How to Light a Show

By Nicole Teran ‘15 and Shannon Csorny ‘15

The Lighting Designer and Head Electrician (along with their team) make up the Lighting team for a production. It’s incredibly exciting to be a part of team LX. The designer is a creative position, and the electrician is a more technical one.

Lighting Designer (LD): The role of a lighting designer is to decide all elements involving light during the show. This entails reading the script and deciding what the lighting should look like in a scene. In order to achieve their lighting concept, a designer drafts a plot (a diagram of where the physical lighting instruments will be placed in the space). It’s important to consider the locations and mood of the show as a whole and of each scene, as well as the realistic limits of what is achievable in the theater space.

Head Electrician: The Head Electrician is responsible for making the designer’s plot a reality. This involves the actual hanging of the instruments, but includes deciding where the instruments will be plugged in and can require ordering gel (used to change the color of a light), placing rental orders, and assembling a team.

Guide for Lighting Designers:

It’s important to read the script! It gives you a general idea of what the light should be like in a scene. You should think about the time of day, indoors vs. outdoors, and the mood you want to convey. You should sit down fairly early in the process and talk with your director to ensure you’re on the same page. It is often helpful to do visual research early in your design process, which often involves an image search, sometimes for specific locations or more abstract ideas of what you want to convey.

Before you start drafting your plot, you need a pretty good idea of the final set design and ground plan, as well as the grid layout (the available places to hang lights) in your theater space and the instruments available to you in that theater. Each space on campus has its own inventory and there is a free rental system through Undergraduate Production for a limited number of instruments and accessories.

You can either draft a plot by hand or using a program such as Vectorworks.

Directions: When drafting, it’s important to think about light coming in from different directions, which fills in the shadows. Imagine light from just one direction as being a shadow puppet play. Your basic different kinds of light include: front light- light coming from above/behind the audience and lighting an actor’s face; side light- coming from the sides of the stage and lighting the sides of an actor’s face (this is vital to ensure that there are not horribly obvious shadow-puppet style shadows. But actually.); and back light- light coming from the behind the stage which highlights people and gives depth. Combining these lights in different ways can provide you different tools for creating various moods/effects.

Instruments: Common instruments you’ll find at Yale are Source 4s and PARs. The size of the beam of light can be changed either by switching the barrel on a Source 4 or the lens on a PAR. For Source 4s, a smaller barrel degree corresponds to a smaller beam of light. Common barrel sizes include 19, 26, 36, and 50 degrees (check the UP website for an inventory). Common PAR lenses are wide (WFL), medium (MFL), and narrow (NFL), all of which cast more of an oblong beam. Source 4s are commonly used for front light and side light, while PARs are generally used for back light and washes.

Colors: Gel, plastic like sheets placed at the very front of the lighting instrument, can be used in order to change the emitted color of the light. It’s also almost always important to have both warm (amberish) and cool (blueish) lights; think about the light in your daily life and how it’s not all the same color, even if it’s all “white” light. Incorporating different colored gels can be used to help the corresponding color stand out better on stage or just to cast a general “wash” of a color across the stage. Gel swatch books are available to look at gel colors (hold it up to a light bulb through the filter; it doesn’t look like you think it will!) from UP.

Once the instruments are in the air (you will work under your Head Electrician for load-in and strike), you will need to focus them. Focus involves the direction, clarity, and cut of the light. Direction involves pointing the light exactly where you want it on the stage. All lights have a spot in the middle that appears slightly brighter; this is called the hotspot. It is useful for deciding where the light should point, often at an actor’s head height. The hotspot can be seen by shielding your eyes using a very dark gel and looking into the instrument (be careful!). It looks kind of like an egg yolk, and if you see it at the very center, then the hotspot of the light is focused at your face. The clarity of the light is how “sharp” or “fuzzy” the edges of the beam of light are; the fuzziness is adjusted on the barrel of the instrument, but is also affected by frost, which is basically a no color gel made to diffuse light. Normally, when light comes out of a barrel, it is in a vaguely circular shape. Shutter cuts can be used to change the shape and size of the light beam. They can be useful for keeping light off the ceiling or audience. Focus is also when you “drop” (put in front of the light) your gel.

After focus, you will do a cue-to-cue (Q2Q). This is when the actors stand where they would in a scene and you choose which lights to turn on and “write” (save into the board) your cues. You can vary the brightness of each of the instruments you turn on to create moods/places. You can also change the amount of time it takes for the cue to come up and go down. It’s important to watch the actors move on the stage to make sure that they’re always lit; feel free to tell them to hold if you need them to stand still while you create the look you want for the scene. It is often useful to “pre-cue,” which involves saving light levels in the board before the actors arrive. Useful things to do could be approximating an actual cue and then adjusting them once actors are in the space, or creating lighting looks to correspond to different locations. BE SURE TO SAVE YOUR SHOW. If you don’t know how, and neither does anyone else involved in your production, ask around to find someone who does. All boards come with manuals; it’s probably easiest to Google the board type to find the manual and then use the search function to find what you’re looking for.

Guide for Head Electricians:

Note: It is vital to have prior experience with lights in order to be a Head Electrician. If you’d like to learn more about working with lights before you HE, you should sign up for show’s lighting team - they’ll be happy to have you!

You should work with the producer on setting deadlines for your Lighting Designer’s rough draft and final plot, and hold the designer to those deadlines.

Once you get your LD’s plot, familiarize yourself with it. If you have any questions, ask them right away. Check to make sure every instrument on the plot is accounted for in inventory and if a rental is necessary, whether from Undergraduate Production (for free!) or a rental company (not free), place the rental. Be aware that other people will be trying to rent the same equipment: do your rentals early. Depending on your space, you may need to order gel. You can also borrow gel from the Dramat - contact their Production Officer to ask about that.

Before load-in, you should have a strong game plan. You should pre-circuit (decide where the instruments are being plugged in, also sometimes called making a cable chart). This requires looking at the lighting plot and where the circuit boxes are in the space and deciding how to most efficiently connect things depending on the availability of cable and practicality. Also be aware of the number of people you have (crew, actors, etc.) and how to best use them. You should be aware of how much people know about lights and assign jobs/teach accordingly.

You are the leader of Lights Load-in. Be aware of what else is loading-in in order to effectively share resources. You should be on top of the plot; know what is in the air and what still needs to go up. Make sure your team is aware of both where instruments go and from where they are drawing power. After everything is hung, patch the lights into the board and make sure everything works.

You are also in charge of focus. You should have a plan of the order in which it will be most efficient to focus instruments; consider both the physical location of the lights as well as their purpose. Keep track of what has been focused; it’s useful to mark that on a hard copy of the plot.

You are again the leader of Lights Strike. Make sure the theater is returned to its original state, and all instruments/rentals/gels need to be returned. Some theaters have rep plots that you will need to restore, while others will just be stripped.

Lighting people are friendly; we enjoy teaching and love newcomers! Feel free to ask questions. If you don’t know who to reach out to, try checking the YDC Board. The bios will indicate who has Lighting (LX) experience and can point in the right direction.

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