Searching in the Shadows: Queer Aesthetics in Performance Lighting

Emma Lockhart-Wilson

In this short piece, I look at some of the ways a queer lens can be applied to lighting design, tendering these interpretations in the hope that they might lead us to engage in a deeper analysis of what light might be doing as part of the scenography of queer performances.1 One key question arises in trying to articulate queer potential within my lighting designs: How do we identify queer within performance?  One framework is Alyson Campbell and Stephen Farrier’s suggestion that queer dramaturgies, while identifiable through “aesthetic composition and the narrative content of the work…are also intricately bound up with the identity of the maker/s (self-identifying as queer), the making process and the context in which they are seen.”2 This perspective resonates with my experiences of watching queer productions and validates my queer identity as important but also makes me wonder, as someone engaged with the “aesthetic composition” of performance, how I might identify the moments when my work speaks to a queer politics, even in productions in which there is no explicitly queer context.3 If the frame is zoomed from a wider dramaturgical perspective to one focused on the potential of a specific field of design, might I see shadows of my queer identity in my practice?

I would suggest that there are many moments when I have, as feminist lighting designer and theatre maker Emma Valente describes, “temper[ed] my design style for the actual piece I was working on.”4 However, there is an argument to be made that all performance light might be considered queer through its ability to render visible the construction of normativity.  As Farrier5 suggested in a feedback session for this piece, even the most naturalistic lighting design is artificially manufactured, and this dissonance can be seen, read and experienced as queer.6 In naturalistic theatre, we are asked to ignore the technologies that construct the lighting state even as they form part of our field of vision, often visible on bridges and bars.7 The presence of the lighting fixture and the presentation of light as ‘natural’ can be interpreted as a queer act, highlighting the tension between social and cultural expectations and experiences that sit outside these boundaries.

This perspective solidifies light as part of the queer potential of performance and makes me wonder how else light’s ability to shape the presented world might reflect queer intentions.  The field of queer lighting seems to have more questions than answers.  How might the boundaries we engage with as designers shape a form of subversion expressed in light?  How might the turn towards considering light’s political and affective potential, exemplified by the work of Katherine Graham8 and Scott Palmer,9 impact how light could be read as queer?  How might designers interpret their choices and the outcomes expressed in light through a queer lens?  I don’t suggest that this piece provides definitive answers, but I am interested in building our vocabulary around queer lighting; presenting a perspective that asks how we might relate the positionality of designers and the aesthetic influence of light to the field of queer performance.

Affective potential of light

In conjunction with the rise of scenography as a key field of thinking (and doing) in performance10 and the multi-disciplinary turn toward theories of affect11 there has been an expansion in academic writing that sees light as a vital affective and dramaturgical element that can speak to the politics of a performance.12 The idea of feeling through light and its interaction with other elements is key to my interpretation of its queer potential.  My perspective is shaped by Sara Ahmed’s queer phenomenology, which considers how objects, spaces and concepts can shape our politics and our alignment with society through experiences of inclusion or exclusion.13 Looking again to Campbell and Farrier, I am interested in how light contributes to “the profound moments in performance where we are queerly moved.”14 This is about what light might do to an audience, how it might resonate in a utopian moment or perturb through disorientation.  I am thinking about how light might shape a queer atmosphere through aspects such as intensity, colour, shape, size and direction in interaction with spatial and bodily configurations across time.

(2014). Images: Lachlan Woods

To examine the idea of light as a force for affective capacities through its interaction with bodies and other objects, I turn to the image above.15 This work was highly mediated, using performance and live feed to combine theatre and documentary film styles, following the rise and fall of the fictitious band Applespiel (also the name of the collective who made the work).  A production involving eight performers, the show exposed the filming mechanism through which screen images were made.  Broad areas of illumination were used throughout the piece to expose the performers moving cameras and setting up scenes.  This visibility allowed for a contrast between the framed documentary image shown on screen and the theatrical space’s behind-the-scenes ‘reality’.  The above image depicts a rare moment in which the presence of a physical body in the space was prioritised over the visibility of the act of filming.  This moment of selection through light recalls Jill Dolan’s concept of utopian performatives.  Dolan describes this phenomenon as a “fleeting contact with a utopia not stabilized by its own finished perfection…always only partially grasped, as it disappears before us around the corners of narrative and social experience.”16 I think the fluidity and intangibility of light resonate with the building of a fleeting utopian moment.  The ephemerality of light has a special ability to reach towards something, to embrace the idea of seeing something that is just beyond our reach.  I propose that in this example the framing of the body by light points to a moment outside of the narrative and aesthetic framework of the wider piece.  While the still image solidifies it, even with the imagined movement of the confetti, the dissection of the arms by the hard blue edges of the spot separates the image from the time and place of the mockumentary.  I suggest this could be seen as a queer moment, an embrace of the joy of an imagined future that is contained within the boundaries of the spotlight and swiftly swept out of our vision when the lighting changes.  This moment of temporary isolation is utopic because of its positioning against the mockumentary framework’s more overt interrogation of social and cultural narratives of success; while the piece as a whole speaks to an artificially constructed present, this particular moment imagines other possibilities.

