Wednesday, May 1, 2013

TECHNICAL THEATER HOW-TO: Stage Lighting: More than Illumination

A great lighting design utilizing key, fill and
backlighting with texture.
Stage lighting is both an art and a science. As such there is great room for creativity and yet there are also rules and practices that must be in order to properly bring a show to an audience effectively. The simple discipline of proper illumination is of key importance. In order for an actor’s face (where much of emotion and communication is carried) to reach an audience it must be well lit. The larger the auditorium the more essential this is. This is called registration.

It is also useful to illuminate the body when dance is involved. The techniques for Dance Theater (briefly discussed later) are a bit different than for Drama, but the idea is still the same—light what moves. This helps sculpt the face and body so proper registration is achieved.

The practice of stage lighting also takes into account the principle of shadow. Creating shadow helps convey mood (something I will also address further along in this article), but unwanted shadow—especially on the face—makes for poor lighting. It must be used only with intent and sparingly—especially in musicals.

Stage lighting should adequately cover the stage so that both actors and set are lit for the proper mood and registration. This begins with using two types of lighting: Key and Fill. Many uninformed and inexperienced “lighting designers” (LD’s) simply light from the front. Lighting directly from the front of a subject tends to flatten the face and wash out features rather than enhance them. Key and Fill lighting, on the other hand, sculpts the face and adds to its beauty and form.


It can be thought of as front lighting since it is generally directed from the front of the house from the proscenium (or stage front) and beyond from battens hanging over the audience or from the rear of the auditorium, but there’s more to it than that. (A followspot should NEVER be used exclusively to light a scene.)

Key and Fill lighting illuminates the subjects from two points: right and left. Two instruments (lighting fixtures) come from opposite sides of the subject at a 45 degree angle. They must also (whenever possible) have a trim height of approximately 30 to 40 degrees to appear natural. Trim height refers to the downward angle of the light. (See illustrations.) 

If the play has one non-moving actor a bare minimum of two instruments are required. If the actor moves about the stage, those areas into which he/she moves must also be lit using this principle using additional instruments. When lighting an entire stage it might be essential to use many instruments (varying in type) to adequately cover the area. (Since any fixture with a bulb has a hot spot due to how the lenses focus the lamp, beam fields are overlapped to even out the lighting.) Generally, the lighting should be even and there should be no “hot spots” or shadows. Of course there are exceptions when the desire is to create mood, but keep in mind that a sloppy lighting design cannot be excused as mood.

It is desirous to have enough instruments (and circuits) to accomplish this well. Understandably, many small theaters are strapped for cash and must make do with what they have. Often this amounts to moving the instruments further away from the stage to create a wider “beam spread” and cover more stage. However, this is problematic. The further away a light source is moved from the subject on which it is aimed the less illumination (or candle power) reaches the subject. Illumination drops and so does registration while audience eyestrain escalates.


Next, something known as backlighting comes into play. Backlighting—or lighting from the rear (generally at a higher trim or pitch than front lighting so that it doesn’t shine in the eyes of the audience)—helps separate the actors from the scenery and creates depth. While it is not necessarily “natural” it is a stylistic convention readily accepted in film and theater and contributes to a pleasing lighting design. Down lighting, that is lighting coming from directly overhead, is not essential to registration but it also enhances the look. And, in the absence of backlighting, it can serve to some degree as a poor man’s backlighting. (I’ll write more about the use of down lighting under mood, later in this article.)

Concerning dance lighting I will say this: It should be low and from the sides—often in the wings hidden behind drapery legs—to sculpt the dancer’s bodies.


Lighting is also used to create “mood” in theater. This is achieved by appropriately placed shadow, sometimes acute angles, color and texture. This is the area where creativity and art comes into the picture, although there is some “science” involved as well.


Let’s start with color and you’ll see what I mean. Light comes in a variety of “color temperatures” dictated by the illuminating source—be it natural (the sun) or artificial (lamps). “White light” is a mix of all the visible color spectrum and generally considered to be the light from our sun (though it leans toward yellow). Different theatrical lamps can achieve a sort of “white light” but they each lean toward a distinct color temperature as well. Your standard household incandescent bulb is quite yellow in color. Halogen lamps are somewhat bluish, mercury vapor lamps a yellow-green, and carbon arcs are the whitest.

