Lighting & Sound Copyright 2000 Robert C. Huber

Lighting is the most abstract of all the design arts. The medium itself, light, has no physical dimension in the usual sense of the word. You can't touch it, hear it, taste it, or smell it. And it can only be seen when it strikes something. And yet it can be manipulated artistically to marvelous effect. Its ephemeral physical properties and its ability to directly effect the emotions have been compared to those of music. There are two fundamental functions of light in the dramatic arts, illumination and expression. Illumination is the practical problem of getting enough light for an audience or camera to see clearly, and expression is the creative and artistic dimension. There is a higher proportion of women to men in this field than in any other except costuming. I wonder sometimes if the reason for this might be that men tend to think more concretely and women more abstractly. Men like to work with saws and nails and wood and metal, things that they can touch. Women seem more comfortable with the slippery medium of light.

Digression: Brief History of Lighting

From ancient times through the age of Shakespeare, theatre was done outdoors or in open-roofed structures during daylight hours. Under those conditions artificial lighting was unnecessary. But beginning with the Renaissance in Italy in the 1500s people began to stage plays indoors. The only source of illumination at that time was fire in the form of candles, oil lamps, and torches. The biggest challenge was to get enough illumination indoors to allow the stage to be clearly seen from a distance without burning down the house. A flame is a very inefficient form of light. In order to be effective the flame has to be very close to the object being lit. They tried to find ways to get many small flames as close to the stage as possible without blocking the view and blinding the audience. Many candles were ganged together in chandeliers which were hung over the auditorium and stage. Oil lamps behind shades were placed along the foot of the stage--footlights--to be as close to the actors as possible. Other candles were places in the wings and flies to light the flat scenery which stood there. They even experimented with reflectors and colored filters in an effort to create mood and atmospheric effects. One thing was clear, the only way to get enough light on the stage was to illuminate the entire theatre and not only the stage. As a result of the many candles auditoriums were hot and smoky, and patrons had to beware of falling wax drippings.

The first great advance in lighting was the development of gas in the early 1800s. Although a gas flame was not much brighter than a candle, it made it possible to artistically control illumination for the first time by dimming. Gas lighting was also cleaner since it generated little smoke and no drippings. Since gas was delivered to burners through a network of tubes and pipes, the flames could be turned up, down, and off with valves. Directors could "compose" the stage picture by shifting light from one part of the stage to another. With gas it was much easier to simulate atmospheric effects such as sunrise and sunset, and to raise and lower lights for dramatic effect. What could not be done was a total black out, because just as in the days of burning wicks, someone had to light each and every source if they went out.

The next great advance was made possible by the invention of the electric light bulb by Thomas Edison in 1879. Within a few years, electric lights were much more powerful than flame sources. Powerful enough to allow a usable beam of light to be projected some distance. By the 1930s several classes of specialized lighting fixtures called spotlights had been developed using lenses and reflectors to project a beam of light. These lighting "instruments" made it possible for the first time to hide light sources from the audience, create absolute black outs, and brightly light small portions of the stage from a great distance with pinpoint accuracy. They also made possible the modern practice of darkening the auditorium during the course of a play.

The most recent innovations in lighting include brighter halogen bulbs, and computer control of not only lighting cues, but movements of the instruments themselves. These are the "dancing lights" that are most commonly seen at rock concerts.

Lighting Designers

Lighting designers need to do less drawing and research than any of the other designers. It is the least time consuming design element to accomplish. A designer usually need not spend more than a couple of weeks on a project in total. What drawing they do is mechanical drafting. It is simply impractical to make color renderings of what each light cue will look like on stage. Instead, lighting designers prepare a series of plots and schedules that lay out the location and type of each lighting instrument in a show. The light plot is a 1/4 or 1/2 inch scaled plan drawing of the stage set and auditorium on which each instrument is represented by a symbol. The location of the symbol corresponds to the location of the instrument in the building. Each symbol on the plot has a number which corresponds to a line on a list called an instrument schedule which records other important data such as wattage, color, focus, and connections. The designer might also use a scaled section drawing to determine distances and angles accurately.

