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Theatre Lighting Design: A 7-Part Hub Series - Part 1: Introduction

Updated on January 21, 2014
Logo for Ellwood Designs
Logo for Ellwood Designs | Source


This is just the primary introduction to lighting design before we get into the specifics and sciences of it. Pay attention. There is a quiz at the end. .oO(No really... there's a quiz at the end. )

There are many aspects to theatre lighting design. So many, that I will be breaking this topic up into multiple hubs (otherwise, I would have a small novel). Part 1 is the introduction and concepts and some background on my experience. You can use the table of contents to the right to navigate through the series. That table of contents will be in the same place on each article.

The first portion of part 1 may be a bit boring, but read through or feel free to skip the boring part about my background. You may find some terms with which you’re not familiar. Fret not. Part 2 will be covering various lighting and theatrical terms as well as the different standard lighting instruments.

Unfortunately, many people don’t understand the whole lighting design concept or what goes into it. They somehow think that it’s just pointing some lights at the stage and turning them on and off. They don’t understand the complexity of the design process, although it’s just as, if not more complex than scenic design and costume design (not to discount those very intricate design processes). I believe this is due to the fact that if the theatre lighting designer is doing his/her job, the audience doesn’t notice the light (with some design/artistic exceptions). This is most often the case with farces and ‘dry’ plays. When I was designing in college or in foreign venues where no one knew me, I would often go outside during intermission and listen to conversations; and sometimes inquire the patrons, “What did you think about the lights?” Most often, I was looking for a response of “I didn’t notice them.” or similar. If they (the audience) noticed the shadows or the light changes, I wasn’t doing my job (again, with some exceptions).

One of my current headshots.
One of my current headshots.


I have 14 years experience in theatre lighting design and over 20 years professional and academic theatre experience in general. I started college as a pre-vet major at Lansing Community College (LCC) in Lansing, MI. After working in vet clinics for six years, I realized it wasn’t what I wanted to do so I switched my major to theatre. The day I switched, I went home to find my acceptance letter to Michigan State University for their veterinary medicine program (very difficult to get into). I smiled, crumpled up the acceptance letter, and tossed it aside. The fact that I got accepted was an accomplishment. Anyway, my new major was theatre performance. I enjoyed it greatly and learned a lot about the realm of theatre. While at LCC, I worked in the scene shop and did quite a bit with lighting as well as set design and construction. I have never been an artist in the visual sense. I couldn’t draw a straight line with a ruler. However, I found that light, the most intangible art form, was more malleable than I had ever perceived. I could mold it and sculpt it into whatever I wanted. I fell in love with the art form. But acting was still my passion. Upon receiving my Associates from LCC for theatre performance and dance performance, I applied to Western Michigan University (WMU) for acting. I didn’t get accepted, but they offered me an opportunity to join their design/tech program. I jumped on lighting design. I attended WMU until 2003 before transferring to Central Michigan university (CMU) to continue my design studies. I technically never finished due to running out of funds.

After college, I did a few volunteer gigs before landing a job in Arizona. Somewhere in my travels between Michigan and Arizona, the job disintegrated. When I got down there, there was no job to be had. After job searching and some odd jobs, I finally landed an excellent position with an entertainment company based out of Tempe, AZ. My first day on the job, I was introduced to my Master Electrician. It was Jim Chapman (Aerosmith’s lighting designer of 30 years). In no way did I consider myself his boss; more like partners and that situation worked out perfectly as we shot ideas off each other. While there, I improved upon their designs, maintained the lighting department, met directly with clients, and designed for events ranging from weddings and receptions to general sessions to major concerts and even designed the after party for the stars for the 2008 Superbowl. This is where I was first introduced to the ignorance of many when it comes to the physics of light. I was let go on January 1st, 2008 due to the fact that my boss (the company’s owner) could not understand that amber light plus blue light equals white light (more on that in part 3). It was the first time when my knowledge was questioned, and questioned harshly due to ignorance. After being let go, I packed up and returned to Michigan where I have been volunteering my designs and picking up gigs for lighting and stage combat choreography where I could. Since then, I have encountered many directors and other individuals who think that designing lights just consists of “point and shoot” methods. Not the case in any sense.

