What Lights Do I Need for a Basic Theatre Show?

When it comes to doing your first community theatre, school, or church theatre show, it can be easy to get overwhelmed by all of the different types of lights that exist out there.

And it’s true. While there are more brands, types, and models of lights than we can count, the process of choosing what lights you use for your first show doesn’t have to be complex.

In fact, you might even already have access to everything that you need. In this article, I’m going to share with you the exact plan that I have used to sort through the clutter in my brain and figure out what lights I need, so that I can turn it in to a show!

What Light Fixtures Do I Need for My Show?

To begin, we need to go over the 3 basic types of lights that we are going to find in the typical theatre show.

We’ve got Spot fixtures, wash fixtures, and beam fixtures.

When we think about lights, and choosing the correct lights for our needs, these are the most basic categories, sorted by the type of light that they output.

You might look at this and think it’s overly simple – but I’ve got to disagree! When we simplify our choices into these 3 main groups, it allows us to focus on lighting the show properly – not on choosing the “perfect” fixture for the show.

At the end of the day, it’s more about how you use the lights than it is about the lights themselves. Sure, you might be able to get a slightly better look with the “perfect” light, but I would rather get you close, and then put the focus on using that light properly!

Spot Fixtures

Spot fixtures define themselves by having a hard-edged beam.

This does (2) important things for us:

  • It allows us to easily keep the light off of areas that we do not wish to light.
  • It gives us the ability to get a hard shadow and focused image. Many spot fixtures feature gobos, which allow us to shine patterns focused in the light.
Spot Fixtures
Photo from above – showing primarily spot fixtures with hard-edge beams thru haze.

The 2 most common spot fixtures that I see are the ellipsoidal spotlight (also known as the leko, or Source 4) and the moving head spot. Many theatres also use followspots, which are manually-operated spotlights for following a person on stage.

You can learn more about spot fixtures here!

In the theatre, spot fixtures are most commonly used for frontlight, sidelight and any lighting angle where you need to project a gobo.

Wash Fixtures

Wash fixtures, on the other hand, are about as opposite as you can get from a spot fixture. Their soft-edged beam gives you a nice, smooth, soft light that does not allow you to focus an image or hard edge!

DMX stage lighting
LED par wash fixtures in action.

The most common wash fixtures are the “Par”, with “real” pars being conventional incandescent lights, and many pars today featuring color-changing LED’s as the source.

However, there are also fresnels, cyc lights, strip lights, moving wash lights.

You can learn more about wash fixtures here!

For theatre, we’re most often going to use fresnels or moving wash lights. Depending on the theatre and what is available, you may also see a number of pars, cyc lights, and strip lights.

The exact inventory often depends on when the lighting for the theatre was specified, as I’ve seen a shift in focus over time from fresnels to pars to moving lights and LED’s.

Wash lights are most often used in the theatre for backlight washes, set lighting washes, and sometime front lighting as well.

Beam Fixtures

Beam fixtures consist of any light that gives a incredibly narrow beam of light.

Pin spots, moving light beams and others generally have a wide initial output of light that barely spreads among it’s path.

You can learn more about beam fixtures here!

In the theatre, these are rarely or ever wanted. The only exception I can think of is if you are doing a rock opera or similar Broadway-style show. Then, you’ve got to mix the styles of concert and theatre lighting – and then beam’s are a good fit!

Moving Lights

One thing that we’ve touched on in every group is the moving light.

Moving lights can be either spot, wash, or beam fixtures, or any combination of the 3. Lights that carry more than 1 purpose are often called “hybrids”.

These hybrids can really help you to make a variety of interesting looks – but be careful – as often they are the “jack of all trades, master of none”, and you may find them lacking in some areas!

Hanging Moving Lights
Moving lights on a concert-style stage.

If you’re considering your first show, don’t immediately write off the use of moving lights as something that is “only for concerts!”. In the professional theatre, moving lights occupy a larger portion of the light plot every year, and it’s easy to see why!

The ability to change color, gobo, position and more allow you to use a single moving light to cover the focuses of many conventional lights – especially if you have set changes during your show!

Just as the color-mixing LED allows you to take the place of multiple incandescent color washes, the moving light allows you to save on the total number of lights.

When designing for the theatre, the biggest thing to look for is the fan noise. Less expensive moving lights often have quite a bit of fan noise, and this can be a huge problem, especially with multiple moving lights!

For most theatre groups, a moving light rental makes the most sense for tech week, even if you own other lights.

What Lights Do You Need?

I hope this helps you to more greatly understand what types of lights there are for a theatre show and the basics of where they are used and why.

And most importantly, I hope this gets you a great perspective to choose the lights for your theatre show!

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