Fabrizio Crisafulli*


A guideline for my theatre work is that on stage light should take on a role which is similar to that of natural light in the world. The issue is not imitating natural light, but rather the ability of light to become a vital substance in theatre, even in its most abstract interpretation. An essential, primary and generative element. Light could free itself from the effect-producing and illustrative role, and the layout function, prepared in the final days of rehearsals, where standard practice often relegates it, and which hardly works with theatre’s ability to echo reality.1

Another conviction I have, which has been reinforced with experience, concerns the need to overcome two quite common misconceptions about lighting practices in the theatre. The first is that stage lighting belongs to an eminently technical sphere, the second is that it belongs to an eminently visual sphere. I think that the fundamental qualities of light in terms of the theatre lie in its ability to mould space and time, action and dramatic construction. The research at the basis of this idea had a concrete basis for me in a series of workshops I held in Sicily from the mid-eighties onward, basically aimed at light taking on a role as a source, leading and structuring the entire stage creation, and as a guiding element at a temporal, rhythmic and dramaturgical level.2 The work of my company commenced in 1991 from the experiences that emerged from those workshops.3 In its first production, Il Pudore Bene in Vista, light had an essential, energizing role with regard to all actions.In particular, the conventional relationship between the performer and light was turned on its head. To some degree, it was the first that “followed” the light and not vice versa. More precisely, during rehearsals the performer would find the reasons for his or her actions in the light. The light was the starting point in the creative process.**

The performance was centered on the relationships between body and image, real and virtual, and live and reproduced action. It developed as a gradual definition of a system of relationships in which light and projections not only provided the imagination with suggestions, but also gave concrete indications of space, time and movement, offering performers positions and invisible markings in space, obligations to move or stay still, time references, and hints of movement and speech. Contrary to most of the performances produced by the workshops, this time there were people on stage, that is three girls who were neither actors nor dancers. They were set design students. At the beginning their inclusion on stage was essentially in terms of presence and figure. The first association was among the “real” girls – standing still, next to each other – and their image. We started the rehearsals by projecting the slide image of the girls onto the girls themselves, in a perfectly coinciding manner. On the dark set, it was not possible to work out if there were real people there, or just projections. We tried to consider what could superficially be deemed a simple effect, as a conceptual, poetic and technical standpoint from which to develop the work. It was intuitiveness full of developments and implications. It enabled us to bring not only the relationships between body and image, and two and three dimensionality into play, but also the relationship between stillness and movement. When the girls started to move their head and arms “inside” the slide, special relationships between image and gesture, body/screen and body/body were created, which we used as a starting point to understand in what direction the work on movement could go with those conditions. When small spots of light “made holes” in the projection revealing the “real” faces of the girls, they escaped from the image and acquired a physical dimension and an ability for motion and speech. In rehearsals, once the movement started to have structure, albeit within the realms of the light, the next association was with the image in motion, with the film. We went to shoot on Etna, with the same girls, and the takes were then used within the real/virtual exchange device that was being defined: people, objects and set were transforming continually and smoothly from images into real bodies and vice versa. Bodies, gestures, movement, sound and speech gradually emerged from this system of constraints and limitations, and words were generated, created on set, in a poetic relationship with what was being constructed, which, in turn, produced other images, developing exchanges in the opposite direction. What transpired was not just a mixing of languages, but was also something deep-seated in the characters of contemporary reality, in which the images continually overlap with real things, tending to replace them. That simple initial cue had consequences for the whole production, which revolved continually around the ideas of “screen” and “reality” – of their disruption, vanishing and re-assembling, due to the combined effect of the actions of the light and the body.

Il Pudore Bene in Vista contained the hint of a performance construction mode based on actual relationships, which then became precise over time and marked the company’s research in subsequent years. In accordance with this mode, I usually encourage the group to immerse itself in a fairly incisive, “given” condition. This can result from the initial reworking of a theme or text, or more generally the poetic universe of an author, or from a context of concrete relationships (physical, spatial, visual), as in the case of Il Pudore Bene in Vista. Then, again, it may be constructed from an actual location, as in the “Theatre of Places”, which I’ll discuss further on. The group members (not just the actors and dancers, but also musicians and technicians for example) are invited to consider the proposed situation, which brings their personalities into play, even before their specific training and technical abilities. In this process, the reactions/suggestions of each person intervene to modify the given condition (the embryonic world of performance), which in turn resurfaces in the relationships, modified on the basis of those changes. During rehearsals, what is gradually created is a “place”, a framework of evolving relationships, and my work also consists of reminding actors and group members where they are, by continuously re-establishing and updating the rules and coordinates of our new universe.