Script Work

Any theatre design begins with the script, be it lighting, costume, make-up, scenic, etc. It is important to distance yourself from being a designer and just sit down and read the script. Then read it again. Then read it a third time. Now you’re ready to pick up a pencil with the script and this time you read it, you start taking note of time of day, mood, length of time portrayed (does the script take place over a couple hours or a couple weeks?), etc. All of these things combined will assist you with your concept.

The Concept Statement is your first ‘official’ piece of paperwork. This will be given to each member of the production team at the first production meeting and will be discussed (usually in depth). Each designer has the responsibility of having a clear concept before entering the design process and the first production meeting is to make sure everyone’s concept aligns with everyone else’s, including and especially the director’s. The Concept Statement should state your ideas of the play, your ideas for color and why (in part 3, I will explain the extreme importance of knowing every designer’s color palette for your own design), your ideas for angle of light, how the audience should feel as they exit the theatre, what you think the intent of the play is, and how you plan to incorporate all these ideas into your design.

Once all concepts have been approved, you can now go back to the script and begin working on your design ideas. I usually start by underlining important moments stated in the stage directions (such as time of day/night, location [outside/inside/venue], etc.) and then return to the beginning of the play and write the letter Q at moments where there are obvious light Qs to be placed (start of play, intermission, start of act 2, end of play, etc.). Do not number these Qs yet. Then I go back and read the script again, getting a handle on the various moments, circling actor/character moments that are of importance, anything that possibly calls for specials, etc. and then return to the start of the play once again, and fill in any holes, making sure all bases have been covered. It’s important to note that most of your ideas will change throughout the rehearsal process as you see the blocking from the director on the stage. That’s ok. The point of this initial process is for you to make sure that you are not only extremely familiar with the script, but that you are equally familiar with your own concept and where you want the lighting to go (literally and figuratively).

Godspell, 2013, Tom and Bea Nobles Theatre, Flint, MI
Godspell, 2013, Tom and Bea Nobles Theatre, Flint, MI | Source

Production Meetings

Production meetings are possibly one of the most important aspects of design. The meetings generally consist of the director, the assistant director, stage manager (sometimes), costume designer, scenic designer, technical director, lighting designer, and master electrician. The positions present will vary from theatre to theatre, but those are the most common attending. The point of the production meetings is for everyone to keep tabs on everyone else’s progress and to make sure everyone is still on the same page and that no one has strayed too far from the original agreed upon concept. I’ve already briefly explained the first production meeting, so onto the second. The second production meeting is where all the designers come in with renderings of their concepts (however some directors want this at the first meeting). For example, the costume designer will come in with drawings of their costume ideas for various characters (usually at least the primary roles, but often most, if not all the secondary roles as well). The scenic designer will bring a rendering drawn and colored in force perspective or, many times, a scale model of his/her idea for the set. That leaves the lighting designer. We get the easiest, yet most difficult rendering. Remember, we’re showing light, not objects. This means we can use black and white if we want, but the purpose is to show light and shadows on the actors and set at various points throughout the play; look at it as a story board of the play for light. Expect to be asked to make changes. It will happen. Once everything is agreed upon, back to the script and continued design work. Each subsequent production meeting is then to cover progress and maintain consistency within the concept.

End of Godspell
End of Godspell
Cabaret | Source

Design Methods

There are multiple types of performance art, and lighting methods vary with each of them. For example, with most farces and straight plays, the lighting is typically used to mirror natural or real world lighting placed ideally at 45-degrees from the actor, both up and to the sides for the front light (more on lighting placement in part 4). Simply put, you’re trying to duplicate the setting of the play/scene to as close to realism as you can. Of course, this changes depending on the play, but that is the base strategy for these types of plays.

Musicals allow the designer to be a bit more creative. The designer can often implement some more saturated colors, some more dramatic angles, isolative specials, etc. Musicals are extremely fun to light because you get to use not only the text of the script, but the music for Qing as well.

