Posted in Visual Storytelling

Emotion in Theater

What is emotion? Merriam-Webster dictionary defines emotion as “a conscious mental reaction (such as anger or fear) subjectively experienced as strong feeling usually directed toward a specific object and typically accompanied by physiological and behavioral changes in the body” ( Without emotion, everything would be bland. Which is why storytellers have such an important job in today’s world. It’s even harder for visual storytellers to tell a story. You can convey emotion through words, but through movement or pictures it’s a lot more difficult.

Enter the world of theater. Theater creates emotion through words, movements, facial expressions. Nearly everything that happens in a show has a purpose and causes an emotion. This is why emotion is incredibly important in the world of theater. Different directors, designers, and actors go about showing emotion in a multitude of ways. Not one is the same. Which makes sense since everyone is different and they all have different ideas.

Lighting design may be one of the more challenging aspects of showing emotion. “Emotional lighting can be described as the potential of lighting being used to induce relaxation, motivation, and intimate atmosphere (“Emotional Lighting,” Right Light); it is simply lighting used to provoke emotions” ( Lighting in theater has two purposes. The first is fairly obvious, make sure the actors and set pieces are seen when they need to be. The second is to make sure the lighting correctly sets the mood of the seen. You wouldn’t want to watch an intimate love scene being blasted with yellow light, right?

There are many similarities in the emotions that colors portray in theater to that of Plutchik’s color wheel. The biggest difference I’ve found through being around theater my whole life and doing my own research is the color red.

Credit: Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

For example, take the show Cabaret. It’s a show surrounded by a lot of sexuality and sex appeal. Instead of using the color red to show anger, like Plutchik’s color wheel shows, they use it to show sexuality, passion, and love. This is because red is a very emotionally intense color. It’s used to increase respiration rate and blood pressure. “Red light was reported to evoke higher cortical arousal measured by EEG than blue or green light” (Wilms, Oberfeld 897). Along with all of the scantily clad actors in Cabaret, the color red brings a large wave of emotion over any audience member.

Credit: Quinnipiac University

Now, let’s see the complete opposite. Next to Normal is a musical about depression and attempted suicide. The complete color shift between a show like this and Cabaret is incredibly noticeable. The cold blue of the light is extenuated by the grays of the costume. In this scene, the character Gabe, the long dead son, a figment of Diana’s imagination convinces her to commit suicide so the two can be together again. “In general to indicate ‘night scene’ blue light is used” (Basa). In this case the “night scene” is the depiction of Diana’s potential death. This interaction takes place during the song “There’s a World”. “Cold blues and grays can be used to instill melancholy or to soothe sadness” ( In this scene, the combination of colors from the costumes and lights does just that.

Credit:Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

Many times lighting can even be used to foreshadow something. Take Les Misérables for example. This is a snapshot of One Day More, one of the most iconic songs from Les Misérables . It’s a more serious song, but the color blue shows up. As mentioned before, blue is an indication of melancholy. One Day More isn’t a sad song. It’s a song that gets the blood pumping and hypes up the audience. It’s a show stopper. One Day More closes out the first act, and once the second act begins that’s when the trouble starts. Most of the characters shown don’t make it to the end. The color blue foreshadows their inevitable deaths throughout a very powerful and uplifting song.

You don’t just need lights surrounding the actors to convey emotion in theater. Using something called, a Gobo, lighting designers are able to add silhouettes to the lights, which adds a completely new dimension to just the lights. A gobo is a stencil carved into a metal plate.


A great example of this is to use the Gobo for rain. Rain is already seen as something that conveys sadness and melancholy. If you combine that with a blue light the effect of the emotion can multiplied. Imagine it. Eponine from Les Misérables is singing “On My Own” beautifully. She’s truly emoting how alone she is how the man she loves doesn’t love her back. How does one increase the emotion output in this scene? Rain. Using actual water to depict rain is difficult and can cause electrical malfunctions as well as wardrobe malfunctions. The Gobo creates a perfect middle-ground where the emotion from the rain isn’t lost.

Credit: Les Misérables (2012)

As you can see in this screenshot from the movie, rain is actually being used during this scene. Unfortunately for the stage performers, they don’t have the luxury that screen actors have with effects like these.

