Theatrical stage lighting – Yes, it is important!

Everyone sees the actors, they see the sets, they hear the music, but does anyone know what makes so they can see these things when they watch a play? If you guessed lights, you’re right. Without lights a production is nothing. So you think, “Yeah, we’ll throw up a few lights, a few florescent should brighten things up a little.”

No.

Never underestimate the power of lights. Stage lighting is so much more than is seems, it creates the theme and can even tell the audience how to feel.  Besides, when you start looking around there are lights for practically every occasion possible. If you can imagine it, they’ve probably built it! But here are a few things that I think are very important when it comes to theatrical stage lighting.

What do you want the audience to see?

As a director, think, what do I want the audience to see? People are a lot like mosquitoes they follow the light. Very rarely will they notice the stagehands in black changing scenery outside of the spot light. Like a magician it’s the light technician’s job to help the audience focus on what is important.

You can have three entire scenes completely set up on stage and by lighting up different scenes the audience knows where to look for the action. I personally love using several scenes on the same stage because it cuts down on scene changes.

Mood

stage lights
Mood with lights

Every play has a mood, happy, sad, gloomy, horror, the possibilities are endless. Lighting is the number one thing that can help the audience feel what they are supposed to. Why else do they always do sad scenes at night? Or crying in the rain. The symbols have already been established, and all a director needs to do is lead the audience to feeling that certain way.

  • For a sad nighttime scene, use a spot light. This puts all focus on the actors and their emotions. To really make it morose you can add some blue lights in the background.
  • For scary, or horror, you can do bright flashing lights and darkness. If you’ve ever been to a haunted house you will know why this is so effective!
  • For happy scenes I love lots of bright full spectrum light. Some lights, like florescent seem to wash faces out and give everyone on stage a sort of sickly pallor.

The possibilities are endless, I’ve only mentioned a few ideas, but you get the picture of what is possible for creating mood with lighting.

Changes in time

Another thing I love about lighting, is how you can show changes in time. By dimming the lights you can signify nighttime. Lights slowly brightening can signify daybreak. Even just shutting the lights off and on can signify a new scene. This can help immensely in letting the audience know what is going on without actually telling them.

Colors

Lights don’t have to be just the regular white and yellowish light that we associate with turning on a light bulb. Most Par cans have special slots where you can slide sheets of colored plastic to change the color of the lights. Even better than that are the new LED lights that give tons of options for color combinations.

Colors are also naturally associated with different feelings this is known as color psychology.

  • Dim blue lights can be associated with sadness.
  • While deep red is associated with passion, and anger.
  • The softer colors like pink, orange, and yellow are considered warm colors and can evoke feelings of warmth and comfort
  • Cool colors such as the blues, purples and greens can signify calmness, tranquility or even sadness and indifference.

There is no right or wrong way to do lighting. Some ways are more effective than others. Still, when you imagine something in your mind you should do it, because it is creativity that makes live theater so much fun to watch. Remember too, colors are not universal, a color may mean something in one culture and totally the opposite in another.

What you need, bare minimum

Here are a few things I think are absolutely necessary. But you do with what you have or can afford.

  • You need lights, that shine mostly head level of your actors on stage.
  • You need switches for on and off
  • You need to be able to dim the lights (I guess this isn’t absolute, some plays do just fine with no dimming lights) You can get dimmer packs for fairly cheap.
  • You need to be able to turn the lights over the audience off. (it helps to get the audience focused on the stage.)
  • Lighting needs to be even over the stage where acting will occur. It’s very annoying when the stage has dark spots.

There are so many other things you can do with stage lighting and in a dream theater I would have everything, spot lights, LEDs, back lighting, filters, the whole works. But until I get my dream theater I will make do with what I have and fake it till I make it ! Or I’ll use natural lighting, like in a green house. Once I even made my own light bar out of cans!  Literally “can lights”! But that’s for another day and another post!

I hope you learned something useful from this post. Thanks for reading, let me know in the comments below if you have any questions.

Now for the random question of the post. Do you agree with these colors and the feelings they are associated with? Do you have a color that evoke special feeling in you?

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4 thoughts on “Theatrical stage lighting – Yes, it is important!

  1. Excellent post on the importance of lighting effects. I studied color psychology, interior design and film-making which also emphasize on the use of coloring and lighting. While I do agree with your colors and the kind of emotions it represents it can still be subjective and be interpreted in a different way. For example in a scenario where a play takes place in an aquatic location, using a spotlight with plain white lighting could kill the mood and makes you feel less immerse in it. Match the background with a different hue of blue light tho, and it can give more ambience to the scene without evoking the emotion of sadness.

    1. Thank you! That makes total sense. I’ve never tried to create an aquatic scene but that would work beautifully. The more I learn the more I find there is to learn. I love to hear other people’s ideas!

  2. I certainly agree with you on lighting. I think that good lighting for doing a play is so important. It really helps the audience to be able to get in the mood. Not to mention, I think that having good lighting, really helps the actors to be able to get into their parts better too.

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