How to Light a Play

Where to Start

This article is intended to give you an outline of how to light a play. It implies that the lighting designer will also be the one setting the lights which is the most likely case in theatre. There are many excellent technical articles on the web for more advanced information about lighting. Because I have designed and operated lights in many different theatres, from big ones to studio spaces, I feel that I have a useful perspective on lighting a show

Without light, there is no play. Light and shadow creates focus, stripping the stage of uneccessary details. With backlight, sidelight and front of house(foh) light, characters on stage will pop out in all their 3D glory. Much of film lighting follows the same basics of stage lighting. Light the character. Light the actor. The director and the lighting designer, who should be familiar with the lighting system of the particular theatre should meet for some elemental discussions at the beginning of the rehearsal process for the play. Another important person to have at the meeting is the set designer. Often the set designer and the lighting designer are the same person. The director will likely have some lighting ideas and will be a valuable resource because he or she has a vision for the play. The director(hopefully) will have read the play and will have an idea about what the look of the show will be like. After establishing the basic lighting ideas, the director will go to work on the play, and the lighting designer will start mapping out ideas about lighting the show. A to-scale drawing of the stage and set will be a useful tool for lighting the show. Many theatres have online schematics and an online inventory of lighting equipment. If a lighting designer is inexperienced, it would be good to meet with someone who has used the theatre lights before. Every lighting system has its strengths and weaknesses. Use the strengths. Mask the weaknesses.


The director will then start rehearsals, and will block the play. Blocking is the process where the director and cast and crew map out the movements and the arrangement of the actors on stage. Blocking affects lighting because blocking is basically where the actors are going to be onstage at any given moment. These actors need to be lit. It is more important for the actors to be lit than the stage or set pieces. If a particular area of the stage cannot be lit at a particular point of blocking because there is a limit to what is possible, then the lighting designer should bring that up so that the director can alter the blocking to accommodate the lighting limits. Director and Lighting Designer should meet occasionally to discuss where the director wants light to support the acting, and the Lighting Designer can suggest to the Director what limits might be placed on the blocking by the actual physical limitations of the lighting. Directors often want to have unlimited lighting. They can often be ununencumbered by any awareness of that particular theatre's lighting limits. A Lighting Designer needs to instruct the director about what is possible and what is not. But even if a director's ideas are impractical, they should not be dismissed out of hand because there might be a solution. Sometimes an out-of-the-box solution will present itself.

An Assistant As the lighting designer you will have to do more than just design the lights, you will likely have to actually work with the lights as well, and in that case you will need an assistant. As a lighting designer you need to work at certain heights and likely on a ladder or a powered lift. Some lights will be difficult to get at for focusing and having an assistant is useful for safety reasons. An assistant can operate the board when you are focusing lights. An assistant can act as a model on stage for the lights, so you can see how the lights will affect an actor at certain points on stage. Obviously if the lighting director is also the director, then he or she will know where the main acting points are. It is often useful in your design to have basic areas that are going to be lit. as in three across the front, three in the middle and three upstage at the back and if any lights are left over then specials can be used for things such as spots or gobboes or other things. With more modern lights different colours and gobboes can be attained with one light. Modern leds require less heat and can last longer than incandescent lights.

Your Lighting Board

Your lighting board will control the lights on stage. The lights are plugged into a dimmer which would be installed into a dimmer rack. The connections to the dimmer rack may be via outlets set up near the lights, or in a more temporary setting; the lights may be connected to the dimmer rack through long electrical cables. There are electrical guidelines for the electrical load and the gage of cable needed. An outside electrical source powers the dimmer rack. The dimmer rack's vents should be kept clear of dirt so that the fan operates efficiently transferring heat out of the dimmer rack. Each light is effectively plugged into the dimmer rack through a channel. A cable such as a dmx cable then runs from the lighting board to the dimmer rack. It has a five pin xlr connection which looks like a microphone connection. But with five not 3 pins. On older boards there would be an analog control. The different channels on the lighting board are reflected by faders which slide up and down from 0-10; 0 representing no light and 10 representing the brightest light. This 0-10 numbering system on each channel allows you to control how bright you want each light to be for a particular cue. There is also a master fader which goes from 0-10. When that Master Switch is at ten each light that is plugged into a channel via the dimmer rack can be turned up to ten. There are usually two banks of faders so that you can cross fade manually. You can also program the lights and record the cues through the lighting board's computer.

A lighting board is usually found at the Front of House (FOH) position or in a control booth. From my experience it is unwise to have a lighting board backstage with only a video camera showing the lighting operator what is happening on stage. A lighting operator in a live show is constantly making adjustemnets on the fly because unexpected things happen. A full unencumbered view of the stage for the lighting operator is of paramount importance during a show. No show is ever perfect.

