The Stage Lighting Guide


So how does one decide where to put the spotlights? On many stages and in many auditoria there is not much choice: but, to make the best use of the positions available, it is necessary to start from an ideal and compromise that ideal to fit reality. By WHERE, we mean where to put the light and where to point it. Traditional advice involves a lot of crossing of light beams - partly to help model/sculpture the actor by introducing a partially side-light angle and partly because lighting diagonally across a stage provides a bigger spread of light from each lamp: an important bonus when equipment is in short supply. Crossing the beams opens out the area lit but can cast excessive shadows on side wall or masking. And so, with spotlights becoming increasingly versatile as to beam width, there is every reason to consider using the traditionally discredited method of lighting the actor with light coming straight in from the front. Of course if this is the only light, yes it will be flat. (And if the available positions are so low that an actor shadow will be thrown on to the sky, then better to come diagonally - priorities again!) But with the addition of some backlight (even if it is nearly vertical) and some sidelight, the front-lit actors will come alive and the areas/ shadows brought more under control. There need not be precise side lighting for every area: it can often be quite general since it is frequently more important in the big wide areas than in smaller tighter areas (more important, that is, in priority terms!). In the examples shown here, the traditional crossing method has been used for the play, while the actors in the musical are lit' flat frontal'. But it could be vice versa. Whichever way, the next stage in the planning is to establish where the lights go and where they point.

Example plan for a play

Example lighting plan for a play

For each area of our play we need two lights. One for each side of the actors' faces. When an area requires a full colour control of cool and warm, the number will double to four spots - a crossed pair in warm and a pair in cool. A spot bar immediately behind the proscenium arch will give a suitable angle for lighting the upstage areas, but for the downstage areas a position in the auditorium is necessary Red and blue have been used to indicate warm and cool filters in the spots. Green indicates more neutral washes that have been added from back and sides. Not enough equipment? Well, do we really need all these areas? And so many of them with both warm and cool? (Back to priorities?)

Or rather than a pair, we could use a single straight in - but if so, we must make it really straight in because a single crossing beam does not do much for the other side of the face!

Example plan for "In the Round"

Example lighting plan for in the round

For staging in the round, light needs to come from all sides. And it should be evenly balanced to avoid favouring one segment of audience to an extent that is not really permissible in a staging form so democratic as theatre-in-the-round. To avoid hitting into audience eyes, light has to come from both within the acting area and from outside it. Angles can be closer to the vertical than in other forms of staging because the audience is closer to the actors and thus visibility is 'easier'.

Example plan for a musical

Example lighting plan for a musical

In this musical the actors' visibility light is provided by spots in a neutral colour hitting straight in. The front areas are covered from the auditorium, the midstage areas from a bar just inside the proscenium, and the upstage areas from a midstage bar If the stage is very wide, two or more lamps may be required for each area as indicated. Strong colour comes from near vertical backlights and medium colour from the wings (on stands, booms or ladder-frames to be discussed under 'rigging).

Note: For clarity these plans only include actor lights. The play would require light outside the window and on the door backings, while the musical is likely to need a colour mix for the backcloth and possibly specials for elements of scene.

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