Technology has increased the capabilities of theater in countless ways. From set design all the way to the performance itself, tech now plays a role in most theatrical productions. Whether it helps an actor’s voice reach everyone in the audience or assists the set designer in crafting stunning backdrops and props, tech makes an undeniable impact.
As you learn more about technology in theater history, it’s helpful to know what the theater was like before tech, the impact tech has made on theatrical productions and some of the most relevant areas of technological growth in relation to the stage.
The modern stage incorporates many pieces of technology — like lighting, sound systems, 3D printing systems and microphones — to improve the experience of those watching performances. Before modern-day technology, the theater was quite different. It’s estimated that theater began in the 6th century B.C. in Ancient Greece, where the art form took hold in Greek culture.
One of the first recorded elements of the theater and acting comes from 534 or 535 B.C. A wandering bard named Thespis jumped on to the back of a wooden cart and began to recite poetry, pretending he was each of the characters whose lines he was reading.
After Thespis, the first plays would rely on one actor accompanied by a chorus who helped the actor tell their story. In the 5th century, playwrights began to innovate as they added more actors to the stage. These first plays were held in the Theater of Dionysus in Athens but quickly spread across Greece.
While ancient technology was used occasionally in these productions, this early tech pales in comparison to today’s standards. Instead of using mics, actors would have to project their voices to the audience, with the only assistance being the acoustics of the amphitheater they played in. One impressive piece of tech from the era was the usage of a crane to make an actor look like they were flying. Other than this development, much of a performance was left to the audience’s imagination.
Early theatrical productions in Greece and Rome were staged in theaters that faced east to west to improve the lighting on the stage. This design made it so that plays could be put on in the afternoon, with the sunlight hitting the actors but not those seated in the orchestra section. This trend would continue for some time, with Shakespeare’s famous Globe theater having a partial roof with the center uncovered, allowing sunlight onto the stage.
Modernization would revolutionize the stage by offering tons of new technology to alter and improve the experience of the theater for all those involved.
As technology has improved, the impact it has had on the theater has increased as well — giving audiences a more immersive experience. Through new tech, the theater can impact three main senses: sight, hearing and smell. Learn more about how technology changed theater into what you see today:
The visual elements of a play or musical have always been important, and the use of masks, scenery and props have a long history on the stage. From the early Greeks’ use of cranes to “fly” characters onto the stage to the complex rigging systems of today that provide a polished and safe effect, stunning an audience with the visual has always been a goal.
Modern technology has made it easier for theaters to upgrade the visual appeal of their productions and accomplish a variety of tasks. Through automation and 3D printing, sets can be constructed faster, contain more detail and pull viewers deeper into the setting and story.
Additionally, new technology allows theatrical productions to incorporate video and other multimedia into their performance. Whether it be video backdrops that enhance a set with images of fog, clouds or rain or videos to aid a one-man show by showing relevant clips, video technology adds an extra dimension and gives set designers more to play with while crafting productions.
Lighting is another area where tech has impacted the theatrical experience. For much of the theater’s history, theaters would be constructed without a roof or would rely on potentially dangerous fire to illuminate the stage. In the 19th century, limelight transformed the stage, as it could be directed using lenses and reflectors. Limelight was eventually replaced in the 20th century by electrical lighting that has continued to develop into the modern lighting systems we see today.
Today’s lighting is often operated using a digital light board that can control hundreds of lights that go into a production. The growing capabilities of LED lights and electrical systems make it much easier for the modern theater to utilize specialized lighting systems. Instead of simply lighting the stage, modern technology can alter the intensity, pattern and color of lights with the press of a button or turn of a dial.
There are several ways tech has influenced the auditory experiences of viewers. For example, instead of having to create sound effects or music manually, production teams can simply download these effects or music from the internet. Additionally, sound design packages allow directors to layer sounds with ease, giving a performance more natural-sounding background noises, music and effects.
Microphone technology is one of the biggest developments for the stage. Instead of having to project their voices, actors speak into mics that project out from speakers placed in strategic locations in a theater. And instead of using handheld mics or those placed on the ground, performers can wear tiny mics as flesh-colored headsets or even hidden in their hair to give high-quality sound without the distraction of a visible microphone.
