came across with Palmer’s “Light”. My first comment was: “Finally a book without projectors and optical diagrams!”. I leaf through the book, and it was just words. I was delighted!
      Then I discovered Crisafulli’s “Active Light” and Yaron Abulafia. I thought to myself: “After all, there are people also to “rethink about light” as the Brazilian Roberto Camargo (2015) says.
      In 2013 I had to (for educational and legal reasons), for the first time, think about and right about my creative stage light design. It was difficult! Hard to justify our lighting decisions. We are accustomed to think and express ourselves visually and the use of words to translate light and its effect is not so easy. Often the effect that the light provokes cannot be perceived very well as it is provoked, and not even the creator can explain it very well. You only know that it works. It is a personal response at a particular moment in a particular place, inside a “structure”, as Paule Constable in Nick Moran’s “Right Light” says.
      As in painting, the painter dominates the techniques and reinvents new ones to express himself in a different way. In light it is the same: new projectors, new lamps just give us more possibilities.
      I do not find it very relevant that Appia does not talk about techniques. As in painting, it is important to know that the mixture of cyan and yellow is green. But the exact green will only be obtained in expressive response, to communicate in a given context, and to cause a certain effect. This particular green in conjunction with the other elements and within a certain concept is that will bring about the final artistic effect, as well as many other basilar elements.
      By this I mean that the technique is basilar. How you respond to it in a given context, that’s what matters.
      Sometimes we talk about the colour or a kind of projector that was used, and other optical qualities of that particular used in a particular piece, because we are afraid of not knowing the function of that light in a particular scene in context with all the performance.
      “Should we ignore the craft when thinking/writing/discussing light?”
      No, but we should not ignore or to be afraid to talk about the function of light in a performance as well.
      Good initiative! Congrats!
      Sorry my English – some was google translator, I confess.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thanks for your contribution – you reminded me of Robert Edmond Jones….
        “Does this mean that we are to carry images of poetry and vision and high passion in our minds while we are shouting out orders to electricians on ladders in light-rehearsals?
        Yes. This is what it means.”
        (The Dramatic Imagination (1941: 128))

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      2. Lol! Of course! Thank you. Or:

        “Slowly, slowly we begin to see lighting in the theatre, not only as an exciting craft but as an art, at once visionary and exact, subtle, powerful, infinitely, difficult to learn. We begin to see that drama is not an engine, running at full speed from the overture to the final curtain, but a living organism. And we see light as a part of that livingne“ (RED, 1941)

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  2. We are moving previous provocation to the comments, so you can still pick up these threads for discussion.

    Week 1 (18 February) provocation:
    Palmer notes in the conclusion that “Appia’s focus in his writings is almost exclusively on the art of light but it is interesting to speculate whether he did not wish to detract from this purpose by drawing attention to the techniques he had observed, or to divulge commercially sensitive technological practices” (p.44). Given the arguments posited in the rest of the article, do you agree with this/why do you think this might be? Does this separation of art and “technique” persist today?

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    1. Week 2 (25 February) provocation:
      Most histories of lighting design acknowledge a debt to the work of early pioneers like Adolphe Appia, Edward Gordon Craig, and Loie Fuller. It is interesting to think about how much these early accounts have shaped the ways in which we think about, talk about, or practice lighting design for performance. Responding here last week, Palmer spoke about his curiosity about what led to Appia’s shift in thinking about light. Leaving that discussion open (along with last week’s prompt about technique and craft which is still live in the comments) this week we would like to turn to the legacy – or legacies – of ‘active light’.

      Pointing to Appia’s wide reaching influence, Palmer notes in his article that in ‘establishing the fundamental principles of stage lighting, Appia drew attention to the materiality of light, its effect upon stage space and the actor’s body within it. Appia therefore evolved a new dramaturgy, with light at its centre’ (p. 32). How much do we recognise Appia’s ‘active light’ as a fundamental principle in stage lighting today?


