The exit sign reminds us we can never really escape real life

Sound Off: Do I really believe that my absolutely essential complete blackout is worth endangering the lives of the audience?

"I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage. A man walks across this empty space whilst someone else is watching him, and this is all that is needed for an act of theatre to be engaged." Peter Brook wrote in The Empty Space. But the artistic playing space is rarely empty in purpose-built theatres. They already contain one of the most recognisable and indelible works of design in history.

The standardised exit sign used almost everywhere in the world was designed by Yukio Ota in the 1970s. It is required by law to be displayed at the exits of public buildings. In the theatre, this is a problem - the brightness of these electric signs draw attention, pull focus, and make achieving a complete blackout impossible.

If it wasn’t strange enough to take part in the act of theatre, and to enter the relationship of observer and observed, these signs accompany one throughout the performance - a constant whether the action of the work takes place over the course of a day, a week, or decades. They interrupt the space and draw attention to the limits of form - the cast of a restoration comedy, in full period costume on a set dressed as a drawing room are accompanied by this symbol designed centuries later. Ota’s running man has infiltrated en masse these otherwise precisely curated spaces in a brilliant piece of unintentional art terrorism.

In the case of an emergency you are encouraged to walk, not run to the exit, signified by a pictogram of a figure evidently in the act of running. It’s irritating to theatre makers, but also serves as a wry warning to keep one’s ego in check - do I really believe that my absolutely essential complete blackout is worth endangering the lives of the audience?


The exit sign raises intriguing questions about the boundary between art and legislation, our relationship with risk, and serves as an ever-present reminder that we can never really escape real life.

Lauren-Shannon Jones is a writer and performer. Her new show, Viva Voce runs at the The New Theatre in Dublin until Saturday 22nd as part of the Dublin Fringe Festival.

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