This process is also decisive in determining the role of light, which can vary significantly from performance to performance, but is still an important participant in the body of relationships. In other words, light is not viewed as an element “projected” from the technical sphere onto the performance to determine its visual aspect, but rather as a component of the “place” of relationships, intertwined with actions, time, space, forms, sounds and words. Light constitutes origin and consequence at the same time with respect to these elements. Therefore, its creation flows out from inner relationships towards the creative process, even before it refers to parameters and pre-constructed criteria resulting from techniques and stage practices. This implies its involvement as an element of construction from the start of the work. When it is not possible to do it in strictly operational terms, due to practical or financial reasons, it is done anyway at an ideational level.

The order and method through which light relates to other expressive elements, during the construction of a production, can vary. While in Il Pudore Bene in Vista the light was the main element with respect to which the universe and initial relationships were established, this has not always been the case.4 For example, when the starting point of a production has been a text, or more often the poetic world of a writer, lighting choices have been heavily influenced by those terms of reference, not in the sense of imitating or illustrating images and environments described within, but in trying to capture the inner qualities of that world, which can be conveyed through light. I think it is necessary to access the “light” that is characteristic of every worthwhile literary work, in order to perceive its special qualities. In the works we produced on Ingeborg Bachmann, the idea of “light” that the author expressed in her poems, her way of alternating between moments of great awareness and pain and a visionary, imaginary dimension for example, even through unexpected changes of “illumination” in the poetry, definitely had an impact on the way of understanding light in those performances. Putting it very simply, it could be said that in our piece, during times of the performer’s quasi realistic presence, light as a means of seeing prevailed (mainly linked to the actor, her movements and voice), whereas in the opening imaginary moments a light as an image prevailed – in other words, the performer was immersed in a vision – even if the two concepts of light cannot be separated totally, just by the same token that the “two souls” of Bachmann cannot be separated. In the work of the Japanese writers to whom I dedicated various pieces, Tanizaki, Kawabata and Mishima, the light seems to take on a life of its own. It is not just something that illuminates the world, it is “something” to look at.5 More generally, I tend to work on light that is suspended between these two different qualities, and this is one of the aspects that can give light “inner life” and make it capable of dramatic construction.6

In Sonni and Le addormentate, (both from 1995), productions that constituted different approaches to Yasunari Kawabata’s novel The House of the Sleeping Beauties, the text suggested exact lighting solutions, not only at a poetic level, but also in terms of tools to use. The “house” in the novel is an enigmatic meeting place for elderly men and young sleeping virgins. The elderly patrons lie alongside the young maidens, who have been put to sleep with a sleeping draft by the mysterious lady of the house, and are strictly prohibited from interfering with them. Consequently, they are voyeurs, in the unusual situation of observing young naked bodies, without displaying their own aged bodies. They are spectators of that “never-ending landscape” which the female form embodies. This peculiar situation generates desires, memories and fantasies in the elderly visitor, influencing his dreams and producing contradictory urges that flip between tenderness and restrained aggressiveness. Various details of this account struck me in particular – the scents and smells of the house and the girls, the gloomy light inside caused by the reflection of the red brocade, and the idea of artificial heating from the electric blankets covering the girls. In Le addormentate, the idea of the scent lost every day-to-day connotation, and became a “general” image present throughout the performance, with different visual variations: a constellation of soaps, jutting out from the back stone wall, each lit individually by front projectors, equipped with hand-made glass gobos. In Sonni, I used old style electric heaters as light and heat sources behind the sleeping girls’ beds, connected to dimmers. They produced reddish low lighting, like the one in the novel’s house, and created forms and evocative impressions in combination with other lights and actions.

In Centro e ali (1996), a performance dedicated to Mishima, actions and light were, to a considerable extent, “generated” by the architecture in which the performance was devised: an unfinished church. They also drew ideas and motives from the objects chosen as initial relationship elements – a series of flexible black telescopic poles which the female actors were able to extend up to ten meters. The poles created essential interwoven designs and layout lines in the space. They were also used individually as extensions of the bodies and as action devices – tails, stings, whips and lances, making noises such as tapping on the walls and floor, and patting sounds on the bodies. The lashes and instantaneous extension of the poles created moving air in the space. The universe of the performance defined its own characteristics in relation to the poetic and literary world of Mishima, with a significant contribution from objects, walls, arches, and space. This was in line with the Japanese writer’s aspirations in identifying the physical dimension with the spiritual. The architecture also suggested specific work on the shadows for that matter. In particular, the three performers’ shadows only appeared on certain areas of the walls (white ones in the arches) and not on others (those in brickwork). As a result, an exact relationship was established between the physical structure of the space and structure of the shadows, and the white parts – due to this rule and their role as “screens” – became an allusive “other world”.

