Learn Stage Lighting

Stage Lighting Systems – Lighting Rig Anatomy

Stage lighting systems can contain numerous components but the elements of the system are the same. On Stage Lighting goes a quick and dirty tour of the basics of stage lighting system. If know much about stage lighting, or take things too seriously – look away now.

Stage Lighting Power

Despite advances in the efficiency of stage lighting systems, they still need electricity. Power for a stage lighting rig can be a simple as a domestic socket on the wall, to a full blown, 3 phase system distributing thousands of Amps to the whole system. Large amounts of power are shared out amongst the equipment using “mains distribution” units (we call them “distros” in the UK) that protect the lighting crew and equipment from electric shocks using Residual Current Devices (RCDs) and Circuit Breakers. Events outdoors powered by large portable generators are common. As is getting muddy and smelling of diesel.

Sound, vision, cameras, caterers, wardrobe all use electricity. Historically, the stage lighting system includes the lighting department providing power for everyone else. And everyone else complaining about that power.

Stage Lighting Cables

Cables, cables and more cables. If a “lampie” tried to work out how many cables they had coiled up in their career, it would give them a headache. Power for the lighting system, dimmer feeds for the stage lights and control signals to all the waggly, wobbly stuff in the roof makes for a lot of cable. Cables are easy to identify – thick cables for large amounts of electricity, really thin ones for digital control signals such as DMX. Cables can be trailed across fire exits as a method of winding up the Production Manager and getting the show shut down if you have a pressing appointment in the pub.
Cables have a personality of their own and only like to be coiled in a certain way. To avoid tangling, the lampie must be able to empathise with a cable and tame unruly cables with subtle movements. The best practitioner of this is called “The Cable Whisperer”. This may be covered in a future article “ Zen and the Art of Cable Management”.

Control System

Every stage lighting system has a control centre. Known as “the desk” it spits out digital control signals, such as DMX512, to all the other equipment. The poor lighting technician detailed to look after the lighting control is called a “Board OP”. This is sometimes correctly mistyped as “Bored Op”, referring to the tedious pressing of the “Go” button between snoozes during theatre shows. These Ops were replaced by a magical and expensive entity known as the Moving Light Operator, who spent most of the fit-up tapping buttons and muttering about “fixture personalities” thus avoiding too much physical exertion. Today, the modern lighting system is much more inclusive and every lighting tech is expected to be able to control intelligent lighting. After unloading, rigging, hanging, cabling, testing, flying and focussing – of course.

Dimmer Systems

Dimmers fade stage lights up and down to give fine adjustment of the brightness of the lighting rig. Each “channel” of dimmer control is the sent out to each lantern via a cable. Stage lighting dimmers can be small single channel unit, or large modular “dimmer racks” providing many channels of lighting control. The dimmer racks of touring show are cluster in an area know as “dimmer city”, often near the power supply.

Lighting technicians say “I’m just going to patch the racks”, meaning that they are about to slope off and hide amongst a cluster of boxes while their team mates get roped in to unloading something heavy from the truck.

Rigging System

The metalwork that holds all the lights, speakers and other system components up the sky is called the rigging – as is the actual task of hanging the stage lights. Lampies are straightforward folk of few words.
Rigging is hard work. Starting early, finishing late (“first in – last out”), getting hot and dirty while lifting heavy objects. Setting up of large structures to hang a stage lighting system is not for the faint hearted and thus is something that the Sound Department studiously avoids. They are responsible for hanging speakers – in the way of your lights!


Or Lanterns. Or Luminaires. Or Fixtures. Or….Ok forget what I said about lampies being folk of few words. After a page of other stuff, the stage lighting system finally includes lights. Intelligent lights or conventional “metal with a bulb in it” (these are not called dumb lights), we are here to provide light it comes out of these babies. Mostly pointing toward the stage, the lanterns are carefully selected by the Lighting Designer to cause maximum blinding and discomfort to the performers (called “turns”) while heating the venue.

The Crew

The most important part of the stage lighting system is the crew. They must be constantly fed, watered and kept in dark conditions in order to prevent them from thriving in the outside world. The lighting crew are attracted by the bright sunlight shining from the “scene dock” but the suns rays are harmful to all theatre technicians, particularly LX techs. Some specialist outdoor festival lighting crews are bred to withstand the sun, although this is not a consideration in Great Britain.