There are so many differences between stage and screen lighting that nearly all designers specialize in one medium or the other. In general, lighting for the stage is the most complex. Stage lighting designers use their own eyes to make judgments of their work, but film and television designers must use a light meter to gauge what the camera will record. Film and television designers need not be concerned with hiding their lights from an audience, the camera will do that for them. Those who design for the screen must sometimes work out of doors with massive instruments that are strong enough to compete with the sun. Stage lighting is much more subtle, and designers must compose continuous cues for an entire show that will be run in sequence according to precise timing. Screen designers are more concerned with static set-ups than cues, since each scene is lit as a part of an individual camera set-up, then broken down and changed. There are few light cues as such in screen work.

Lighting designers usually get their training in college. They undertake general theatre or film studies, then take specific classes in lighting technology often leading to an MFA. Practical training is vital in so abstract a discipline. There is simply no way to learn lighting without doing it. Student lighting designers learn the fundamentals by being on lighting set-up crews, and by operating lights in production. They begin by assisting more advanced designers, then designing lights for small student productions, and finally graduate on to lighting major departmental shows by themselves.


The lighting designer, like all others begins by studying the script and making notes. Lighting designers are often the last to begin work since they must know what the set and costumes will look like before beginning to light them. The designer begins making the light plot by tracing the floorplan of the set, but must also include the auditorium since many of the lights will be placed there. Over this are drawn lines representing the steel pipes that lighting instruments are typically hung from. Next, the designer divides the stage floor into slightly overlapping round zones or areas about six to ten feet in diameter. Each area is then lit individually for maximum control and artistic composition. Other lighting instruments are assigned to the background and scenery, and to simulate the effect of light sources such as fireplaces, lamps, lightning, and the sun. A symbol is drawn in the correct location on the plot for each lighting instrument. During this process the designer is also selecting colors. Color is created by placing a plastic filter, commonly called a gel, in a frame at the front of each instrument. Each color has a number and is chosen from a swatch book provided by the manufacturer of the color media. Next, the designer must organize all the instruments into a plugging matrix. Some are plugged into individual circuits and others grouped together.

When the designer has completed all the paperwork, consisting of plot, elevation, instrument schedule, plugging list, and equipment list, the technicians (or electricians as the union calls them) can begin their work. If the design is for a professional non-resident theatre the equipment list is sent out to bid to lighting suppliers. The winning company trucks all the instruments, cables, color media, and accessories to the theatre on the day assigned for delivery called the load-in. If the theatre owns its own equipment, as most resident theatres do, it is simply carried from storage to the stage. The technicians do the installation in several phases. In the first phase, called the hang, each light is placed in its assigned location. In the cabling phase each light is plugged into cables and circuits, and the circuits are assigned to the correct dimmers. During the focus each light is tested, aimed at its target, and its mountings tightened. Finally the colored gels are added.

While this is going on the designer must write the lighting cues. A lighting cue is any change in the lighting that the audience sees. The composition of cues occurs in two phases. The writing phase called a paper tech is when the designer sits down with the director and stage manager to decide when each change will take place in the script and what it will look like. Each cue is assigned a number and marked in the script. After the lighting is completely installed, the designer moves to what is the most exciting and creative phase, the actual composition. Lighting is controlled by electronic devices called dimmers. Dimmers vary the voltage delivered to each light, making it brighter, darker, on, or off. The dimmers in turn are controlled by a computer console located in the back of the auditorium in a control room with a clear view of the stage sometimes called the light booth. When the designer sits down at the console it is much like a music composer at a piano keyboard. Each light is a "note" which can be played at the console individually or grouped in "chords." The timing assigned to each change establishes a "rhythm." Like a painter the designer watches the stage and builds a "look" for each scene and cue in the play. As each cue is completed it is recorded in the computer's memory for later playback. The lighting designer's last responsibility is to be present during technical rehearsals to ensure the proper implementation and integrity of the design and to make changes as required.