In Shō. La Bellezza finale (1998), another “Japanese” work, from Shunkinshō by Junichiro Tanizaki, one of the elements that influenced the use of light was the way in which we tried to render the importance of the sound dimension in the inner world of the Shunkin character, who, being blind, mainly perceives reality through noise. In particular, we gave the wooden stage a precise symbolic function and an important role in sound terms.7 The stage constituted a device for amplifying the sounds produced on set by the actors and dancers and, being fully sound-enabled, it returned steps, the swishing of clothes, and the tread of shoes amplified and reverberating – with footsteps on stage which sometimes became bangs – making the set a kind of resonant cave. Another factor concerning the role of the stage was that the lighting scripts mainly impacted the horizontal surface, and were easily perceived by the audience on terraces. They were an integral part of the dramatic structure of the performance. There was a small circular platform in the centre of the floor, which was often the location of individual actions carried out by Shunkin or other characters. The performers’ movements often followed spinning, curved profiles with respect to this platform. Forms of light had dynamics along the lines of the same idea. For example, there was a point at which luminous “cracks” gradually extended, “walking” over the stage towards the platform, where a female actor was performing, circumventing her until the whole space was harnessed. In another part of the performance, the platform itself “staged” a light performance reminiscent of the figure of Shunkin, which was the only thing happening on the set for several minutes. This was not devised as a visual “break”; it was a point incorporated into the structure and timing of the performance.

Light is therefore defined within the assembly of relationships, established when constructing the production, and coming to life through fairly dense exchanges with other actions and texts. These texts, which are usually created or reworked during rehearsals, are affected by the way light is being constructed, just as much as light is affected by the texts. This type of exchange was especially pressing in works such as Slow Flash (1997) or Camera Echo (2001), in which our group created texts on stage during rehearsals. In Slow Flash, for example, we started from very open initial cues we had identified with the writer Andreas Staudinger. However, as the work progressed, the texts became something completely different. They were fed with ideas and personal material (for example the performers’ dreams during rehearsals), and with influences from the work on stage with objects and light. In Lingua stellare (2000), the choices were different. There was not a dense exchange between words, actions, set and light, as in the productions mentioned previously. There was a sort of neutral space/light (a black empty cube: a type of non-place or air bubble), in which the words and actions of the actors/dancers almost “floated”, and a series of luminous dots travelled in space in different modes and forms, even evoking nocturnal scenarios typical of our era, typified by various kinds of dots of light: LEDs, electronic device displays and warning lights, aerial lights from repeaters, and flying aircraft and satellites. The performance was dedicated to Velimir Chlébnikov, the great poet/prophet of global culture. It referred to his poetic/literary universe, and especially to his prediction, which emanated from his great imagination, that local languages could be overcome and replaced by an absolute, transgeographic and transcultural language. It also alluded to his prophecy about the advent of a worldwide communication system, based on radio, at the beginning of the last century. In his vision, which was a major forerunner for current scenarios, the idea of drastically re-dimensioning physical space as a place of relationships was implicit. This led to certain choices for the performance, such as the empty cube, the dots of light and the way of creating actions, linked to the idea of losing the “place”, and also therefore the sense of “distance”’ and “proximity”.8 At a certain point, we put the set and the audience in contact with each other using mobile phones. Audience members were asked for their telephone number when they entered, and during the performance a recorded voice instructed them to switch their mobiles on and not answer when they rang (they were called by company members backstage). The rings in the auditorium, combined with the technological music and sounds of the performance, merged the auditorium and stage into a single soundscape. This was thought-provoking, not just due to the unusual request to turn mobiles on and not off, but also due to the strange combination of audience and set, in that huge concert of beeps and ring tones. By having a remote communication tool operating in theatre – which is a place of proximity – we had introduced an aspect of the contemporary paradox of distance/ proximity indifference. This theme had extensions with regard to light. In the performance finale, we produced a type of invasion in the pitch black, with a group of green LEDs similar to those on mobiles, which started at the back of the set and gradually filled the space above the audience, creating a kind of star-studded electronic sky behind spectators’ heads.