It’s not just the audience who have been impacted by these changes in sound technology. Quite famously, Bruce Willis, used an earpiece while on stage when acting in the play “Misery,” so he could be fed his lines. Besides earpieces, on-stage monitors can also display actor’s lines. While mics and speakers have been widely adopted, many actors choose not to use these earpieces and monitors at every performance.
While it’s not the first sense most people think of when they think of the theater, smell can be used to draw viewers into the experience of a play. An old example of this would be an actor lighting a cigarette on the stage, leading to members of the audience smelling the smoke and tobacco. In recent times, the ability to produce smells that reached the audience has taken on a larger role, with technology allowing theatrical productions to incorporate smell into their performance more readily.
“Aroma-turgy,” or the purposeful use of smell as a component of theatrical design, has been used a number of times in recent memory. Traditionally, the scent of someone cooking on stage or lighting a cigarette would have to make its way through the air naturally, possibly not hitting portions of the audience before it was absorbed by the room’s natural smell. If a production wanted a smell to hit the audience at a specific moment, they were largely out of luck.
With the development of dry vapor scenting systems, productions can now fill a theater with whatever smell they choose. Essentially, these vapor systems are a type of diffuser that releases scents on command. These devices can be installed throughout a theater to ensure the scent reaches everyone at the appropriate time. This tech gives theatrical productions another method to bring audiences deeper into the performance.
To give you a better understanding of the way technology is impacting the theater, let’s take a look at the different technologies that are improving the experience of those watching:
Lighting has come a long way from building open-air theaters so natural light would hit the stage. Now, electric lighting allows theatrical productions to take place at any time of day, with lighting design adding new depth to performances. Both LED lights and digital lighting have changed theater lighting.
Until recently, theaters relied on traditional lighting systems that required a lengthy setup process. To set up a stage light, a lighting designer would often need to position three hanging lights just right with each light containing its own gel. These gels helped turn the light into a specific color that a production needed.
Light emitting diodes (LEDs) first hit the stage around 2007, but they weren’t widely adopted at first. The original LED lights only came with a red, green and blue combination. For some time, light designers found it hard to make LED lights look good on the skin. Because of this, they were largely used for lighting background surfaces and other supplementary areas.
The development of LEDs with seven different colors gave designers a broader range of color options to work with and helped them find colors that looked good on actors. This range of colors proved vital to LED’s success in the theater. Lighting designers were blown away by the ability to instantly change colors through the digital lighting processes without having to rely on the mechanical means of the past.
LED lights come with several features that theater professionals love. Many of these lights have in-built dimmers that can be controlled remotely. LED stage lights come in the form of strip lights, moving head lights and PAR cans. In short, LED lights have given directors and production teams more colors to utilize in a much more convenient and long-lasting package.
Digital lighting refers to a type of lighting that’s connected over a digital network for the purpose of accomplishing a variety of tasks. Since LED lights run off a circuit board that transmits electricity, they can connect to digital networks — unlike traditional iridescent bulbs that can’t. In the context of the stage, digital lighting is composed of digitally connected LED lights a lighting engineer controls to improve the lighting of a stage.
Instead of having to control lights manually, light operators can now direct lighting over a network via a control station. Often, digital lighting integrates with a theater’s dimmer and on-off controls. These lights can be used on the stage and in the theater’s lobby, helping theaters develop a more customized lighting experience no matter the location.
With digital lighting, designers can control the patterns, intensity, imagery and colors of light projecting onto the stage. Unlike traditional projector technology where a production team would have to manually control the spotlights, digital lighting lets a single operator control hundred of lights at a digital light board. This ability to control lights from one location saves time and opens up new possibilities for the stage.
Sound has been well-documented in ancient theatrical productions, but it wasn’t until the 20th century that major advances were made that are still in use today. Two of the areas where sound design technology has made major strides and revolutionized theater have been speaker systems and microphones.