That said, filters (or gels) can be used to, what else, filter out unwanted frequencies of light. Gels, it should be understood, do not change the light's color to the “color” of the gel; they filter out all but the specific wavelength of light that passes through the filter. (This of course creates additional heat behind the filter.) It is also worthy to note that LEDs and dicroic filters work differently, but that is “a whole nother discussion.” [For further instruction on these types of fixtures, and discussions on additive and subtractive color (which you should also understand), see a lighting text.]

Generally stage acting (or drama) is lit using colors that enhance a wide spectrum of colors (or wavelengths)—especially skin tones. Bastard Amber, No-Color Pink and No-Color Blue are favorites, because while they “color” the light some they also allow much of the lighting spectrum to pass through. This hint of color adds to the mood and feel of natural light depending upon the desired mood.

For example: Bastard Amber seems most like natural direct sunlight—or at least has become the acceptable standard. The "look" of reflected light is often achieved by using No-Color Blue. Thus the key light is often seen as the light coming from the source (stage left say) in the scene and the fill is seen as the reflected light bouncing off objects (stage right)—or visa versa. No-Color Blue might also be used exclusively to suggest there is no direct light. No-Color Pink is often used in musicals to “brighten” the costuming, set and mood.

Variations from these colors further enhance mood and achieve different source feels (i.e., darker ambers and oranges to suggest flame, yellows for sunbeams, and darker blues for nighttime). Purples, greens and reds can also be used for deeper moods and accentuation and are often mixed in for these reasons.


Light can be hard (focused) or soft (out of focus). Hard lighting is used almost exclusively in musicals and dance when a followspot highlights a specific subject. It is an accepted convention, though hardly natural, that says “this person is of importance right now” and helps accentuate their face when singing. Soft lighting is more natural so the focus of a lighting instrument is “pulled” (or brought out of hard focus) to one degree of another for the desired effect. 

Down lighting with texture (gobo) and coloring.
GOBOs (short for Go Between) are lighting devices that are placed in the gates of certain instruments (spots)—between the lamp and the lenses—to shape the light with a pattern. Sometimes these (glass gobos) also have colorization, but steel gobos simple throw a design or pattern of illumination. Thus a wide variety of effects can be achieved (i.e., suggesting that light is passing through the branches of trees, etc.) These are often used in moving light fixtures for motion effects, a dance or party feel, but more commonly they are used in down lighting to put texture on the floor or scenery to create a location mood or feel.

Textured lighting is what I call second wave lighting. That is, AFTER you’ve achieved a good lighting design for illumination, and you can afford the extra instruments, you add in texture to further enhance your design.


Sometimes shadow sets the mood as well. The absence of light can greatly affect emotion and sense of location, but it needs to be used with purpose and intent. You should see it as a character in your play that speaks to the audience.


Lighting can also be used to direct attention. The lighting of one area of the stage draws the viewer’s attention to that area. Adding light to a subject also creates dominance over the other actors who are less lit (again the followspot). Shifting the lighting (fading out one area while bring up another) or moving the light (as with a followspot or moving light) directs the audience’s attention away from one area or subject to another. [Moving lights are also another subject for another time.]

Also worthy of note: There are a variety of fixtures or instruments available for theatrical use.
Ellipsoidal Spot by ETC.

Most common are the profile spot (ellipsoidal or Leko), the PAR and the Fresnel. The latter two are soft focus (non-focusable) fixtures and the profile spots can be focused or made soft and take gobos. There are additional types of lighting instruments, but these are the most commonly used. [For further discussion or these and other fixtures you should consult a lighting text.] 

This article has been generalized to be of use to the layman. There is math for all of this (beam spreads, throw-candle power, trim height angles, etc.); and anyone wishing to be an accomplished LD would do well to learn from a good textbook.

Every small theater or playhouse needs to consider the art and science of stage lighting and work toward better illumination. Proper lighting not only helps an audience connect with the show and characters, but speaks volumes about professionalism.

Disclaimer: Please consult with a professional if you are using dimmers and fixtures with which you are unfamiliar to avoid overloading a circuit or cause fire or electrocution.



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