A particular case with regard to the use of light (and totally different from that of Lingua stellare) is provided by what I call “theatre of places”. This is a project centered on taking the actual site as the “script” for the performance, as a starting point from which the work takes shape – in other words, as the “world” (made up of people, shapes, memories, spaces, objects, functions, noises) the group takes as the initial relational context. Due to the very nature of the work, in the “theatre of places” preexistence affects the treatment of light significantly. The light is not meant to illuminate the location, or simply highlight or “accentuate” its characteristics. Instead it tries to adhere to the essence of the place through its transformation. To a certain extent, the light “transpires” from the objects, architectures and landscapes, taking shape and also creating completely new situations from them, opening the place up to new perceptions and new meanings. During this process light’s relationship with objects, matter and architecture is established in a field of tension, in which it could be said that the light tends to become the “place”, and the place becomes the light.9 The images – simultaneously nurtured by the site’s characteristics and the imagery it arouses – tend to alternate between memory and reverie. In this type of research one of the main reference points for working with light is the energy of flames, as described by Gaston Bachelard: a point of tension between light and matter, memory and imagination, and an element that fosters images.10

In a piece created in 1998, in the nineteenth century Teatro dei Coraggiosi in Pomarance during the Volterrateatro Festival, this aspect of light belonging to the place helped to link the visual components of the performance to its spirit and background motives. The work was based on action inspired by memories of Italian-style theatre, the “red and gold” auditoria, the audience’s behavior, and was also linked to the images and conventions of the performance of opera. It unfolded along a path from the entrance, through the passage for the first tier of boxes, brought the audience members to the stage from where they could follow the action organized on the set itself, on the fly tower, and then between the red velvet seats in the auditorium and the boxes. During the action, there was a point when a configuration of light appeared on the front curve of the boxes, which on the one hand originated from its beehive-type structure, and on the other created a visionary swerve with respect to it. Numina was a production created in 2000, with a nocturnal itinerary in the Etruscan necropolis in Cerveteri. Among the elements of the past used as initial suggestions in the creative process, were the divinatory arts of the Etruscan people, in particular ars fulguratoria – the art of reading lightning. The scripts contained references to this. The idea of light that suddenly rips through darkness, leading to the “awareness” of an event, became a structural feature. There were images that brought this idea to mind directly, for example a tree which, in the darkness of the countryside, seemed to be pierced by broken lines of light. However, throughout the performance, the figures, actions and lights were always in some way tied to the idea of appearing, the unexpected surfacing of visions from the darkness.

In journey-performances, light can also sometimes have the function of marking timescales, distances covered and intervals. In some cases, it can become a transition device from one phase to another in the performance. Spirito dei luoghi 96, the first work in a three-year “theatre of places” project created at Formia, provides such an example. The departure point was the square where the town hall stands, and the arrival point after proceeding along via Appia was Cicero’s mausoleum. The approach to the performance occurred gradually. At the departure point we had created a “painting” of light on the town hall façade, a sort of large “poster” of the event. Projections from outside, combined with lights coming from the rooms belonging to the council wardens and workers who had taken part in the project. It was a sign that something was happening, and also a way of making those places, which had been an active component of the preparatory work, part of the result itself. The audience members moved from an everyday situation like that of the square, a busy evening meeting point, to a theatre situation, by travelling on a shuttle bus to get to the stations on the route. A few minutes after setting off, the lights on the bus were turned off as it travelled along via Appia. Soon the vehicle entered a countryside area we had closed to traffic and plunged into darkness, the street lights having been turned off. The audience were in almost pitch darkness on the bus (the only bit of light at that point came from the bus’ headlights). On arrival at the St. Remigio fountain, the driver stopped the bus and turned the headlights off as well. At this point the Roman monument came into full view, redesigned by the light, through the windows of the closed bus, in the silent pitch dark. A white figurine moving continuously and in an agitated fashion appeared on the upper part of the monument. It was a video-projected image, positioned there to evoke the ancient stone icons which once belonged to the fountain. An actor emerged from the darkness of the countryside, holding an oil lamp, and knocked on the door of the bus, which was opened. Once inside, and with the view of the fountain, he recited some passages from The Nature of the Gods by Cicero, where the author questions himself about the nature and form of the gods, passages which echoed the luminous vision outside. The doors then shut and the shuttle set off again towards Cicero’s mausoleum, where the audience got off and walked between the garden and the monument’s interior, along a route where the main part of the performance took place.

* Ed. Note: We wish to thank Professor Fabrizio Crisafulli and Artdigiland Ltd. for their permission to reprint an excerpt from the final chapter of his book Active Light: Issues of Light in Contemporary Theatre (Dublin: Artdigiland Ltd., 2013; www.artdigiland.com ).

**For illustrations of the productions, please see www.fabriziocrisafulli.org . Excerpts from his works can also be found on You Tube.