Now, lighting isn’t the only way emotion is conveyed throughout theater. The choice of costumes plays a big role in how a character is viewed by the audience, and a lot of times it gives the audience a hint as to how that character will act.  For example, let’s look at Little Shop of Horrors.

Credit: Quinnipiac University

In the beginning, Seymour is wearing very ratty clothes and he looks like a mess, but the colors of his clothes, brown and blue, suggest stability and understanding. A little irony is thrown in there as well, since brown can also suggest masculinity. Seymour is not what one would call the stereotypical “masculine man”. All of this is seen in the opening number “Skidrow”. Seymour’s lines “Oh, I started life as an orphan. A child of the street. Here on skid row. He took me in [Mr. Mushnik], gave me shelter, a bed. Crust of bread and a job. Treats me like dirt, calls me a slob. Which I am” (Little Shop of Horrors). His life has a sense of stability. He works a dead-end job and though he hopes to move on to bigger and better things, he stays in the same place.

Now, once we get closer to the end of the show Seymour is wearing much more classy clothes. This shows his success from scene One to now.

Credit: Quinnipiac University

This is also seen through the color black, because black can signify elegance and prestige. On a darker note the colors of his clothes signify something completely different than from the first scene. Black and Gray signify fear and melancholy. Which is incredibly prevalent at the end of the show, where Seymour is in constant fear of Audrey 2 and doing whatever the plant asks of him. This is a complete 180 from the beginning of the show when he’s stable. His entire life is now in shambles and he doesn’t know what to do. Throughout Act Two, Seymour slowly starts to lose his mind (and everyone he loves).

The color of costumes can also be used to show one’s status. In revolutionary times, the color red was used to show royalty and a lot of shows that take place around that time period have adopted that color.

Credit: Hamilton

Take Hamilton for example. Jonathon Groff plays King George. The costume designers could have used any number of colors for the king to wear, but the chose red. Why? Well, it’s simple really. Not only did red signify royalty, but red also signifies power and passion. Power works well with King George because he was the ruler of the most powerful civilization at that time. Passion is shown through King George’s song, “You’ll be Back“. King George sings, “So don’t throw away this thing we had. Cuz when push comes to shove. I will kill your friends and family to remind you of my love” (Hamilton). He threatens to kill friends and family to bring back America into his clutches. That’s incredibly passionate (albeit a little crazy as well).

Shying away from the design portion of theater. Probably the biggest way that emotion is conveyed in theater is through the actors. A simple facial expression doesn’t always work in showing emotion, as not everyone will have a front row seat. It’s a little different than film in that aspect. In film, you can get a close-up of a character and see the emotion on their face. In theater, the act of showing emotion may have to be very exaggerated, depending on the size of the theater.


Take this screenshot of Jennifer Lawrence from Mother! for example. This is something that is impossible for an audience watching a play to be able to see. You can clearly see that Lawrence is shocked and scared. Facial expressions are pivotal in film, but they take a backseat to more exaggerated motions in theater.

Credit: Quinnipiac University

This is another scene from Next Normal. The father, Dan, and the dead son, Gabe are both singing at Diana, trying to get her to pay attention them. The actress could have easily just made a face to portray frustration, but the hand over her ear makes it easier for the audience to grasp what’s she’s actually going through. Dan and Gabe act as the voices in her hand and she’s fighting them off in order to have her own voice heard.

This doesn’t mean that facial expressions aren’t needed in theater. They are still needed, and still play an important role at showing emotion to the audience. Who wants to watch an actor sing and dance around the stage while they have a deadpan look at their face? Actors need a perfect balance in facial expressions and motions in order to create the perfect emotion.

Credit: Quinnipiac University

Here’s another scene from Next to Normal. This is one of the most emotional scenes from the show, “I am the One (Reprise)“. Diana has just left Dan, in order for herself to get better. Dan is completely heartbroken and can’t believe she would leave after all he’s done for her. He starts singing “I am the one who loved you. I am the one who stayed. I am the one and you walked away” (Next to Normal). Gabe cannot believe that his father is saying this as he’s pushed Gabe’s memory away for years as he responds with, “I know you told her [Diana] that I’m not worth a damn. But I know you know who I am” (Next to Normal).