Dance concerts are a lot of fun to design because the focus changes. You are no longer trying to light the performer’s face, but their body. Your job as a designer is to pull out the shape of their body so you don’t want to wash anything out. In this form of lighting, it is not uncommon to incorporate silhouettes, direct side light of contrasting colors, down/back light, and a lot of cyc color. It is a very confining design form, but also the most freeing because now you’re designing based off emotion and story of the dance alone and your concern with even, focused light to light the face is gone. You can more freely use the shadows in your design. As my lighting design instructor said at WMU, “We don’t design light. We design shadows and their absence.” This is most evident in dance lighting.

The last type of lighting I will mention is Concert lighting. I’m talking rock concert here, not orchestral. While you have to make sure the performers are visible, this is probably the freest form of lighting. You can do anything you want as long as it fits the music being played. And this is also where you most often get into your intelligent (moving) lights, lasers, smoke machines (though they are commonly used in all forms), etc. This is where the lighting designer, while taking his/her job just as seriously as with the above forms, gets to be a kid again. You think a deep magenta light would look good on the guitarist, go for it. As long as the light Qs match the music, there is little you can do to screw up concert lighting. But of course, it still needs to be aesthetically pleasing. Whereas with straight plays, you want to go unnoticed, with rock concerts, you want the audience to not only notice the lighting but talk about it and be in awe of it. You are going for the most visual experience they can handle. The point of concert lighting is to overload the audience’s senses; the band with audio and the lighting designer with visual.

I would talk about event lighting, but there are so many variations thereof depending on the event; from car shows to weddings to general sessions. Everything has its own life and own style.

About Photometrics

Important to Know

There are a few things a lighting designer needs to know before tossing some lights on the battens and turning them on. You need to know the physics of light; color mixing, inverse square law (foot candles/lux), angle of light and its effects, lighting of various time periods, refraction quotients, etc. You need to know basic electrical laws; ohms law, power law, etc. You should know safe rigging, especially in large houses and rock concert settings and when working with truss. You need to know color theory for both lighting and pigment (yes, they are different), different types of color mixing, how light focuses through a lens, etc. As you can see from just this introduction alone, there is a lot more to lighting design than just hanging a light and pointing it at the stage. There is quite a bit of math involved (to be discussed under photometrics in part 4), especially when in an unfamiliar house. While lighting design is an incredibly fun and productive art form, it is just as much a science. The art portion is in the creativity and concept phase. Everything else, from that point forward, once you know what you want it to look like… everything else is math and science. That’s not to say there’s no art thereafter. It’s not uncommon for a designer to say, “I wonder what this would look like.” and then do it and like it. In fact, I encourage that type of design as long as it is supplemental to the overall design and not the basis for it. Lastly, I also think it’s very important for any designer to perform in at least three different theatre styles. The reason for this is that you, as a designer, need to understand the actor’s side of things. If you tell an actor to “find their light”, you better be able to describe how and be able to do it yourself.

Questions and Comments

If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to ask in the comments section below. I enjoy answering lighting questions and I get rather passionate about it. I have held many workshops for high schools and colleges to teach the basics of lighting and often times, I have to internally yell at myself to slow down because I get so excited just talking about it. Please note, however… if your question relates to any of the parts listed in the Hub Series Table of Contents at the top of this hub, please wait for that part to be published. If it is published and your question is not answered, then please ask in the appropriate hub. Thank you.
Hopefully, by the time you read through the end of this hub series, you will never look at light the same way again. I know I don’t after working with it for so long. It’s no longer something that just helps us see. It is a magnificent work of nature that allows us to portray mood, affect emotion, and effect visual stimuli. My scenic design instructor at WMU said on the first day of class, “We set designers have a god complex. We get to create the world and tell the actors where we live.” I raised my hand and said, “Yes. But we lighting designers get to tell them how they feel about it.” Lighting design truly is a god complex. You can manipulate the actors’ and audience’s emotions to react how you think they should. It’s up to you to tell the audience how they feel about what they are watching… and they don’t even realize it.



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