Drama behind the curtains

Technology has transformed live stage performances to enhance the impact each scene carries


I remember walking out of the NCPA theatre in Mumbai, after watching Mughal-e-Azam, a Broadway-style musical based on the 1960 Bollywood film, directed by K. Asif and produced by Shapoorji Pallonji. The musical was directed by Feroz Abbas Khan, and had the most stunning visuals and ethereal aesthetics, as much as I remember. From the glittery costumes, to the royal curtains and drapes, everything screamed exuberance. When you walk out from a live theatre performance, what is it the one thing that you take home with you? It’s probably the actors’ performance, but there are so many other technical aspects that make it truly an experience to remember. From sets and costumes to more subtle elements like lights and sounds, technology in theatre has evolved more than we can imagine, thus, making live shows more appealing and interactive to the audience. To enhance storytelling, live productions employ advanced technology to help the plays and shows come alive.

Theatre productions have the ability to enthral the audience and teleport them to a different era, to a whole new world. Apart from the immensely-talented actors, the stage and set design might contribute to the scene more than you could imagine. A stage production with an amazing set has the power to take a viewer completely outside of themselves and put them into the story unfolding before their eyes. The requirements and construction needs vary between productions, but there are some components to set design that are relatively universal: design and construction.

One of the most important technical area of theatre is set design and construction. The set is usually the first part of the show that an audience sees. Set designers will typically begin researching the play and its setting to get inspiration for walls, colour schemes and different furniture items or props that should be present. The emotion should be exuded by what the audiences see on stage.
Along those lines, it is very important to take into consideration the sightlines. Different theatres have different areas of visibility and different blind spots. A designer must know the theatre inside and out, so you don’t risk part of the audience missing an important part of the play. It’s even more effective if you use the set to create strong architectural detail that draws the eye to parts of the stage where action will occur.The designer must also keep the whole play in mind—including scene changes—while sketching or illustrating a 3D set using software. Some productions elect to use bulkier sets as the backdrop for the entirety of the show, while others will change set pieces between every scene. Either way, ease of motion and how each piece will be moved in and out of set is taken into account before sets are even built.

The production crew then takes over the actual construction of the set—includes building platforms, flats, and stairs that might be needed as part of the play. Every set has different needs. Some shows have minimalist sets, while others have elaborate sets, complete with spiral staircases or even a rotating stage. Another set piece, referred to as a flat, is a piece of scenery which is painted and positioned on stage to appear as a building or another backdrop. Platforms are used when there are multiple ground levels, and are typically made of plywood.

Sound design is one of the most subtle ways for a theatre to move a production. While the actors, sets, and even lights are highly visible, sound is heard—and more often, felt. Live musical plays might use pre-recorded music in live performance settings, a concept that is debated all over, for its lack of authenticity. When tracks are used in conjunction with live musicians, the electronic samples help enhance and supplement the sound of the size of orchestras. Sound designing has to be in tandem with the emotional journey of the play. Many plays include live music and songs, played and sung by artists live in synchronisation with the actors and story on stage.

Technology has bettered the availability and accessibility of sound effects. One can look up sound effects in a few minutes and build them into a show. With a few keystrokes, it is possible to layer sounds to set the whole scene.
New sound capturing devices like microphones are now much compact and easier to deploy than ever before. Sound production can be refined easily with small relocations of microphones making enormous differences to the final production. For example, one could ignore the fact that the placement of mic on an actor can reasonably impact the sound quality and clarity of his or her speech, including noise and distortion levels.

Improvements in sound technology ensure an immersive experience, Not only is technology advancing how today’s sound designers find sound, but it’s also giving them the tools to place mics and set up acoustics for better performances.

Everything on stage and around the theatre has shape—human faces and bodies, backdrops, props and everything else. These shapes are visible because light falls differently on different planes and rounded surfaces. Lighting techniques can reveal facial or other detailed features or even create the impression of shape, giving dimension to people and everything else on stage. Lighting evokes emotion in more than a few ways—romance, tension or horror. For instance, key and fill lights illuminate the front, from two different directions. Side lights add more definition to the subject; a strong side light from a single direction can produce dramatic shadows on the floor or walls. A backlight separates people and things from the background—picture the protagonist emerging from a darkened background, stepping into the front lights and picking up his backlight as he steps forward. Lighting techniques literally make subjects come to life. Downlights (from above) can wash the stage with light, or illuminate tables at a gala without brightening the entire room. Uplighting (from below) can dramatically draw attention to the subject in a unique way. Spotlights are used to focus attention on a particular person—a musician steps into the light and begins to play. All eyes remain riveted. Or the spotlight widens and moves left as a string of dancers swirls onto the stage. All eyes follow the movement.

Searchlights, LED fireworks, or lights pulsating in sync with the music, can create movement. Lights for a grand entry, sad departure, or simply to dramatically introduce the subsequent scene, are the best way to ensure impact. Ever noticed the dimming of lights before a play begins? When this happens, we know the show is about to begin, thus, evoking a feeling of anticipation and excitement.

Colours can reflect the theme of a play. Warm and soft colours with dim light level say romance, while dark, saturated colours and flat lighting can evoke a spooky feeling. Lighting can also create decorations. Onstage, gobos (lights that shine through a masked image or shape) are commonly used to project images on walls, projecting static and dynamic light effects.


In addition to the above production tricks, technologies like 3D printing, CGI, virtual-reality masks for actors, altered reality techniques for actors, stop-motion camerawork and computer animation have gained immense popularity in live theatre production. By blending video or CGI with live action performances, stage directors are given near endless possibilities to work with. While integrating technology with real-life, one has to be sure to ensure that any video/sound/lighting techniques used doesn’t overshadow the actors on stage—after all, live performances need to retain the originality of the story and its cast.
In comparison to cumbersome and conventional production techniques, today’s scenario is far more evolved and the future could become unrecognisable to those that preceded them.

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