Light Design


The Lighting Designer


When electric lights first came into use in the theatre, they simply illuminat­ed the stage to enable the spectators to see the action. Modern lighting, like scenery, enhances the total production.


There are two categories of stage lighting: general and specific. General light­ing provides a well-lighted performance area. Specific lighting provides spe­cial effects, enhancing the playwright’s message through intensity and color.


Dim lights can suggest a foreboding, mysterious atmosphere, whereas bright lights often mean “lightness” in treatment of subject matter. There are exceptions, however. Sledgehammer Theatre’s production of Bertolt Brecht’s Drums in the Night, presented in San Diego in 1991, focused “painfully bright” lights on the audience deliberately to make the spectators uncomfortable.


Functions of Lighting


Lighting complements the other areas of design and helps to convey the mood and message of the play. It provides selective visibility. Often only cer­tain areas of the set are important to the action. In such cases, the lights can provide a point of focus by fading to black on the areas to be de-emphasized and coming up on the important areas. Large follow spots sometimes are used (particularly in musicals) to focus on the star performer.


Lighting can provide exposition by showing time and place. A bright light can indicate midday in a warm climate. Blazing chandeliers can indicate nighttime in a wealthy household.


Of course, lighting, like scenery, is a symbol. It suggests; then it is up to the audience to use imagination. For example, a common table lamp onstage would not provide enough illumination. Its light must be intensified, usually by focus­ing additional overhead lighting on the lamp.


Another function of lighting is to reveal or define mass and form. Properly lighted, a papier-mâché rock can become real for the audience. Lighting also contributes to and complements the style of the production.


Lighting Components


Lighting consists of two components: a source and a system of control. Source means the lighting instruments. The two major kinds are floodlights, which are non-focusable and have no lens, and spotlights (spots), which can be focused and usually do have a lens. Floodlights usually are for general illumi­nation, such as for lighting backdrops, whereas the various types of spots are for specific illumination.


Spots come in various sizes and can focus from a very small area to a large one. Most have a metal frame into which gelatins can be fitted for emotional effects. A gelatin is a color transparency—translucent plastic placed in front of a lighting instrument to add color to the lighted area.


One of the most common spots is a Fresnel (fra-nel’), named for the French physicist Augustin Fresnel (1788—1827), who developed it for use in lighthouses, and which provides a circular or oval area of light. The lens that covers the lamp (bulb) softens the edge of light so that it’s difficult to define exactly where the lighted area ends. An advantage is that this same softness blends in with light from other instruments to provide a sense of continuity or evenness. Fresnels range in size from a three-inch diameter to twelve inch­es (or even larger in television studios). Fresnels generally are placed within forty feet of the stage.


The other most common spotlight is the ellipsoidal reflector, which is brighter than a Fresnel and more controllable. It has a framing device that allows the area the light strikes to be specific. The edge, unlike that of the Fresnel, is exact. It can provide a contrast from intense brightness to total darkness with no “spill” into the unlighted area. An ellipsoidal reflector can be used at almost any distance from the stage (whereas Fresnels generally are placed within forty feet).


Another common source of illumination is the strip light, a long, trough like instrument with lights a few inches apart along the length of the trough. Often, strips light the cyclorama, or circular curtain surrounding the sides and rear of the acting area in exterior scenes, providing the illusion of dis­tance.


There are a variety of other instruments, which are used less frequently. One is the beam projector, which casts a narrow, intense light used, for instance, to simulate sunbeams. In effect, it is a tiny version of searchlights— those associated with shopping mall openings or film premieres in earlier eras, and which cast their rotating beams up into a night sky.


The Dimmer Board


The control system is the dimmer board (or switchboard), the panel from which the lights are operated. It allows the lighting technician to dim from one area to another and to control both the intensity of the light and the direction from which it originates. It also can provide control over color. For example, if a play were to progress from noon to evening, the lighting tech­nician could change the direction of the light by switching from one set of instruments to another. Various colors of gelatins could indicate increasing darkness. For most ordinary lighting, a warm color is used.


Many newer boards are computer controlled, that is, they keep a record of each change, and so can come up with any combination or “cue” whenever necessary and can maintain the combination for as long or as short a time as needed. Lighting designer David Hays defines a cue as “the pace and orches­tration of the shifting light.”