  3. Week 3 (4 March) provocation:

    The subtitle of Palmer’s article concerns the “first scenographic turn”. Recently, Collins and Aronson (2015), Curtin and Roesner (2015) and Quigley (2018) have addressed a second “scenographic turn”. Writing about the inclusion of sound in definitions of scenography, Roesner maintains that this turn is:

    [N]ot (just) a paradigm suggesting we should pay a bit more attention to the stage design of theatrical productions; it is a profound re-evaluation of the aesthetics, the dramaturgical function and the visceral experience of spaces and images for performances; an understanding of scenography as emancipated from merely illustrating or furnishing the realization of a dramatic text on stage. (Roesner, in Curtin and Roesner, 2015, p.109)

    Roesner goes on to link this shift back to the thinking and practice of Appia, in particular, noting how his ideas of light, rhythm and space have influenced current theatre practitioners working in sound.

    How has Appia’s work influenced your own practice? In what other fields can you see Appia’s influence?


    1. It does not seem to me that contemporary light designers are aware that they are directly or indirectly influenced by Appia’s ideas. Even those who know his legacy well, it will be difficult to realize this during a realization of a production, because nowadays we are influenced by a lot of things.
      But I am worried more about the way in which this “emancipation” of performance design, in general: this path that runs away from the illustrative that will lead, according to Yaron Abulafia, to the more autonomous state of light, which “only light can do”, his ground of representation -> open meaning.

      as Palmer quoted, and well, Patrice Pavis:
      “the stage event is not always easy to describe, because signs in current performance practice are often tiny, almost imperceptible, and invariably ambiguous, if not unreadable”

      Just take it as a provocation:
      Will this emancipation of either scenography or stage light design become so autonomous, so that it is tiresome and not very well accepted by the general public, because they cannot connect in any way to something of their own world?


      1. I think that this emancipation is in part reflecting the change in our everyday experiences of light and sound. We have become saturated in light and sound, from our screens, our phones, our portable audio devices. Today’s audience has a very different relationship to light. We look into light for information (websites, email), in conversations (skype, facetime), in our social interactions (facebook, twitter, instagram) even ordering food! We no longer receive light from screens as a mode of passive entertainment any more and so I think it follows that light (in particular) has developed this freedom to interrupt and to abstract. It fragments time and space in our everyday world, so why not in the world of performance? As Aronson notes, “the way in which we light the stage is indicative of how we see light in our daily lives” (2005:30). Laura Grondahl applies this very specifically to video and projection, asking; “Is the combination of video and live performances emblematic for contemporary theatre exactly because it echoes our everyday experiences of mobility and spatial discontinuity?” (2014:30). I would suggest the same logic applies to the new vocabularies we are seeing emerge in lighting and sound.
        With reference to Appia, and back to Palmer’s text, could we then read the development of Active Light as a response to the technologies emerging at the time, such as the magic lantern? In my own practice the concept of the active light has remained an important idea (probably because I am a phd researcher as well as a practitioner and therefore revisit these texts a fair bit!) But for me it speaks to the conversation, the reaching out. It is the light that wants to talk to its audience.


  4. Pedro raises an important point in relation to audience experience and the complexities involved – but Katherine’s brilliant work is where you should turn for the best current thinking on this: Scenographic Light: Towards an Understanding of Expressive Light in Performance – available here
    I agree with Talia’s notion of the changing experiences of light conditions how we receive/perceive it – Tim Edensor is a good reference for thinking about this (Recent volume From Light to Dark: Daylight, illumination and Gloom).
    The magic lantern is a much older device – but it was the advent of the brighter light source that transformed its capabilities in the late C19th – and when adapted for stage use led directly not only to ‘active light’ but Appia’s acknowledgement of ‘projected light’ as a third kind in his typology of stage light (active/passive/projected). I argue that it was the brightness and focusability of the electric carbon arc, not electricity per se – (which didn’t at first – change the way that the stage was illuminated) that led to the creation of distinct shadows and the concept of ‘active light’. It is not as simple as Appia + new electricity = new lighting practice. Most commentaries don’t understand that the adoption of electric lighting was gradual, often in tandem with gas lighting and that the advantages of electricity; safety, control, brightness, focusability etc. were not immediate but incremental developments mainly in the C20th


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