Stage Lighting Books

Stage Lighting Design by Richard Pilbrow – Book Review

On Stage Lighting takes a break from the modern distractions of LEDs and media server software, gets back to lighting design basics and takes a look at Richard Pilbrow’s book: Stage Lighting Design – The Art, The Craft, The Life.

Pilbrow’s book was first produced in 1997 and was recently published in the UK by Nick Hern Books in paperback for the first time. At under £20, it’s now affordable to impoverished lighting design students (and jobbing LD’s). A pioneer of stage lighting design, the modern lighting controller and commercial lighting hire business, Pilbrow recently won the 2008 Wally Russell Lifetime Achievement Award. During his long career, he has also guided quite a few proteges who went on to become innovators in their own right.

Stage Lighting Design Book

Stage Lighting Design… brings together lighting techniques and history with autobiographical passages that give us an insight into Pilbrow’s world. Personal sections are spliced together with the thoughts of other Lighting Designers. As the title suggests, the focus is lighting design as a profession, Pilbrow’s own being rooted in the traditions of theatre. In the modern world of concerts and trade shows, digital lighting and media projection, an understanding of lighting design for the theatrical stage is still highly desirable. I still think of theatre lighting as the best form of the art for the purist. The book also occasionally leans across to remind us that the essence of lighting design is not about equipment schedules, fixture specs or control system networks but simply about light.

Lighting Design Principles

The first section concentrates on the principles of lighting a stage, angles and other design considerations. Similar information is presented in other stage lighting books (the bulk here reproduced from RP’s original book, Stage Lighting Design) but here the basics are laid out in a more conversational style. Less mundane reference, more a conversation with a seasoned pro. Some illustrations help the reader to understand certain points but this book is not a graphical how-to in a “Stage Lighting For Dummies” style.

Stage Lighting History

History may be thought of as boring by a 24/7 Facebook generation. Who cares what ancient control boards looked like? A console built 5 years ago seems like an ancient relic today. For a beginner, the history of theatre architecture, angles and equipment serve to increase our understanding of the origins of convention. Conventions, not rules.

Most shocking when presented on the page, is the rate of change in lighting technology in the last 100 years. Descriptions and images of ancient lighting equipment, used in another era, make strangely compelling reading. The listing of more “modern” (1990’s) consoles toward the end of the book gave me a personal trip down “memory board lane”.

Although written over 10 years ago, the differences between the US and UK in training and professional status of the lighting designer don’t seem to have progressed as quickly as technology. An ongoing point of discussion in UK is the business of training stage lighting professionals and their career prospects on graduation. Much of the advice given in our own Stage Lighting Education series related to technical work and employers advocated hands on experience over a strict formal education. The discipline of lighting design is one that could benefit from some academic study and this book has some good material.

Lighting Designer Life

Throughout Pilbrow’s writing, The Life of a professional LD is a strong theme. His own experiences are added to by short interviews with fellow pro’s that intersect the chapters. Andrew Bridges, an LD with many years experience of “Industrials” (what they call corporate gigs in the US), strikes a contemporary chord with me as he mentions writing the equipment inventory without knowing much about the show. A glimpse into the world of commercial event production. The reader also gets a peek into real plans, schedules and other lists – the kind of thing that fascinates the enquiring mind.

Technical Reference

Stage lighting designers have to understand the technical aspects of the craft as well as the art. The last section of “Stage Lighting Design” is concerned with quick reference – colour theory, angles and calculations and the photometrics of popular equipment. This is necessary information that is a common factor in most stage lighting handbooks. The data is well laid out and explained.

These technical chapters can be dipped into in a more haphazard manner to the first two sections, which are best read in order – the way the author intends. The anecdotes, histories and interviews create a pleasant cue list that would be spoilt for the reader jumping scenes in random order.

The Future

Pilbrow’s career has spanned decades, an era that defined many current lighting design principles.
But he suggests that the “lightpen” is taken up by the new generation of innovators with the mantra that “there are no rules”. He admits to making many of his methods up on the spot and you get the feeling he is urging you, the reader, to do the same.

The book is dated in the more “modern” parts by the equipment and the way it was used, even in 1997. Designs that include a “saturation rig” of conventionals supplemented by some intelligent fixtures (with the apprehension that the Var*lites might all go wrong in a minute) are less that contemporary now. Today’s lighting designers are in the fortunate position not to have to think of their rigs in two halves – conventional and intelligent. Pilbrow and the others do mention both the possiblities and limitations of intelligent lighting, many of which are still true today.

Is this book worth buying?

If you believe in learning from pioneers with pedigree, Richard Pilbrow is your man. For the aspiring lighting designer, the wealth of knowledge and the insight into this strange profession are invaluable. Reading this enjoyable book, you might be filled with thoughts of following in the footsteps of the great LD’s that parade past. We are reminded, however, that earning a living as a lighting designer in theatre is not easy. The Lighting Designer is an artist, after all, and must expect to be paid as one.

Reading this book again, as a “grown up”, I found the show stories enjoyable and luvvy characters in show business faintly familiar. The smell of dusty theatres rekindles the flame and inspires.

As a book on the mechanics of lighting a stage there are others, but this one describes the major factors well enough. Stage Lighting Design doesn’t tell you exactly how to light your school play or how to patch a dimmer (as someone who writes on the subject I can’t imagine a book that covered every aspect of the trade in complete detail). This book is about being a stage lighting designer. If that’s a profession that appeals to you, Stage Lighting Design – The Art, The Craft, The Life tells it like it is – or rather, was.

How it will be may be up to you.

PS The book has also been re released in the US and is available at

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