Wonders and Marvels: Theatre and Technology From 1611 to 2016

For the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, we’re looking at how theatre technology has changed since the very first performance of his wondrous play The Tempest to a modern version that uses a CGI Ariel.

When The Tempest was first performed on All Hallow’s Day, 1st November 1611, it was designed to make audiences marvel at the ‘glistering’ costumes and use of stage trickery to make it seem as though magic was occurring right in front of their eyes. It used the very latest in theatrical technology to make the audience feel as though they were on the fantastical island where Prospero the Enchanter whipped the seas into a tempest and sent his spirit servant Ariel to trick the foolish mortals stranded there.

Throughout its history, The Tempest has allowed set designers and directors to push the limits of what can be done onstage and to innovate with new technologies. The latest example of this is the Royal Shakespeare Company’s use of a computer-animated Ariel controlled live by a cyber-thespian wearing a motion-capture suit – if I’d known ‘cyber-thespian’ was a legitimate job description that would exist in my lifetime, I might have paid more attention to IT classes at school!

Ariel has been re-imagined hundreds of times, even as a puppet in this performance by Driftwood Theatre Company

Created by Intel and Imaginarium Studios, the CGI Ariel hovers over the stage and does feats impossible to pull off for a human performer, but is still responsive to the timings of the other actors because it is still controlled by an actor. The idea was inspired by Intel and Imaginarium Studios’ presentation at the CES electronics show in Las Vegas, where they flew a massive whale out of a screen and above the heads of the attendees. I would highly recommend watching this if you have a chance, because it’s an amazing use of showmanship to present what must have been an incredible experience. With projections and CGI becoming more common in big-budget theatre performances, is this the next step for theatre technology?

Theatre has always led the way in cunning illusions and innovative mechanisms to weave a spell over the audience. Ancient Greek theatres were designed so that their acoustics allowed the audience to hear actors perfectly even from the back seats, and the term ‘deus ex machina’, for an unbelievable plot device that turns up to save the day, comes from a piece of machinery used in Greek theatre to lower actors playing gods onto the stage or raise them through a trapdoor so they seemingly appeared from nowhere. Roman theatre used mechanisms to make trees and rocks dance and flooded the stage.

In Britain, Medieval mystery plays involved wagons distributed around cities like York that told the history of the world through Bible stories, including a live (pretend) crucifixion, with each wagon sponsored by a different guild (for instance, the Bakers Guild sponsored the Last Supper!) You can see photos and video from a performance of the Crucifixion, wagon-mounted cross and all, reconstructed in Durham in 2015 here.

In Shakespeare’s time, the use of coloured stage lighting is first recorded, and The Tempest likely included a table with a top that flipped to reveal a feast, sound effects for the storm and a fabulous ‘masque’ performed by spirits. The famous ‘Pepper’s Ghost’ effect originally invented by Henry Dircks and popularised by George Pepper in a performance of Charles Dickens’ The Haunted Man in the 19th century. It has been used in theatres, amusement parks and concerts ever since.

Back in the 21st century, projections are now often used in theatre to provide a Greek chorus, visual effects or 3D monstrosities. As with anything new, there is push back: the push towards providing ever more elaborate visuals has caused a surge in ‘found space’ theatre, performed with minimal sets in buildings not designed for the purpose, like prisons, factories and warehouses. However, there must be space for both, surely? Theatre technology is an ever-evolving field, and while many attempts to use CGI in theatre has been met with cynicism, maybe we’re entering a brave new world that is just waiting for the next generation of cyber-thespians to help technology connect with audiences. I, for one, can’t wait!

We have a wide range of books on the technical aspects of theatre. The Basics series contains Beginner’s Guides to lighting design, stage sound and stage lighting (found in the BOOK ZONE at 792.025). Learn about the history of stage lighting in Theatre Lighting in the Age of Gas by Terence Rees (BOOK ZONE 792.02509) and the modern applications in Stage Lighting Design: the Art, the Craft, the Life by Richard Pilbrow (BOOK ZONE 792.025). For a more general guide to all of the pieces that go into putting on a great show, check out the DVD Stagecraft: An Instructional Guide to the Art and Craft of Theatre (BOOK ZONE 792). If you’re going to get inspired to learn more about Stagecraft, the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death is the right time to do it!


Spowart, D. (2014) Richard Alan Campbell and Madeleine Donohue Ariel Tempest photo by David Spowart. [photograph] Available at: (Accessed: 24 November 2016).


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