The Basics of Theatre Lighting

When it comes down to it, theatre lighting can be intimidating, especially if you haven’t worked with lighting before.

But the truth is, theatre lighting doesn’t have to be difficult, it doesn’t have to be complex, and you don’t have to be an expert to design your first show.

In this article, I’m going to share with you the very basics of theatre lighting, and then show you even more places to get more help lighting your first show!

Because, at the end of the day, I want you to learn how to begin working with lighting so that you can make an awe-inspiring show for the theatrical production you’ve been “cast” into helping with!

What Are The Basic Functions of Lighting in the Theatre?

1. To Illuminate The Actors and Set

At its core, theatre lighting is there to help you see the actors and set on stage. If we accomplish nothing else, we need to at least make sure this happens!

When the audience can see the actors clearly, they are able to fully understand and take in all of the words, actions, and moods that the actors are portraying – down to facial expressions!

When you’re lighting a show in a very small space, it’s not super-critical to light the actors well (or brightly). But, as the space gets bigger, it becomes more important to make sure you have good lighting on the actors so that the audience doesn’t have to strain their eyes!

When the audience can also see the set, then we’ve put the actors in context as well. Not only is lighting critical to making the set look as it was designed to look, but it gives us clues as to the time of day, mood, and more! But I’m starting to get ahead of myself here…

2. To Set The Time of Day and Environment

Theatre lighting isn’t just for general illumination! If that was the case, we could just go and grab some flood lights from the hardware store and plug them in!

While good actors and a well-intentioned set designer can do a lot, it’s difficult for them to change the time of day on stage!

But lighting can do that!

By using blues at night, warm colors at day, and varying the total amount of light on the stage, you can quickly and simply change the time of day on stage.

Add in some street lights, shadows cast by the moon, or the colors of a sunset to paint the picture that the playwright was imagining as they penned the words of the script!

It’s easy to overlook this powerful ability of lighting, especially if your set is an “indoor” space. Even if the actors are inside a building, there are still going to be changes in the color and direction of lighting that you use to frame the context of the day!

3. To Set The Mood and to Separate out the Active Set

Getting a little more abstract, we can also set the mood as it changes in the play.

Do things get more intimate? Bring the lights in closer to the actors, and darken the rest of the stage.

Perhaps the scene begins to get more hopeful or excited – in this case, you can brighten the set to make the room literally feel larger!

Musicals are full of great opportunities to bring in lighting in this way. Almost every time the music swells, you can bring in some color and match the mood!

Why Is Lighting Important in Plays and Musicals?

If you haven’t figured it out yet in this article, I am a BIG fan of lighting for plays and musicals!

Even if you only stick to the basics of simply illuminating the people on stage, lighting makes everything feel more professional and helps the audience to better focus on the play itself.

And then, as you grow in your lighting capabilities, you can also amplify the mood that the actors are creating on the stage. Even a few LED lights on the backdrop to allow a change of color can do a lot for the mood on a budget show!

How Is Lighting Used in Theatre?

When it comes down to it, theatrical lighting doesn’t have to be overly complicated.

There are a lot of people out there teaching theatre lighting with a focus on the professional theatre.

And let me get this straight – I LOVE working in professional theatres, with all the resources of a well-stocked lighting rig, but I also know that this isn’t what most people reading this site will have access to!

At the end of the day, lighting is about making sure that you can see the people on stage, and that the moods of the show are represented and amplified.

Yes, masterful use of light can and will change your theatre’s show for the better! But it doesn’t have to involve hundreds of lights, and it doesn’t have to be overly expensive.

How Do I Begin Lighting My First Show?

So how do you begin? If you’ve never worked with lighting before, or maybe you have a little experience, I can totally relate.

When I was first thrust into lighting my first show in high school, there was nobody there to really give me any usable direction….and those who did weren’t there long enough to make it cohesive.

That’s why I’ve written a full article, right here, on how to light your first show!

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