A stage lighting system without a crew is just a pile of expensive kit. We have developed intelligent lighting – stand by for the development of intelligent lighting engineers.

Tell us what you think in the comment section below.

  1. Jerry Siggins

    I Have a 30′ by 30′ room with a 8′ by 8′ stage at one end.It has a roof truss half way at 15′ I would like to hang my lamps there. How many, what kind,Wattage and gels do I need? Jerry Siggins

  2. Doug Dickerson

    I am starting a Teen drama team. We are planning to go to several different church’s throughout the winter and maybe the spring. I have a $1,000 budget for lights and am planning on getting a stage light package that has two light stands, 8 300 watt 56 par cans, two dimmer boxes, and a dmx controller. I am also thinking about getting a cheap follow spot. I expect the lights to be set up around 30 feet from the stage (The average stage is about 16 feet wide and 10 feet from front to back. Are these good choices for a traveling drama team or should I go differently with the lights? I want the stage to be well lit But I have to be careful about power usage. Else I would use a higher wattage in the can lights. Any help would be appreciated.

  3. Rob

    Hi Doug

    A 30ft throw is quite a long way for 300w PARs, but instead of getting higher wattage lights I would try to get the stands nearer the performance area. PARs will light the stage and perhaps give you a colour wash (they also are relatively cheap and simple to set up). It’s worth knowing that 1000W PAR lamps won’t fit in a standard 300w Can should you wish to uprate them.

    Depending on your performance types, the follow spot is a single light source that is flexible (if you have a spare person to operate it). In time you may want to get some adjustable light sources, like ellipsoidals or fresnels.

    Thanks for stopping by.

  4. Doug Dickerson

    My problems in getting the lights closer to the stage is that the stands I plan on getting won’t fit in with the pews. Would it help if I chose narrow spot lamps for the 56’s?

  5. Rob

    @ Doug – getting narrows for the 56’s will help with control and makes your 300w more intensely focussed on a smaller area, but 30ft is still a long way for 300w PAR. Don’t forget, you might be able to light from a much nearer position such as the very DS corners of the performance area.

    I lit a stage recently using only crosslights, directly either side of stage at chest height (the venue had a roof that sloped off each side and that was as we could do). It wasn’t perfect but a decent focus meant it did work – a slightly more downstage side position can give a good enough facelight and some height cuts down on annoying shadows thrown by other performers.

  6. Doug Dickerson

    Thanks, I think at most of the church’s we plan on going to I can set them up about five feet to the left and right of the stage and about 10 feet high. So should I go with medium or wide flood lamps instead?

  7. Doug

    Come to think of it, should’nt I rethink getting the long cans and get short ones instead if the rigging will be so close to the stage?

  8. Matt

    What is the best way to light a Cyc? We currently use lighting from the floor upwards but the colour tends to fade by about halfway up. Should I be using a higher Wattage of lamp, or should I rethink my angles, or light from the top?! I’d welcome any suggestions.



  9. Rob Sayer

    Hi Matt,

    The trouble you are having with your cyc is as much about contrast as brightness. The distance from your fixtures to the middle of the cyc is probably over 2 or 3 times than to the bottom. With higher wattages, you could just end up with a brighter version of what you already have.

    Using additional cyc floods from above that overlap in the middle portion “evens” things up a bit. The “double” fixture intensity in the middle starts to appear similar to the top and bottom sections.

    If you are able to change your angles, aim to make the difference in throw distances between bottom and middle less. This means putting the fixtures further away, so they might need to be a higher wattage.

    I’m sure that doesn’t make sense. Maybe I need to write something…


  10. Matt

    Thanks for that Rob. I think I will have a play with that this weekend and see if it makes a difference. An article about Cycs would be really welcome I think – One thing I’ve discovered with them is that making them look good and getting the most out of them is a real art. Thanks for the help anyway – I will report back in case any one else is having the same problem and is following the posts.



  11. Rob Sayer

    Matt, just realised that I made an error in answer to the cyc question. A throw distance difference of 2/3 times bottom -> top is actually fine – the problem of contrast are often with ratios of 6 – 10 times. Close in positions are obviously to blame.

