Stage Lighting Design

Lighting The Stage

Stage Lighting (clue in the name), lighting the stage would seem to be it’s primary function. The question “How to light a stage?” seems to come up frequently among beginners. On Stage Lighting looks at basic front lighting for any venue or show.

Talk of lighting the stage, we really mean lighting the subjects (actors, furnitures etc) so they appear natural and can be seen clearly. This applies to “naturalistic” lighting, theatre stage and seating but the ideas also apply to conference lighting or products on an exhibition stand. In theatre, this lighting is part of a “General Cover” – general lighting around the stage for visibility. While there are no rules, there are some traditional theatre “methods”…

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The McCandless Method and “Jewel” Lighting

If you are really new to stage lighting, you probably haven’t heard of Stanley McCandless who wrote the book “A Method of Lighting The Stage” in the 1930’s. The book describes angles and positions used to light the stages of professional American theatres, and McCandless is credited with recording “the method”- though perhaps not inventing it. The McCandless method for lighting the stage became the basis of lighting design in proscenium theatres and is still taught to students today.

The McCandless lighting layout is based on division of the stage into areas, with each area lit by two front light sources. Each light source arrives on stage from an angle roughly 45 degrees from the stage floor, and are seperated 45 degrees either side of “straight on”. Other lighting angles such as backlight and sidelight fill in, giving the actors on stage some form. Warm and cold colours are used in opposite sides to create key and fill lights that can be balanced depending on the scene.

If you want to learn about the McCandless method of lighting the stage, pretty much every book on stage lighting design has details. There are also some notes at Larry Wild’s An Approach to Stage Lighting.

The thing to keep in mind is that the subject is front lit from two positions, from an audience point of view. Light arriving at 45 degrees up delivers lighting that is not too harsh, steep or flat. 3 dimensions are sculpted by light from positions at the back and side of stage.

“Jewel” lighting refers to a phrase coined by Howard Bay, who described a method of lighting the actor like a jewel display – from as many angles as possible. This method could use more front light angles, colours and face shadows were often filled in using floats (footlights). This multi angled approach is what we in the UK sometimes think of as Broadway lighting.

Both these methods of lighting a stage have an emphasis on “front light” – lighting arriving from the audience. Light that comes from an audiences viewpoint, reflects back to them making it easy to see detail in faces and read lips speaking. Natural warm and cold colour filters such as straws, pale blues and lavenders provide some simulated sunlight and skylight in traditional theatre methods. Lighting a choir or a graduation ceremony the lighting designer may not need this colour flexibility, keeping front lighting in Open White – no colour at all.

Lighting Any Stage

Stages, whether in a theate or a field, are all different. Auditoria and available lighting positions are all different too. Given the task of lighting the stage for a performance, front lighting is usually the most important. So how do you decide where to put your lights and what to do with them? Do you even get a choice in your venue?

Dividing the stage into different areas such as Down Stage Left, Down Centre, Down Right, or Catwalk 1,2 ,3 start to indicate how many front lighting fixtures you will need – 2 per area in the McCandless method. If you are in a traditional theatre environment with auditorium facing the stage from one direction, the choice of overhead position is can be easily estimated. Taking the height from stage to lighting position and moving into the audience by the same distance gives us a rough 45 degrees up.

Having decided on a rough distance from the stage our lighting fixtures should be placed, we need work out how to spread them across the venue for an even coverage. The desired outcomes are:

  • No gaps in the cover where faces disappear as they move around the stage.
  • No harsh changes of angle between the different stage areas.
  • Lighting on subjects should look natural and complete from all audience viewpoints.
  • High enough angle to minimise people/things casting big shadows on each other.

In our ideal theatre, we would stretch out both arms forward at 45 degrees from centre and pick two spot positions for each area. This is unlikely to be possible, especially in old theatres with more fancy plasterwork than actual rigging positions. So, what do to do if you are not in the perfect venue? The answer is always a compromise.

Each audience member should have at least one lantern providing them with reflected light from the their side of the auditorium. In some situations this might mean widening the angle, pushing the two front lights further apart. Other times, a third or fourth fixture might be needed, particularly if the audience sits right round the stage.

Note about cameras: In a live situation to be recorded/relayed by cameras, remember that the camera is also a member of the audience too. Camera positions often view the stage from very different angles to the main seating – just make sure that you know where the camera positions are. Lighting the stage with Open White frontlight and high blue backlight might look great from the stalls, it might not be so helpful for the camera shooting from a Down Stage Right wing position.

You might have a theatre full of spotlights or a just couple of stands with 6 PARs to light a show. Front lighting the stage for audience visibility is important and can be achieved in different ways with a regard for where the audience is actually viewing from.

  1. michael adeloye

    I commend the ones giving out information to help others on stage lightning. it has really helped me so far and i will be a contributor as i advance in knowledge about stage lightning
    mich from Nigeria

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