Lighting designers typically come on board near the end of a project. They can do preliminary work off site, spend a week on site for cuing and rehearsal, and then move on. It tends to be the most gypsy-like lifestyle of all in the business. More and more lighting designers are switching to computers and software for their design work. Since they have no need to make models or do color renderings, they need only a laptop and a simple lighting design software application to do most of the drudge work. Even cues can be composed "offline."

Salaries for stage lighting designers are the same as those of set and costume designers in Southern California ranging from around $1,000 to $4,300 per show.


Sound is the newest theatre technology to have developed sufficiently to be considered an art, and capable of being designed. Prior to the invention of amplified recordings in the twentieth century, all theatre sound was live. Music was provided by musicians and sound effects by various mechanical devices: metal thunder sheets and canvas wind drums for instance. Today's sophisticated digital electronics allow the playback of either synthesized effects or those recorded from life. Audio waveform manipulation and multi-track and multi-layer mixing allows designers to create very complex sound "collages" for artistic purposes. The primary difference between sound for the stage and sound for the screen is that stage sound must be played back in coordination with live actors in real time--the sound board operator "performs" before a live audience. Screen sound is added in the studio as a part of the post-production process. The art of sound design reaches its peak of sophistication in the film world where various competing surround-sound technologies like THX blow the audience right out of their seats. The world of sound in the performing arts can be divided into reinforcement and effects.

Sound Reinforcement

Reinforcement is taking live sound, such as the actor's voice or a pit orchestra, and making it more easily heard. For actors this can be done by either of two ways: stage or body microphones. Mikes along the edge of the stage can be distracting visually, and can pick up unwanted sounds such as foot noise. One popular type in use today is the PZM, a small mike mounted on a clear plastic plate. It is highly directional, meaning that it picks up sound only in the area at which it is aimed. They are hard to balance because the closest actor will sound loudest. The body mike is better but a more expensive solution. Each actor carries a battery pack, transmitter, and antenna concealed in their costume. A tiny mike is clipped to hair or costume near their face. The signals are sent via FM radio waves to receivers at the back of the auditorium where they are amplified, mixed, and sent out to speakers. This technique got started in musicals where the orchestra sometimes covered up the singers' voices. Today, we see body mikes even in straight plays. Some actors and directors object to this practice because a well trained actor should be able to be heard in any auditorium. Also, an amplified voice, no matter how acoustically perfect, coming from somewhere other than the actor's mouth seems artificial. Since the very "liveness" of theatre is what makes it unique, many find this practice an abomination. In any case, this kind of sound work is done not by artists, but by technicians. It is in the area of sound effects where tue sound artistry can be brought to bear.

Sound Effects

A sound effect is a sound produced artificially to simulate the real thing. Sound effects may include anything from "canned" music that is played before, during, and after the show to very specific cues that are called for in the script. The purpose of sound effects is usually to enhance the reality of the environment, but can also be used to create mood. Common sound effects include birds singing, an airplane flying overhead, a toilet flush, a radio playing, or a car pulling up outside. Not all sound effects depict real events. A dream sequence, psychotic break, or other mental states can be suggested by a carefully crafted sound collage. Sound effects can be obtained by recording them live, or can be taken from sound library CDs. Raw recordings are often enhanced sonically by adding echo, distortion, or a sense of distance or direction. Computer technology has added much to this art. Sound files can be mixed in digital form on a hard drive, then exported to a CD-R or DVD-R for playback during a show. Although it is still common today to use open-reel tape decks for running sound during a show, digital disks offer the advantage of precise and instantaneous cuing without having to fast forward.

Sound Designers

In older and simpler days sound and lights were left to the electricians or stage managers, but today specialists have taken over. Virtually every play requires some sound, although it may be simple enough for a single person to select, record, and run it during performances. More elaborate productions hire dedicated sound designers who create an entire world of sound for the show. This specialty is still evolving. Some sound designers are trained as theatre technicians, and others come to theatre from the world of music and the recording arts. In either case they must know a good deal about both.

Salaries for stage sound designers are typically less than those of set, costume, and lighting designers. In Southern California they range from less than $1,000 to $3,400 per show.

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