By the 1960s, musicals largely used microphones to help singers project their voices over the orchestra. The microphones were often placed along the front of the stage and hung from the fly loft to pick up sound both downstage and upstage without being distracting. One of the problems with these mics was that they required the singer to sing directly in front of them, reducing the performer’s mobility.
Miniaturized wireless mics were developed in the 1980s and quickly assisted in the sound quality of a variety of performances. These mics worked by utilizing an FM radio transmitter placed somewhere on the actor to send a signal to a mixing desk. Today’s wireless mics provide exceptional sound quality, with the mic either mounted on a headset that has a flesh-colored mouthpiece or placed in the actor’s hair.
The development of amplifiers, speaker enclosures and loudspeakers made a significant impact on the theater. Actors could use microphones to project their voices through the speakers, which also allowed theatrical productions to play music and sound effects alongside whatever was happening on stage.
The development of speaker systems gave theatrical productions the ability to play music and effects from one central location. Portable loudspeakers allow modern-day productions to deliver sound at a consistent volume throughout a theater. Speaker systems give modern stages a greater deal of realism and can create even more immersive theatrical experiences.
Modern speaker systems have given theaters the ability to have one person direct all a production’s sound and hone each element to perfection. Through a mixing desk, a sound operator can control the level of an actor’s mic and play sound effects at the appropriate times, along with controlling any music the production utilizes.
Upgrading the visual appeal of the stage has long been a goal of performers and directors who want to pull their audience deeper into an experience. Modern technology in theater has given rise to several new innovations that have transformed the visual capabilities of the stage. Visual stage design has been impacted by 3D printing, automation and rigging.
Instead of having to hand paint backdrops or construct a set from hand, set designers can use 3D printing to alleviate their workload. Set designers now use 3D software to design their sets before sending them off to be printed into plastic prototypes. 3D technology saves designers a significant amount of time and effort producing set pieces and props, freeing them up to play with different designs and implement set changes quickly.
Automation gives theatrical productions the ability to move set pieces at appropriate times with cable systems, motors, electronic control boxes and control software. This technology gives directors the opportunity to add complexity to the stage when putting together a stage design and to craft smooth transitions. It also makes it much easier for stagehands, who used to have to move sets with brute force.
Today, you find automation at every theater level, from Broadway all the way to high school and community theaters. The allure of pressing a single button to trigger exact scenic choreography every performance promises to keep automation a part of the modern stage for many years to come.
Rigging systems have been around for some time, with extensive documentation of the counterweight rigging system available from the 16th century onward. These systems have only become safer and more impressive throughout the years. While counterweight stage rigging is still very common, upgrades to rigging systems have taken place, with automated stage rigging becoming a major force in theater technology. Automated stage rigging utilizes electrical winches to move line sets instead of manual hoists.
Modern rigging systems include motors to assist with rigging tasks. Transitions between scenes or flying an actor onto stage used to require stagehands to manually operate the rigging. Now, motorized stage rigging can handle these tasks largely on its own after being programmed to accomplish a specific task. With these capabilities, theaters free up their staff for other work and allow directors to get creative with the way their rigging complements the performance.
To ensure actions are carried out at a specific time, theaters often rely on cues. These cues can range from a sound effect and lighting change to a set movement or a verbal signal. Modern technology gives theaters more options for cues, as there’s more they can do with monitors, headsets and lights. For example, stagehands can wear headset systems and the stage manager can use them to communicate during a performance, ensuring that everything is running smoothly.
Technology has streamlined the creation of props. 3D technology, for instance, allows props to be produced faster and with greater accuracy. This helps set designers try out new designs and have more freedom in the number of props used. Instead of having to craft every prop or search for it, they can simply draw it up in a program and print it out. By streamlining the process, designers can craft more props while still retaining the quality audiences expect.
With all the ways technology can improve the experience of set designers, actors, audience members and directors, you’ll want to have the most cutting edge tech at your disposal. At Illuminated Integration, we have several customizable AVL solutions available to theaters. We understand the need to have an AVL system designed for a theater’s exact needs, which is why we take personalization seriously.
No matter your acoustic or lighting needs, we can work with you to design, install and launch the perfect AVL solution for your performance space. Contact Illuminated Integration today for more information about improving your theater experience.