THE FRONT SPOTLIGHT shines on the actor’s face. The heat of the beam burns away her sweat. The attention is all on her. Slowly, the intensity of the light dims, as other actors come onstage. In the corner of her eye, she sees purple, her signal that the nightmare sequence is starting. More actors come onstage, dancing around her. A shift to side lighting creates half-lit figures. Her heart begins to race. She knows this is a part of the show, but it seems real. Overhead lights begin to project patterns spinning on the ground, resembling the chaos in her mind. The ensemble creeps closer, trapping her into a circle. Their hands reach out and grab her. The patterns spin faster, and she lets out a bloodcurdling scream. Blackout.

I am a student lighting technician in Thespian Troupe 2048 at Valley High School in Des Moines, Iowa. My job is to create effects onstage that help immerse the actors in their storytelling and transport the audience into the story. The above scene from the musical Oklahoma! shows Laurey’s hallucinations after using suspiciously strong smelling salts. She is imagining the one she loves, Curly, being killed by the antagonist, Jud. All the light cues in this sequence create the images of hallucinations.

Lighting helps the audience receive context clues about the scenes and the plot line of a play or musical. Abnormal color changes can indicate hallucinations, dreams, and past encounters. What the light focuses on draws attention, like an important character in a scene. Intensity in lighting can provide scenic context. Choosing where to hang fixtures — as well as what fixtures, gel colors, gobo patterns, and angles of light to use — matters in telling a story with lighting.

The first time I worked on lighting, I was surprised by all that goes into it. Learning more about this aspect of theatre can build an appreciation of both the technical and performance aspects of a show. For those of you who have wondered about the view from the light booth, here’s a primer of the basic steps of lighting design from the perspective of a student lighting technician.

The Texas All-State Cast and Crew's 2013 ITF production of Coram Boy used saturate blue lighting and white up-lighting to create an eerie mood. Photo by R. Bruhn.


First, the director has to pick a show and visualize it in their mind. They then need to collaborate with the technical director to combine their visions for the set. My technical director begins by finding images on Pinterest and Google to get inspiration for the set before sketching her basic ideas and creating set models. Having a clear vision for set design is vital for the lighting aspects of storytelling. The set, whether minimal or elaborate, determines how the actors and lighting will appear and use the space.


A light plot is a guide to the lighting design. It details the proper location of all the lighting instruments, the kinds of lighting instruments that will be used, the gels that will be placed inside the instruments to project color, the gobos that will be used to project patterns, and programming information that will be input into the light board.

Choosing where each light fixture will sit or hang is important because of the direction from which light shines. There are several different angles of lighting, including front, back, up, down, and various side lighting. In front lighting, the instrument shines a pool of light directly onto the actor, highlighting the front of their body. However, front lighting by itself can wash out the actors or make them appear flat. Down lighting is when the pool of light shines from directly overhead onto the actor. When used alone, down lighting illuminates just the tops of facial features like the forehead and nose. Therefore, it is usually used with front lighting. Side lighting can come from various points. This can be used alone or with other angles of light. Side lighting highlights only one side of the body and can create interesting silhouettes and shadows. When combined with down and front lighting, side lighting illuminates the whole body, creating a three-dimensional effect.

Colors, shapes, and movement in the lighting design for Valley High School's production of Oklahoma! Photo by Amanda Pichler.


There are quite a few options for lighting instruments. At my school, we have ellipsoidals, LED PAR lights, hybrid moving lights, and mini ellipsoidals. The LED PAR instrument typically has only one option for creating a pool of light, unlike an ellipsoidal, which allows you to manipulate the size and focus of the light. Mini ellipsoidals can be used for footlights.

Lastly, our advanced hybrid beam and spot unit has digital capabilities, allowing us to change positions on the stage, adjust shape, refocus, change colors, displace patterns, and run move-in sequences — all from the lighting booth. This instrument can create many special effects for a show due to its variety of functions. If possible, you should try to combine all these types of instruments to create the full stage look.


A major part of lighting design, and an aspect with considerable artistic freedom, is the choice of colors and tones of gels. There are numerous color options for gels, and each color can evoke a different emotion and develop a distinct theatrical setting. Depending on the cultural context and internal logic of a show, reds can suggest anything from passion to warmth to violence. Oranges and yellows might signal change in the time of day, or they can resemble the sun, warm climates, and more. Green may suggest sickness and confusion or be used to create an organic nature setting, while blue might evoke the sky or water, or convey sadness.

Every light plot should have a balance of warm and cool colors. There should be an equal number of pastels and dark hues as well, to give variation. Colors affect not only the setting but also the actors. Some colors are not flattering on certain skin tones, so don’t be afraid to adjust colors during tech rehearsals.


Another effect that can be added to lighting is the use of gobos — or steel pattern wheels — which can be added to lighting instruments like ellipsoidals. There are many different shapes to choose from: clouds, snowflakes, trees, hearts, and stars, as well as more abstract designs (which I prefer). Using these add-ons is a great way to create a new setting or effect.

Combining all these components creates a beautiful show. The process is meticulous, creative, and fun. In creating lighting designs, you get to help the actors, stage managers, musicians, and audience members know what is happening next. Lighting brings a whole new level of entertainment and beauty to theatre productions.

This story appeared in the August/September 2018 print issue of Dramatics. Subscribe today to our print magazine.

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