“Do we want the audience to ponder a certain line? Should we there­fore leave a glow on that actor’s face as we fade? But is it the actor pondering the line, or the audience? Perhaps a simple pause before the next scene, without featuring the actor, is best. Or does energy and content demand a quick pickup on new entrants even as the old scene fades?”5


5David Hays, Light on the Subject. Stage Lighting for Directors and Actors and the Rest of Us (New York: Limelight Editions, 1989), p. 61.


The lighting instruments generally are not plugged directly into the dim­mer board, since this could cause a mass of cable twisting, making each hard to trace to its receptacle, as well as causing a lot of other problems. Instead, the instruments are plugged into receptacles connected to cables that lead through the walls to the dimmer board. A number of instruments are con­trolled from each switch or all from a master switch.


Planning the Lighting


People often think of the lighting designer as an expert electrician rather than as an artist. Certainly, designers know a great deal about electricity, and many of them do have an electrician’s license. In addition, however, they are as creative and imaginative as the other theatre artists, and they possess a gen­eral knowledge of all areas of theatre production.


Lighting designers work closely with the director and the other designers to provide a cohesive image for the audience and to convey the mood of the play. They analyze the script to determine the source of light for each scene and plan how to indicate time, place, and even season. At the same time they make certain that the lighting does not call attention to itself.


A lighting concept may seem obvious when a huge transformation is heaped on to a play. “Let’s do it as if we’ve just been swallowed by a whale!” Hold it—is that a concept or just a locale? If the play is Hay Fever you’ve only switched it to a quirky set. Does it really change what happens between the actors? That’s what the lighting designer must question. In this whale—are the characters trapped forever? Is there hope—light at the end of the gullet? Is there light only when the whale yawns, and it comes in striped b baleen strips like vertical Venetian blinds? Do we have flashlights with expiring batteries? Does an inrush of phosphorescent organisms supply us with a useful glow?

Silly, but not necessarily so if the play is Pinocchio, where Father Gepetto has come to the end of the world, the pit of despair, the belly of the beast. The symbol of the whale is right and profound. Perhaps his son comes to him as his candle, the shred of his remaining light, is used up and about to flicker out. Now you can get your teeth into it.


Lighting designers understand where to hang lights for the best effect. They know that an actor or a set piece is lighted from various angles to appear three-dimensional. They know the psychological effects of lighting.


For instance, people are more alert in high intensity lighting, which the designer could use for a fast-moving comedy. At the same time the designers recognize that many quick changes in lighting tire an audience.


The designer plans to control three aspects of lighting: color, intensity, and distribution. Warmer colors (in the form of gelatins), such as yellow to amber shades, generally are used in comedies, cooler colors in serious plays. For maximum visibility yellow is best, whereas orange and red tend to inhibit visi­bility, as do blue and green. Colored light most often is used because white light glares and hurts the eyes.


The designer can plan color in lighting symbolically, but always in con­junction with the other elements of design. For example, focusing a red hue on an actor could indicate a state of health, or it could be associated with shame, embarrassment, or passion.


The color in lighting is directly related to the color of the other scenic elements. Most often a designer avoids green light, except for an eerie effect, because it suggests an unearthly or ghostlike quality. Mixtures of color in makeup, costuming, and lighting also can produce undesirable effects.


When you color a surface with a yellow crayon and then cover the yellow with blue, you end up with green. The same kind of overlap can happen if the lighting designer does not take the other visual elements into consideration.


The Lighting Plot


Lighting does not remain static, but becomes a new design with each move­ment of an actor or each change in intensity or focus.


Once designers determine what is needed to light a set, they make a lighting plot, a mixture of general and specific lighting for illumination and shadow, and an instrument schedule, which includes such information as the instruments to use, where to hang them, amid where to focus them. They take a floor plan of the set and draw in the location of each instrument and the area the light will hit. In a proscenium theatre the acting area most often is lighted from overhead, from the back, and from instruments placed somewhere in the auditorium.


The designer divides the stage into areas, using a minimum of two instru­ments for specific illumination in each area. Two or more are needed to elimi­nate long shadows and to light each side of the actor or set piece.


The design­er also prepares a list of the lighting cues, so the technician knows exactly what to change and when. Once the lighting is set the way it will remain throughout the production, the designer’s job in effect is finished, except that in many com­munity theaters, for instance, he or she may be in charge of the lighting crew.