Big theatres have the money to afford modern lighting consoles which have advanced capacities which control lights that can move, change colors and gobo patterns, fog machines and hazers, and other special effects devices. Many big budget touring shows will bring their own lighting systems that have these big budget lighting possibilities.

The ManualMake sure you read the manual that comes with the lighting board. If the manual has managed to disappear, then take down the make and serial number of the lighting board and you can find it online. Reading the manual fully and experimenting with the board will help you to develop a fuller understanding of the board, the lights and how to program cues.

Focusing the Lights

Lights are often attached to lighting bars with clamps. An adjustable wrench is all you need to attach lights to the lighting bar or to move them to a new position once they are on the lighting bar. When on a ladder and taking a light down, care is needed that the weight of the lamp does not throw you off balance. Lights can be heavy. You can adjust lights up and down and from side to side. You can also adjust the focus of certain lights. You can also shutter the beam internally on certain lights. Lights such as the short and stubby fresnels can only be shuttered externally by barn doors which have to be cabled to the front frame of the light to prevent injury if it manages to fall.


Gobos are small metal cut outs that can be used in lights such as leicos, which are longer than fresnels The gobbo is usually inserted in front of the actually bulb from outside into its appropriate slot. A gobo's cut out shape allows the designer to cast an image onstage. The image is a shadow and depending on what shapes the gobbo is can represent leaves, windows, buildings, crosses or anything else that can be cut out. The focus can be altered on the light to either give the gobo a sharp edge on stage or alternately a diffuse shadow. Resourceful lighting designers on a low budget have often used aluminum pie plates as gobos, cutting them into whatever shape they wish. Real gobboes are better though.

Lights usually have an effective throw or distance within which they are most effective.

There are lights like leicos which can isolate certain areas on the stage and the afore-mentioned fresnels which are used for general washes. Focusing the lights is the process where you have to take into account the inventory of lights on hand and decide the best use of these lights to be able to light the show. Some lighting designers like realistic lighting and others like bolder colour choices. A lighting designer is like a painter using the various lights, gobboes and gells as his palette.

Preheat Be careful about switching the lights to full power when the lights are cold. This can lead to the bulbs burning out prematurely due to the sudden jump in current. Sometimes dimmers have a preheat function which keeps the lights warm while not appearing on to the audience. There is also a function which can limit the maximum power supplied to a lamp, which can also extend its life.

In less advanced systems, the lights can be turned on with the dimmers at 0 and then slowly the master can be raised to gradually warm the lights. Sudden blackouts and sudden fade ups are bad for the long-term health of your lights. Hence the defsult fades. This is as effective as a built in preheat function.

I would guess that the sudden expansion of the filament due to heat would cause the bulb to blow. You should have spare bulbs on hand in case of a blown bulb. If a bulb does blow during a show, you might have to just grin and bear it. Fix the light between shows. If it is possible at intermission that is fine as well.

Make sure that the lights are attached to the lighting bars or whatever installation there might be with safety cables. If the clamp can't hold the light, the safety cable is there to prevent disaster.

Be careful with cables so that they are not exposing bare wire. Careless handling and rolling up of cable can damage cable and produce shocks.

Fade timesIn programming the lights you will find that there is a default fade time that might be three seconds. In programming your board you can change the default time. This might be useful when you are doing a play such as August Stringberg's Miss Julie where the morning sun is coming up and you could put in for example a twenty minute fade time to have the lights gradually come up over a tenty minute period. For some scenes you might wish an instantaneous cross fade and maybe with others, as in a tragedy you might want a slow fade into a black out.

Black outs are an easy way to use the lights to suggest a the end of a scene or the end of a play. They might be used to suggest power failures or night, but blackouts which means the complete absence of light interrupts the flow of the play and can easily take the audience out of a play if used gratuitously. Spare use of the blackout is a good way of keeping the sudience engaged. Also the fade times for blackouts are important. The difference between regular sit down applause and a standing ovation can be because of how well the blackout is handled

Colours are used to establish mood, time and place. Colours are generally broken down into warm and cool. An initial wash is needed for the show. Most theatres have a house hang which includes a general wash for lighting, the default system. The house hang will have warm and cool gels as well as neutral gels, to create white light. To create an evening effect the warm and neutral washes could be turned off and the blue gelled light would give the stage an evening effect. Some warm foh(Front of House)light could be added to warm the faces of the actors on stage. Daylight could have the whole house hang to create white light. An interior shot could be just the warms for the wash. To save time, once a lighting cue has been established for a particular scene, it can be used again for similar scenes. This will save a lot of time and add consistency to the show. Trying to reinvent the wheel for each lighting cue makes it progressively hard to light the next scene. Revisiting cues allows you to have a cue that you can rely on in successive scenes. You can always branch out from there. It is good to establish basic outside cues and inside cues. Have an idea for evening, day and morning if they are required and referred to.

