The Intricacies of Stage Lighting

Any light source pointed at a darkened stage could be described as stage lighting. Any light aimed towards that dark, mysterious space will show something of what is there. Real stage lighting, however, does much more than this – it does not just illuminate an empty space. Good stage lighting adds character to space, texture to object, emotion to event, impetus to action, and powerful dramatic emphasis to the stage picture. As would be expected, this takes time and practice to get right.

The very early history of technical theatre deals as much with the problem of how to get a decent amount of light on stage, as with what to do with it once it gets there. Surprisingly, even with such slender means at their disposal, early practitioners were often worrying about the same things or coming to the same conclusions as ourselves.

Modern stage lighting is developed from an understanding of how light illuminates the real world around us. Seeing is, in essence, a simple task for most of us and not something that needs further description. However, lighting designers (often abbreviated to LD) need to be sure about what they see in the real world and how light ‘works’. The first exercises in this book all deal with the need for lighting designers to be good at analysing the light around them.

Lighting designers need to be able to see the world around them with a clear understanding of the nature of light – in simple terms, if you look at any real-life situation you should be able to see and describe where the light source is and how it is affecting what is being lit. With a good understanding of how light works in a variety of situations we have a set of references to work from.

We must also have an understanding of the experiences we would expect our audience to be familiar with and have in common with us. After all, it is the audience who will ultimately be judging the effectiveness of our work. It is they that our work aims to influence.

It is most important to trust our own opinions on what we are looking at. There are no right or wrong answers – we simply need to find our own unique words or means to describe any given real-life scene. From this individuality of expression we derive our own artistic creativity.

Lighting designers carry with them a range of ‘real-life’ references in their heads. They have looked at and understood the way in which light works to illuminate different situations. This looking at ‘real light’ never stops, it becomes a habit and a continual source of new ideas. This is not something that is difficult to develop – we all share an understanding of the colour, texture, illuminance, direction and shadow-play of real light but perhaps cannot describe it as readily or effectively. It simply requires that the person has had the desire to look and describe for themselves rather than just take things for granted. It is not good enough to know that you like the way sunshine catches a person. You must also be able to quantify where the light sources are, where not, what colour they have, where they are coming from, how much light there is, and so on. All of this is simply a matter of seeing what is happening in front of you – we have to become expert ‘see-ers’.

As lighting designers we need to develop a profound appreciation of real and artificial light sources. From this understanding of the world around us, gained by taking the time to look carefully, we can then digress. In digressing we can create lighting that is less than real but perhaps truer to the dramatic moment.

If we have some understanding of what each variation from the ‘norm’ means then we have a method for predicting how our audience will be affected by the lighting we provide for a scene. For example, if we understand what colour real sunlight is in a given situation, we could choose deliberately to enrich the colour on stage in order to heighten a particularly sunny scene, or make it colder to suit the context of a tragic scenario.

It is important to note that if we only ever try to reproduce ‘real-life’ light on stage even in supposedly real-life settings then the theatre world would be very boring indeed. This is not the point of analysing real light – after all, none of us really knew what the light was like on the deck of the Bounty, or on the planet ‘Vulcan’, or on Prospero’s island. In our work as lighting designers, we cannot restrict ourselves to only creating the familiar. But we need a starting point, a marker, to work from – and this is the light of the real world.