  12. Dan

    I’m doing sound at mostly medium sized clubs and learning about lighting. To light the band from the from front I have 4 par 56 short cans on each side. For back light 4 to 8 par 38 cans on a truss behind the drummer. 4 scanners, a couple Chauvet Vue 1.1’s, dimmer packs, controller etc. The front par cans are 300 watts and sometimes don’t light the performers or stage very well. I’m going to put 500 watt lamps in them. Should they be narrow, medium, or wide?



  13. Dan

    Just researched, current lamp part# ends with MFL so will so will move to 500 watt medium for wash then maybe go with a par 38 low watt spot on each band member.

  14. nick

    I like that last bit. When ever we are assembly and a camera is there we all pull on balaclavas. Over the coms there is the notice turn that camera off. Techies don’t get seen herd or any other contact with the outside world that stage master said.

  15. Gaz

    Brilliant article! Rob has a great way of writing and the articles on this site are straightforward, informative and interesting. I’ve been “playing” with lights since the late sixties and OMG how things have changed! An old f**t like me has trouble keeping up with the technology but On Stage Lighting helps, thank you. (Anyone remember kicking sticking channels on a Strand Grand Master or using a bit of wooden batten to fade all to blackout on a Junior 8? lol. Ahh, those were the days……… hmmm, perhaps not!!)

    Regards to all, Gaz.

  16. Joan

    I have built a 9 foot platform stage. I am lighting the stage with par 46 can lights. I will clamp them onto a pole and hang it from the ceiling above the stage. Where exactly do I hang this pole? Is it flush with the apron of the stage? Should I hang the pole for the lights a foot away from the edge of the stage? I’m really clueless. I’d love some help.

    Thank you so much!


  17. Matt

    Hi Joan,

    Did you mean PAR64 by any chance? If so then it depends on what you want to do with your lights to be honest but a good rule of thumb for hanging lights is so that they point at 45 degrees to what you are trying to light. So if your lights are, for example, 3m above the stage then you would do well to set them back from the middle of the stage by 3m. If you light from straight above your actors or performers will have no light on their fronts. If you hang them too far back then you will blind your performers and you will have a lot of spread of your lights. Don’t forget that you could do with some safety bonds if your pole ends up over the audience (well you should have them anyway to be honest).

    Finally, in my experience, the building will often have a say in where your lights can go – you need something structural to hang them from. Good luck.


  18. Ben

    I love this article, it is so true. I am the head lighter at a highschool with an overly expensive lighting system (150 dimmers /250 channels).

  19. Terry Swoffer

    Hi Rob, Thanks for interesting stuff, great site… Having directed and acted over a number of years, and helped out rigging lighting at times I have often found there is a real ‘them and us’ attitude from technical staff, which is a shame. Actors admire the talents of the techical staff (although that may not be obvious sometimes) but in some circles (including professional!) I have found the attitude of some lighting staff is that everything is alright if it wasn’t for the Director, actors and audience! Which is a shame! Don’t let this site fall into that trap please.

    To try to end on a more positive note, I would love to get more involved ‘up front’ so can you give any info where part time/spare time basic practical lighting courses are available? I booked for one locally but it was cancelled ‘due to cutbacks’.
    Thanks again

  20. Rob Sayer

    Hi Terry, glad you like the site. I think that there are a wide range of attitudes in all genres of show business. I have personally come across plenty of big name actors and classical musicians who seem to think that their worst enemy is the paying public. And also seem to think that technicians are not there to help them create their best performance.

    Deep down, in the profession, people respect others, their roles and talents. Usually, gags about the “turns” getting the way of the set/lighting or spoiling the sound, are pretty light hearted. Just like the ongoing rivalry between the lampies and the sound department.

    I am not sure about practical short lighting courses available at the moment. I was beginning to put some together myself before I wound up lecturing full time. It is something I have had interest in from drama groups etc. and would consider putting together a few days at a venue of their choosing.

  21. Callum

    Hi im 15 and currently am the AV manager at the school.i also work at locak performance with lighting and sound my main problem is i have a jester board and have alot of diffrent lfloods etc and four moving heads the way theve set up the moving heads is stupid and i have to control the moving heads with the wheels is there a way of recording the movment of them heads savingthem into a channel and letting the channel play like a chase?
    Can anyone help ?

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