White light is made up of all the colours of the spectrum, which is why after a storm, light get bent by vapour in the air and you get a rainbow. When light is bent, the different wavelengths of the different colours is exposed. If you wish to get a particular colour from a light you can put a coloured gel in an insertable frame in front of the light. The coloured gel will stop the various colours of the spectrum but will allow the coloured light that matches the gel through to the stage. A blue gel will only allow blue light through to the stage.

You can add two different coloured gels to the same light to get another colour. Red and Blue gels can make purple. Blue and yellow gels can make green. If you focus two different coloured lights on the same spot on stage, the same colour mising would take place. A blue and a yellow light would produce a green spot on stage. Different colours will always modify each other on the stage when they are mixed and in setting up the lights you can always experiment.

A lighting designer must try to minimize shadow by lighting the subject from various angles. Light should be focused on the main action on stage and not indiscriminately lighting everything so taht the audience gets tired with processing all the infornmation a well lit stage provides minimizing focus on the actors. Remove the unneccessary.

Comedies can be well lit, but tragedies can use more moody and dramatic lighting. Dramatic lighting can be highlighted with contrasts of shadow and light. It is important to keep light off of distracting objects onstage and to that end, lights can be shuttered to narrow the beam to a more precise location. for a monologue or a lighting cue that needs to isolate the character.

Keep the light off bright spots. The audience will tend to be drawn to the nrightest object onstage, so if you have a brightly painted set with white on it or sparkles it will tend to distract the audience from the actors and thus from the story on stage. Part of the lighting design and lighting focus job is to keep the light of parts of the stage that will distract from the action. For instance if a spot is shone on an actor doing a monologue for instance and there is something white picking up bounced light from the stage then the audience will be drawn to the bright object. An advantage of white pieces of set is that under coloured lights the white piece of set will become that colour adding to the ability of lights to dictate mood and time.

Lighting is a way of making magic out of what would be normally a boring white light experience with too many distractions. There should always be a primary light source and a secondary light source that is not as strong or is a single colour. And backlight which separates the actor from the set or background. Without backlight, there is a painting effect. The actors seem to merge in a 2d manner into the background.

cyclorama or cycs are plaed at the back of the stage and behind the back traveller curtain. Not all theatres have them. A cyc can be made of unbleahed canvas or in fact any material that can reflect light ioptimally. When a dark scrim is placed in front fo the cyc the colours can be richer as the scrim absorbs bounced light. A cyc is usually weighted down and stretched to remove folds in the fabric that creates shadows on the cyc. Cycs are often used to create the illusion of a skyline. Blues and reds are very effeective colours on a cyc. Cycs can be front-lit or lit from above and below by banks of cyc lights with red blue and yellow lights which when mixed can cretae any colour such as oranges, purples and greens. Also lights such as fresnels can beused from above and below to cover the cyc. Cycs can create a beautiful backdrop for your production. There are also hard cycs and soft cycs. A cyc can be made of any material as long as it can be painted and reflect light. Hart House Theatre in Toronto Cyclorama: Glass bead, painted on upstage wall of theatre. The hard cyc at Hart House Thetare in Toronto is magnificent. When I was asisting with a highschool show at the provincial showcase at teh Sears Drama Festival, we had a small show that I had written. It had won a bunch of awards but there was no opportunity for a cyc. in previous productions. Everyone was very excited by added the Hart House cyc to the show, but I realized that our show had virtuosos acting and the cyc as a poingt of radiance would do nothing but detract so instead I had our lighting guy only light a small area at the front of the stage which had the effect of creating a deep black behind the actors because the stage was so deep. The actress stole the show and won top awards. The moral, just because its there doesn't mean you should use it.

Scrims are fabric with holes in it like a screen. When lit from the front they appear as a solid piece of fabric. When lit from the rear they become semi-transparent, creating a silhouette effect. A scrim will appear entirely opaque if everything behind it is unlit and the scrim itself is grazed by light from the sides or from above. A scrim will appear transparent if a scene behind it is lit, but there is no light on the scrim. A dreamy or foggy look can be achieved by lighting a scene entirely behind a scrim. If a light with a template gobo is aimed at a scrim, the image will appear on the scrim, but also any objects behind the scrim will be lit by the pattern as well.

In Conclusion

When the show is done, if you are operating the lights, make sure that all the patching is returned to its original state. Make sure you keep a clean and ordered workplace. Make sure any loose cables are taped up. If you do that one thing you will likely be asked to do lights again. Theatre companies value theatre practitioners who clean up after them and restore order. There are many theatre companies that will breeze into a theatre and leave a mess. Keep your house in order and you will always be in demand. Better neatness than genius.



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