What Gear Do I Need to Begin with Theatre Lighting?

To make a sweeping generalization, theatre lighting usually is simpler than band or church lighting, but it also might not be.

And today I’m going to dive in to the basic gear setup for theatre lighting.

Why? More than any other type of lighting, I find that folks just beginning with theatre lighting have less background knowledge with lighting.

It’s just what I’ve experienced. The great news is that this does not have to limit you!

In fact, you can get started quickly and still create a great theatrical lighting show, even if you’ve never worked with lights before.

So, what DO you need?

Starting from Scratch

When you’re starting completely from scratch (whether you’re renting or buying), there are a few big items that you need to come up with.

#1 – A Console

The console is the heart of your lighting, but it doesn’t have to be expensive. While the word “console” often brings images to mind of a large desk with many faders, many shows can be run with a basic PC and an ENTTEC widget or another similar interface.

LightShark console with faders and a programming section.

The key here is to think about what you’ll need to make your life simple and make playback easy.

For some people, it makes sense to buy a console with faders for controlling lights and programming quickly.

But for a lot of theatre groups, especially those on a tight budget, it makes sense to go with a PC-based solution as I mentioned above.

Use a touchscreen PC to make programming simpler, and you also can use a program like Q-Lab to automate your show so you don’t need a lighting operator!

#2 – Some Lights

This might seem obvious, but lights are what makes light!

Depending on your needs, these may be conventional (lamp) style lights that plug into DMX dimmers and are then controlled by your console or LED and moving lights that plug into DMX and into regular, non-dimmed power.

If you’re renting, it’s often cheaper and might make more sense to go with conventional lights – they look better, are cheaper, but do take more power.

LED lights, on the other hand, don’t look as good (especially on the low end – the expensive stuff is great!) and require more DMX cables, but can change color. These are great for lighting set pieces and backlighting actors.

Since this is an introductory article, I don’t want to go too deep into the weeds of it, but you’ll likely find yourself using a mix of both types of lights…which brings us to:

#3 Infrastructure

This is a fancy word for “stuff to connect the console to the lights and make everything work”. As we discussed above, dimmers are needed for conventional lights.

Band Lighting Basics

LED and moving lights will need DMX cables, and all of your lights will need some kind of power cables to connect them to power.

Depending on your setup, you may also want a DMX splitter to make your cable runs more simple.

When the Theatre/Venue Already Has Gear

If you’re not figuring out all the gear from scratch, your job is both easier and harder.

The good news is that you’ve got some gear in the venue or from a friend that you can use. The bad news is that you may need to add to it – and to do so, you’ve got to figure out what you need!

First things first, you’ll want to verify that the venue is using DMX. Look on the back of the console, or the inputs to any dimmers that you see. Does it say “DMX Output” (or input, etc), or does it use some other verbage (“microplex”, “data”)?

If the venue doesn’t have a DMX system, it’s not going to be simple to integrate with. Still, there are always options.

As long as the venue’s lighting system is DMX, you’re in luck!

DMX is a great way to control lights because it is simple, and any DMX gear will work with any DMX controller.

This means, you can bring in additional lights and add them to an existing system quite easily. You also can bring your own console and “patch” into an existing lighting system to have better control.

I hope this article has helped you learn a little more about the gear that you’ll need to make your first theatrical lighting show. We’ll have you creating great lighting in no time!

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