An affective and phenomenological politics

In looking further to the political potential of affective encounters with light, I draw from the practice-based research of Campbell to consider how performance might “[produce] all sorts of individual ‘meanings’ through its intensity, or affect: its ‘body-first’ methodology.”17 Campbell engages with the affective qualities of language as rhythm and the building of a felt environment through a combination of sound, light and bodily gestures as key to the political interpretation of post-dramatic texts in performance.18 Combining Campbell’s affective approach with David Getsy’s situating of queer in contemporary art as “tied up not just with the important work of political defiance and critique but also with visualizing and inhabiting otherwise,”19 I suggest what we see and feel in performance can speak to a queer politics with as much strength as an anti-normative statement from a protest or an academic text.20

NEVER TRUST A CREATIVE CITY TOO RUDE (2018) Images: Bryony Jackson

Never Trust A Creative City21 was a work that involved a significant aesthetic shift; moving from a performance lecture about art and gentrification to an imagined future in which the climate apocalypse has led evolution towards the human/jellyfish hybrid.  In terms of a queer potential the latter section of the work touches on the ability of design to engage in affective overwhelm that speaks to the body through significant shifts in environment.  However, it is in the hybrid future that I think the strongest link to queer potential exists.  The performance lecture gave a clear political framework, but it is in the fluidity of what could be human, in asking what might be beyond the social bounds of current normative thinking that I argue the work becomes queer.


The gesture of light in this case is mostly within the jellyfish costumes.  Drawing from the work of multidisciplinary artists Like Queer Animals, I propose that the hybrid human/jellyfish provides “alternative ways to occupy, mark and reshape the cityscape.”22 I suggest that these costumes with their ever-changing coloured lights become queer objects inhabiting a ‘future’ space with the potential for dis and re orientation in line with Ahmed’s queer phenomenology. Part of the power of queer phenomenology is the potential for disorientation through encountering environments that disrupt our usual patterns of belonging.23 In this instance, the light’s ability to move with the performers’ bodies, the glow through the fabric of the costumes and the variation in colour become crucial elements in creating an alternate world; a utopic and disorientating glimpse at another possibility.   I suggest that the creation of a supposedly apocalyptic future as a fantastical landscape speaks to a longing for queer ecologies that rethink heteropatriarchal constructions of ‘natural’ and ‘unnatural’ through an embrace of the hybrid and that, in this case, the temporary imagining of a hybrid future is reliant on the fluidity and aesthetic magic of light.24

(2017) Image: Tracey Schramm.

The last example takes a somewhat more agential approach to what might define a form of queer subversion in performance.25 The saturated green in this image speaks not to any sense of place, nor to an emotional register of the performance but to the breaking down of light itself.  The lighting for the whole piece was based on mixing variations of colour using red, green and blue lamps, moving to a sequence in which these primary colours of light split apart across time.  I suggest this deconstruction of a system of lighting demonstrates a subversion of theatrical hierarchies, as discussed by Graham, that sometimes place design as “a lesser art, there to support the principal elements without drawing too much attention to itself.”26 My approach in this production identifies light as an active agent of performance,27 highlighting its affective potential and queering a traditional sense of theatrical lighting as supporting the action.28 Again, the idea of light that overwhelms becomes apparent, and as with all the examples, there is a sense of light as present and active both as a feature and in its interactions with other elements.


There are many ways to interpret the included images and I can make no definitive claims as to how the audience or performers may have experienced my work.  As Getsy states “By definition, there can be no singular ‘queer art’, nor is there only one way to work queerly.”29 However, one thing that stood out to me in looking for queer potential in my work was that the most relevant productions were made in part with other queer artists.  Those were the experiences in which I most often had the freedom to engage with light that would potentially act in queer ways.  So, to return to my question of where my contributions sit within the broader framework of queer dramaturgy, I contend that queer lighting aesthetics can be crafted in productions that are not overtly queer but queer community, collaboration and context certainly helps.

Emma Lockhart-Wilson is a lighting designer with a strong interest in the affective potential of interaction between performer bodies and designed elements.  Emma has designed lighting for companies including Australian Theatre for Young People, Monkey Baa, DeQuincy Co. and Version 1.0.  Emma is a PhD candidate at the Victorian College of the Arts, University of Melbourne, researching affective scenographies in queer feminist performance in Australia. 


