The spotlight is one of the most iconic symbols of the performing arts, and just one of many tools at the lighting designer’s disposal. In this article, we’ll introduce some principles of lighting design and the ways they can enhance your production. How you achieve these effects will depend on your troupe’s experience level and access to lights and tech, but these basics will help you understand the “what” and “why” of lighting design.

What is stage lighting design?

Lighting design is a kind of blueprint for the show’s light fixtures. Just like a script tells actors what to say and choreography tells dancers how and when to move, lighting design informs your technicians how a scene will be lit.

Through cues, technicians mark how and when different lights will go on and off. Cues often hit at the beginning and end of a scene but could also occur when a character enters or leaves the stage, a musical number begins, or the main action shifts from one part of the stage to another.

What makes for good stage lighting?

At a basic level, your lighting should make it easy for the audience to see what the director wants them to see, and when done well, it is both practical and creative. A blog post by Illuminated Integration, an effects consulting group, highlights four roles lighting design plays:

  • Illuminating the stage: Allow the audience to see the actors, set, and props so they can understand the action on stage. For safety reasons, it also allows performers to see each other and their surroundings.
  • Highlighting different areas: Draw the audience’s attention to a particular character, action or sub-scene, or pan from one part of the stage to another.
Students performing Kinky Boots at ITF, showcasing the elements of stage lighting.
  • Setting the scene: Enhance the setting to reflect the place and time a scene is depicting. Perhaps wavy blue lights to suggest an undersea environment, or a flickering streetlamp for a seedy alley. Also consider time of day: Is it evening or morning? Can the lighting help indicate that time has passed—a sunrise, or sunset?
  • Controlling the mood: Hint at the character’s emotional state or provide a suggestion for how the audience might be feeling. Warm, cozy light might convey happiness, but harsh strobe lights indicate danger or excitement.

In the first video of a webinar series all about lighting design, Electronic Theatre Controls (or ETC, a manufacturer of lighting equipment) adds a fifth role: composition. Theatre is an art form. Like other visual arts, lighting designers can use the tools available to them—texture, lines, colors, shapes and so on—to aesthetically frame a picture of the action on stage.

And, like other parts of a production, effective lighting design supports the wider show’s creative vision. Make sure you stay in contact with your director and consider how lighting will affect other aspects of the show: blocking, choreography, sets, sound, and costumes.

Stage lights set up based on the lighting design plan

Tools of lighting design

The specific kinds of lights and the technology you use to schedule and deploy cues will vary by troupe. But these are some of the creative levers you’ll have available to you as you put together a light design:

  • Intensity: Bright lights are more revealing than dim ones and can help convey a tone.
  • Color: Many colors are associated with emotions—red for anger or passion, blue for sadness, and so on. Also consider how colors will interact with sets and costumes, and how they can enhance the setting (e.g., a warm orange glow to suggest a sunset).
  • Movement: How do you transition from one lighting scheme to another? Is the light static, or does it flash or come on/off at meaningful times? Does the light need to move to follow a character or some action?
  • Distribution: Does the light come from one source, or many? Is it directly above the stage, or at an angle? How focused is it?
  • Shadow: Consider where light won’t be. Is a character half in shadow because they’re withholding information or can’t be trusted? Can you use shadows to create texture?

ETC has a helpful guide to many of these elements. And you can read how one student lighting technician approached her role.

Example: The Phantom’s Reveal

Emilie Kouatchou as Christine and Ben Crawford as The Phantom in The Phantom of the Opera. © Matthew Murphy

Note that good lighting design doesn’t necessarily show everything on stage. Indeed, there may be times in which you want a certain character or action to be in shadow. Consider the filmed production of Phantom of the Opera at Royal Albert Hall.

During “All I Ask of You,” Raoul and Christine sing of their love for each other in conventional lighting. As they exit the stage, the Phantom appears from behind the proscenium arch, lit overhead by a bright light. Unbeknownst to the lovers—and the audience—he watched the whole scene from the shadows.

The lighting choice is both functional and thematic:

  • Functional: The change in lighting draws the audience’s attention to this unusual part of the stage, helping reveal the Phantom’s presence.
  • Thematic: The lighting is eerie, unexpected, and unsettling. And the audience sees the Phantom as he sees himself—brutal, mysterious, and bitterly alone.

Good lighting design requires thoughtful consideration of how to best use the properties of light to help the show. And it requires practice—get started!

Andrew Koch is a writer and editor from Cincinnati. He volunteered to hang stage lights in a community production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.

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