In the days of the ancient Greeks, plays were put on during the day so the audience could see the actors. As such you could say that the sun was the world’s very first form of theatrical lighting. That remained the dominant method for centuries. When we get to the Renaissance and plays moved indoors, candles were utilized around the foot of the stage, so these footlights could illuminate the actors.
The next leap in technology was gaslight. It was in 1818 when the Chestnut Theatre in Philadelphia became the first theatre in America to employ this new lighting marvel. This particular inventive system had the ability to increase the amount of illumination to see the actors, by having a member of the crew turn the gas jets up at a given moment. As one was dealing with active fire, this system did present a host of drawbacks.
In 1881 the Savoy Theatre became the first theatre in the world to be lit solely by electricity. This was followed in 1882 by the Bijou Theatre in Boston.
With the advent of electricity in theatres and the power for stage lights, advances in the types and uses of various instruments came swiftly. But it was in 1975 when Tharon Musser used the first computer-controlled lighting board in designing the show, ‘A Chorus Line’, that lighting design took a huge step forward.
Today advances made in computer hardware enable boards to oversee a wide range of lighting instruments. Not only lights but smoke, fog, video and a host of special effects can be controlled simultaneously. From crashing helicopters and chandeliers to the brightest of lights focused on the audience, there is not an effect or lighting design to be thought of that cannot be realized.
While the sun was a very good start, thanks to the advances in computer hardware, current theatrical lighting will make viewing the stage and actors more dynamic and emotional than ever.