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  1. I would like to thank Alyson Campbell and Stephen Farrier for their generous guidance and feedback on this piece.
  2. Alyson Campbell and Stephen Farrier, Queer Dramaturgies: International Perspectives on Where Performance Leads Queer, Contemporary Performance Interactions (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), p. 13.
  3. Campbell and Farrier.
  4. Elissa Blake, ‘Top Female Lighting Designers Push for Equality’, AUDREY Journal, p. para 20 <> [accessed 10 July 2022].
  5. Stephen Farrier, in discussion with the author, February 2023.
  6. Farrier also discusses drawing attention to normative constructs through aesthetic choices in Campbell and Farrier, p. 134.
  7. For further detail on the convention of ‘ignoring’ theatrical artifice within turn of the century naturalism and its sustained influence see A Sourcebook on Naturalist Theatre, ed. by Christopher Innes (London; New York: Routledge, 2000), pp. 15–17.
  8. Katherine Graham, ‘Scenographic Light: Towards an Understanding of Expressive Light in Performance’ (unpublished PhD diss., University of Leeds, 2018), British Library EThOS.
  9. Scott Palmer, Light (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013).
  10. Rachel Hann, Beyond Scenography. (Routledge, 2019), p. 136; Scenography Expanded: An Introduction to Contemporary Performance Design, ed. by Joslin McKinney and Scott Palmer (London: Bloomsbury, 2017), p. 3, Drama Online <>.
  11. Gregory J. Seigworth and Melissa Gregg, ‘An Inventory of Shimmers’, in The Affect Theory Reader (Duke University Press, 2010), pp. 1–25 (p. 5) <>; Campbell and Farrier, p. 2.
  12. See Yaron Abulafia, The Art of Light on Stage: Lighting in Contemporary Theatre. (Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2016), UNIVERSITY OF MELBOURNE’s Catalogue, UniM Bail 792.025 ABUL; Graham, ‘Scenographic Light: Towards an Understanding of Expressive Light in Performance’; Palmer.
  13. Sara Ahmed, Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others, E-Duke Books Scholarly Collection (Durham: Duke University Press, 2006).
  14. Campbell and Farrier, p. 2
  15. Applespiel Make a Band and Take on the Recording Industry, devised and performed by Simon Binns, Nicole Kennedy, Emma McManus, Mark Rogers, Troy Reid, Joseph Parro, Nathan Harrison and Rachel Roberts, lighting design by Emma Lockhart-Wilson, The Tower Theatre Malthouse, Melbourne, September 3-13, 2014.
  16. Jill Dolan, Utopia in Performance: Finding Hope at the Theater (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2005), p. 6.
  17. Alyson Campbell, ‘Adapting Musicology’s Use of Affect Theories to Contemporary Theatre-Making: Directing Martin Crimp’s Attempts on Her Life’, Journal of Adaptation in Film and Performance, 4.3 (2011), 303–18 (p. 316) <>.
  18. Campbell, pp. 308, 310–16.
  19. David J. Getsy, “Introduction: Queer Intolerability and Its Attachments,” in Queer, ed. David J. Getsy, Documents of Contemporary Art (Whitechapel Gallery and The MIT Press, 2016), 15.
  20. I admit that the politics of an affective experience may have less clarity than more overt forms of expression but perhaps this openness to interpretation is in itself a bit queer.
  21. Never Trust A Creative City, devised and performed by Emma McManus and Maria White, set design by Romaine Harper, costume design by Verity Mackey, lighting design by Emma Lockhart-Wilson, Arts House North Melbourne Town Hall, North Melbourne, March 21, 2018.
  22. Jon Herman, ‘Like Queer Animals: We Hold Your Gaze’, Epiphany Center for the Arts, 2021, p. Para. 2 <> [accessed 12 September 2022].
  23. Ahmed, pp. 11, 158.
  24. See Catriona Mortimer-Sandilands, ‘Unnatural Passions?: Notes Toward a Queer Ecology’, InVisible Culture, 2005, 1–31 <>.
  25. Oedipus Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, written by Daniel Evan (after Sophocles), directed by Fraser Corfield, set and costume design by Melanie Liertz, lighting design by Emma Lockhart-Wilson, ATYP Studio 1, Walsh Bay, June 7-28, 2017.
  26. Graham, ‘Scenographic Light: Towards an Understanding of Expressive Light in Performance’, p. 8.
  27. For more detail on light as an active element of performance see Katherine Graham, ‘Active Roles of Light in Performance Design’, Theatre and Performance Design, 2.1–2 (2016), 73–81 <>.
  28. As an example of this perspective, I include here Richard Pilbrow’s statement that ‘…it is clearly the lighting designer’s duty never to try to achieve an attractive visual picture at the expense of visibility.’ Stage Lighting Design: The Art, the Craft, the Life (London: Nick Hern Books, 2008), p. 8.
  29. Getsy, p. 19

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