We explain what scenery is, what types exist and what elements make it up. Also, what was its origin and its history.

The set design of the opera The Passenger places the action during Nazism.
The scenery tells the viewer where the action occurs.

What is scenography?

Scenography is, within the framework of the performing arts, the set of elements that make up the setting of an artistic representation, whether theatrical, musical, dance, or any other. This is also the name given to the art and technique used in the construction and conceptualization of said scenarios.

It is possible to understand scenography as the intersection between architecture and the performing arts, that is, between technical considerations about space and buildings, and the construction of a stage conducive to an artistic representation, which allows the viewer to visually place the show in a real, historical or imaginary context.

For example, in a play, the elements of the scenery accompany the cast of actors on stage, to give context to their actions and dialogues and indicate to the viewer where the action occurs: if there are houses and light poles, it is a city, while if there are flowers and trees, on the other hand, it will be the countryside. Cinema, theater, dance and many other arts make use of scenography.

Scenography involves complex tasks that are normally carried out by a specialized work team, since it is not only about physically producing the scenic elements and arranging them appropriately on stage, but also about understanding the conceptual proposal of the work and dialoguing with it. This task may fall to the director of the play, or to professionals in scenography, known as set designers.

See also: Characteristics of a play

Origin and history of scenography

During filming, an old town is used as scenery.
From Antiquity to the present day, the scenery has gone through multiple changes.

The word “scenography” is composed of the Greek voices skene (“shed”) and graphos (“writing” or “drawing”), since, in the religious rites of classical antiquity, the priests had a small construction (skene) in the public space so that they could change their clothes, especially during the Dionysian performances that gave rise to theater. This place later became the place from which the actors came out during the representation of the famous Greek tragedies, and was decorated with very elaborate columns and doors.

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Theater was very important in Greek and Roman culture, in their works the scenarios were represented through paintings: landscapes or emblematic places painted on a type of device known as periacts, equipped with three different sides that could be exchanged. Thus, by making them rotate, the setting changed and with it the act of the play changed. It is said that this type of artifice was used for the first time with the work King Oedipus by Sophocles.

The relevance of stage work continued to grow during the Middle Ages, largely because art was at the service of religion and the Church. Thus, The performances had the purpose of moving the parishioners and strengthening devout feelings.representing the various mysteries and biblical stories of Christianity.

However, it can be considered that The beginning of scenography as an art took place in the Renaissance. Different approaches to the play were used in Shakespeare’s England, for example, through large decorated tapestries, or combinations of black and white curtains to achieve different aesthetic effects. When it was impossible to represent the scenario (or the budget did not allow it), an actor or character was used to announce or explain to the audience where the events of the play occurred.

In the following centuries Scenography gained new methods and procedures, especially due to the new variety of theatrical works that emerged, such as comedy del arte, opera and ballet, which brought with them new scenographic needs. Fixed decoration became mobile, for example, thanks to the use of frames, an Italian technique that soon spread throughout Europe in the 16th century. In fact, there were famous Italian set designers between the 17th and 18th centuries: Sebastiano Serlio, Bernardo Buontalenti, Baccio del Bianco, Ferdinando Burnacci and Giacomo Torelli.

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With the arrival of the 19th century and new modern technologies, scenography took on new dimensions., incorporating the visual and lighting aspects, and advancing hand in hand with Romanticism towards more emotional, less realistic sets more prone to special effects. New lighting techniques, new theatrical forms (the breaking of the fourth wall, for example) and The beginnings of cinematography forever revolutionized scenic artmaking it more or less what it is today.

Types of scenery

An actor on a stage is in front of a table and four chairs.
The scenery may not refer to any specific place.

Scenography can be classified, first of all, according to the type of artistic representation it serves: theatrical scenography, operatic scenography, musical, etc. On the other hand, based on its aesthetic criteria, we can classify it as follows, regardless of the type of art it serves:

  • Realistic scenery. They are those that aim to reproduce in the most faithful and credible way the location in which the work takes place. They are abundant in details.
  • abstract scenery. They are those that do not represent a specific place or time, nor do they seek to resemble reality. On the contrary, they propose a surreal, fantastic or unrecognizable space for actions to take place.
  • Functional sets. They are those that are determined by the needs of a specific actor or scene, and that therefore change from one to another, adapting to the expressive needs of the work and the montage.
  • Minimalist sets. They are those that consist of the smallest and simplest number of elements, the minimum essential to be able to mentally recreate the place of the action. In them there are usually few objects and few interactions between the actor and the set.

Scenography elements

A group of actors performs La Boheme in the theater.
The set includes elements as diverse as the objects used and lighting.

The elements that make up every form of scenery are the following:

  • The design. It consists of the background references that appear on stage alongside the actors or artists, simply to give an objective or subjective context to the content of the work. For example: backdrops, false walls, plastic trees, projections on a backdrop, among others.
  • The prop. It consists of the objects that accompany and allow the action of the characters, whether they exist physically or are imagined. They usually have a momentary and specific use, such as swords, guns, jewelry, coins, among others.
  • The lighting. It consists of the set of lights and reflectors that point to the stage and allow certain objects, places or actors to stand out from the rest, or to submerge them in a light of a specific color, to create certain objective or subjective atmospheres: a dim light can suggest the proximity of death, red can suggest rage, among others.
  • Costumes and makeup. It consists of the set of techniques used to alter the appearance of the actor, making him or her look more like the character, or to reflect a specific situation or change in behavior. For example, a king may wear a crown and a cape, but if he is dethroned and banished, he will wear tattered clothing and have dark makeup to suggest a state of uncleanness.
  • sound effects. It consists of the various sound effects that can be incorporated into the work to suggest an event or situation, especially when they occur offstage. For example, thunder and rain sounds can be played to announce a storm, or gunshots and explosions can be played to show that there is a war.
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  • “Scenography” in the Language Dictionary of the Royal Spanish Academy.
  • “Radication of the word Scenography” in the Online Spanish Etymological Dictionary.
  • “Scenery” at the Buenos Aires Theater Complex (Argentina).
  • “Scenography” in World Encyclopedia of Puppetry Arts.
  • “Theatrical scenery, how to make a theater scenery?” at SCENA School of Performing Arts (Spain).
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