Finally, Dan acknowledges Gabe, his son, after trying to push his memory away. In Quinnipiac University’s performance both actors could be seen crying each and every performance. It was incredibly prevalent in their final performance together. What should be known is that the final performance of Next to Normal was also both actor’s final shows at Quinnipiac University. Their emotion got the best of them and they both broke down in the waning moments of the song. So much, in fact, Gabe couldn’t finishing singing the final line of the song. Using one’s own feelings is another powerful way to convey emotions. “At the same time, actors’ portrayals can be strongly influenced by subjective feelings, especially when produced via techniques based on emotional imagination or memory” ( Not everyone can cry on command, so using a past memory or feeling can make someone get into that mindset. It may not be crying, but slumped shoulders, arched back, head down, all indicate that someone is upset.

In order for an actor to grab the audience’s attention the emotion they convey has to be perfect. People zone out sometimes, but “If you think a little deeper, you’ll realize that in those moments what makes you stop, think, and engage is oftentimes some kind of content that provides a more visceral experience” ( Moments like watching both actors break down on stage, pull you into the action, which is why at this moment the only thing that could be heard was crying and sniffles from the audience.

Unfortunately, a lot of times actors try and take these moments too far. You don’t want to play for the laugh. “Actors who set themselves up for a laugh, or pre-empt a joke, are often detrimental to other actors on stage, and themselves” ( Essentially what this means is, if you received a laugh on your opening performance, you may try to get a bigger laugh the next night and overdo it. Most of the times this happens, the reaction isn’t laughter. This also works with sadness, like in Next to Normal. Every actor in the show knew how depressing and upsetting the show was, but every night they didn’t try and force the audience to cry. They played truth. It’s a lot like manipulating photos using photoshop. “The public has lost trust in the media. We have to be ambassadors of the truth, we have to hold ourselves to a higher standard because the public no longer trusts the media” ( If an actor stops playing the truth, the audience will lose trust in them.

So far we’ve covered, lighting, costumes, and actors. The final way that emotion is conveyed in theater is through staging. This is where the director comes in.

Credit: Quinnipiac University

Let’s take a look at another scene from Next to Normal. This is a perfectly staged shot that can indicate to anyone looking at this picture what’s going on. It’s a classic example of one of Gestalt’s principles, proximity. Dan and Diana are next to each other, seemingly the couple in this photo. While Gabe looks at them longingly, just hoping to be acknowledged. In the scene itself, Dan is talking to Diana about receiving ECT (Electroconvulsive therapy) to help her delusional episodes about seeing her dead son. Gabe, not wanting to be forgotten is trying to fight back, but at this point in the scene he’s too late and has given up. All he can do is hope his mother doesn’t take the therapy so he won’t be forgotten.

A lot of staging in theater is surrounded by the Gestalt principle. Similarity, enclosure, continuation, closure, proximity, figure-ground are all used when staging a show.


Take West Side Story for example. The song Quintet (Tonight) is a perfect example of similarity. There are five groups in the song (from left to right): Anita, the Sharks, Tony, the Jets, and Maria. The Jets are paired together because they are all part of the same group, same with the Sharks. Anita is next to the Sharks as she is dating the leader of the group, Bernardo. Tony is next to the Jets as he was once a member and is best friends with the leader of the group, Riff.

Enclosure can be shown through the set design of a show and how the director creates the stage around it. The set could consist of a house and outside the house is a street. All the actors inside of the house would be grouped as living inside the house, while everything outside the house would be grouped together there.

Credit: Les Misérables

Continuation can be seen here as all of the actors are staged so the audience’s eyes keep going back and they continue to see a group of people all fighting for the same cause. Figure-ground can also be seen in this scene from Les Misérables. “The figure-ground principle helps to explain which element in a design will immediately be perceived as the figure and which will be perceived as the ground” ( The figure immediately being perceived is Enjolras, the leader of the rebellion. The flag in the background is seen as the ground, along with the members of the rebellion further away from Enjolras.

There are many ways emotions can be shown in theater, but the only way to properly show them off is through every part working in tandem. Costumes, lighting, acting, staging. Everything needs to work hand-in-hand to get the proper effect.


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Harwood, Jim, et al. “Don’t Play for Laughs: Acting Tip.” StageMilk, 24 Nov. 2014,

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“Worth 1,000 Words: The 4 Principles of Visual Storytelling.” Action Graphics, 26 July 2018, (Module 2)

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