N o t e s

  1. Basically, that which in reality is the “cause,” often becomes the “effect,” i.e. the essential part becomes a secondary, “additional” element. This paradox seems even more extreme if we consider the importance of light as a basic element in culture, mythology, metaphysics, theology and aesthetics, and then consider it as an element that increasingly penetrates the contemporary world in completely new forms.[back]
  2. That initial phase of workshops took place at the Academy of Fine Arts in Catania (Sicily), in the framework of my course on set design, and in other situations outside the academy.[back]
  3. It took its name from the first production Il Pudore Bene in Vista, the title of which comes from La pudeur bien en vue by Max Ernst and Paul Eduard, a poem from the collection Les Malheurs des immortels (1922), which was one of the inspirations for the production. For the works cited here and below cf. www.fabriziocrisafulli.it; Teatro dei luoghi, ed. by R. Guarino, Rome: Gatd, 1998; Lingua stellare. Il teatro di Fabrizio Crisafulli, 1991-2002, ed. by S. Lux, Rome: Lithos, 2003; Fabrizio Crisafulli: un teatro dell’essere, ed. by S. Tarquini, Rome: Editoria & Spettacolo, 2010; La luce come pensiero. I laboratori di Fabrizio Crisafulli al Teatro Studio di Scandicci, ed. by S. Tarquini, Rome: Editoria & Spettacolo, 2010; Place, Body, Light: The Theatre of Fabrizio Crisafulli, 1991-2011, ed. by N. Tomašević, Dublin: Artdigiland, 2013.[back]
  4. See http://fabriziocrisafulli.org/il-pudore .[back]
  5. The works on Bachmann and Kawabata were created in conjunction with Daria Deflorian.[back]
  6. The “positive” Kandinsky light or the futurist “illuminating set” proposed a change of direction, which could be defined as follows: light as it is perceived does not illuminate, but is “emitted” by the set. I work on an energy state suspended between the two directions.[back]
  7. They were not strangers to the performance suggestions from In Praise of Shadows by Tanizaki (1935), a fundamental text with respect to the issue of perceiving light and darkness in their infinite nuances.[back]
  8. The creation of sound also came from this idea. The extreme use of personal radio-microphones, with hyper-amplification and despatialisation of voices, body noises and the movements themselves, was also a clear reference to the idea of Chlébnikov’s “sound-humans”. Through the sound screen that was produced with the accentuated extroversion of the audio, I alluded to a communication dimension that disregards space and the direct physical relationship, in relation to the ether. Speaking to people yes, but through the sky, with an upward gaze not directed at anybody else’s eyes. This is how all of Chlébnikov’s poetry seems to function in my opinion, whereby there is no psychology but an absolute, transmental dimension linked to the eagerness to rediscover the lost unity of the universe.[back]
  9. Put another way, with light I try to combine appearance and disappearance, not just by alternating light and darkness, but in the actual “design” of the light and in the different qualities of the relationship between light and matter, and light and object. By way of example, sometimes I have sought out physical coincidence between light and actor – I said this in relation to Il Pudore Bene in Vista. I often do the same thing with objects or architecture, creating luminous designs that trace their line, not to illuminate them obviously, and not even just to highlight their form or structure, but to seek out another dimension suspended between light and matter. The light becomes an object by taking the form of the structure, whereas the object becomes the light. Simultaneously the object is put in a condition halfway between being illuminated and illuminating, with additional fluctuation between being revealed and disappearing.[back]
  10. See. G. Bachelard, The Flame of a Candle, Dallas: Dallas Institute Publications, 1988; Id., Fragments of a Poetics of Fire, Dallas: Dallas Institute Humanities and Culture, 1997. We must not forget – and here the link between this idea of light and the idea of the theatre of places comes up again – the mythical connection between fire which invigorates and the essence of a site. As Ovid wrote, Estia, the God of the place, is none other than a “live flame”. When using new technologies too, as I will try to explain better further on, I look for a type of energy similar to that of the flame for the images – with fluctuation between light and matter.[back]


Fabrizzio Crisafulli is a Professor at the University of Roma La Sapienza. A visual artist and theatre director, his stage and lighting designs, as well as his installations, focus on the interactions between space and the performer. His theatre company Il Pudore Bene in Vista is widely renowned for its innovative productions. Among his many publications, Active Light: Issues of Light in Contemporary Theatre (2013), Il teatro dei luoghi. Lo spettacolo generato dalla realtà (2015), and Luce attiva. Questioni della luce nel teatro contemporaneo (2007).