How Do I Begin Lighting My First Theatre Show?

lighting basics theatre Jun 04, 2023

One of the things I love about the theatre is that it’s one of the most intentional forms of lighting.

If you’ve never lit anything before, or perhaps this is one of your first few shows, then you’re in the right place.  In this article, I’m going to go over the very basics of lighting your first show and give you the tools you need to begin with theatre lighting.

This will apply to you whether you’re lighting a theatre show for your church, community theatre, school or some other type of production.  Let’s dive in!

Step 1: Figure Out What You Have To With, and How You Want to Use It

Often, you’re not starting from zero when you begin the design process.  Is there any lighting that already exists in the venue that your production is taking place at?  Are you allowed to refocus or move it?  If not, who can you ask to get that permission?

If there isn’t existing lighting, then where will you get lighting from?  What is the budget like?

Once you’ve answered these questions, it’s time to hit the drawing board!

Meet With The Artistic Staff

The first step in ANY theatrical show is to go ahead and meet with the director and any other artistic staff of the production you are being asked to light.  Maybe you are those people, or those people are one other person – often that is the case with small shows!

Get the script and any music that the show has, and read it!  As you read, take any notes of anything that would apply to lighting.  For example:

  • Where are the actors on stage?  Are they using part of the stage, or the whole stage?
  • What time of day is it?  How does that affect the lighting?
  • Are there any “chases” or special effect lighting needed at any point?

Once you get this together, you may have a decent idea of what the show needs to succeed, lighting-wise.  If you’re completely new to this, you may also not have any idea what’s going on, and that’s okay.  Just do your best and catch up as you move through the next section!

Create Your First Plot

Plot from a corporate event

In lighting, a plot is simply a drawing that shows what kinds of lights you are using, and where you want them to be.  It’s usually an overhead view, and also has other information on the fixture patch and lens options…but more on that in a few minutes!

Begin by first deciding what angles of light you need, and define the main frontlight for your stage.  Often, lighting is focused across the stage in a “wash” – you can learn more about creating a wash here!

Draw these out first on your plot.  You can use CAD software if you have it, but hand-drawn works just fine as well for your first show.

Once you’ve got your front wash down, I usually recommend prioritizing lighting your set – whatever that may be!

After that, it’s time to sprinkle in backlight, sidelight and any other special lights you want.  Unless it’s essential to the show, I usually leave specials to last because I really want to cover the most important areas with light first.

At this point, you’ve created a plot where we can see everyone on the stage!  Congratulations – but now we need to add in some color and maybe some texture from gobos.

When it comes to lighting the set and the stage in color, you could write a whole book on different ways of doing this (and there are a lot of them too!)

But at its core, you’ve really just got to get some light pointed at the piece you’re trying to light.  If the set is “flat” it will be pretty forgiving to different angles.  If it’s 3-dimensional in nature, you’ll have to take more care as to what angle you light it from, and using different angles can create some really great effects!

Learn more about creating your first plot here.

Patch It!

Getting all of your lights into your console is the next step.  If this is your first show, it’s likely that this will be your job.  Later on, you’ll have a master electrician do this for you, but it’s great experience to learn how to do it yourself.

At the base level, you want to make sure that all of your lights get plugged in so that you can use them.  You may have a traditional theatre with a dimmer rack, or you may have LED’s.

For the conventional lights – you’ve got to get everything plugged into a dimmer.  If you have equal or more dimmers than lights, this is easy – plug one light into each dimmer!

If you have more lights than dimmers, then you’ll need to “two-fer” or patch 2 circuits to one dimmer, and you need to make sure your dimmer can handle the wattage load!

At this point, if you’ve got a modern console, you need to tell the console what lights you have, and it will give you the DMX addresses as it patches the lights.

For LED’s, the dimmer rack, and dimmer packs, you’ll need to set the DMX address.

You’ll also want to wire your LED’s into DMX as well – here’s how!

Once you’ve done this, go to your console and make sure all of your lights work!  Then….

Focus It!

Since everything now works, it’s time to make sure we get out lights pointed in the right places.

Depending on your desires, comfort level, and available help, there are a few different ways to conduct a focus.

At the minimum, I’d recommend getting a friend to be on stage while you point the lights.  If you can, get a DMX cable so that you can set the console on stage, so your friend can also turn the lights on and off for you.

At best, it’s great if you can have a someone else to actually point the lights, while you watch and direct, and the guy on stage runs the board and stands where the light is being pointed!

You can get really complex with this, and a good crew in a professional theatre can focus a lot of lights in a day.  But when you’re first starting, keep it simple!

While it’s easiest to just focus all the lights left to right, down to up, it’s totally fine to skip around and focus based on looks. (i.e. focus all the wash lights first, then the set lights, then the specials).

How to Program Your Console for Theatrical Lighting

There are a lot of consoles and PC-based software packages that you can program and run your show with.  In this article, my goal is not to make any recommendations there, but to give you some quick tips to successful programming for the theatre.

If you don’t already have a console selected, there are a variety of free and paid consoles that can make a good theatrical show.

My top free pick is the 1-universe version of ONYX, though a professional lighting console, with a little study you can get up to speed fast and it’s free or low-cost for an interface like the NX-DMX or NX-Touch.

For not a ton more, you can also go with a LightShark LS-Core, which offers a quicker-to-learn interface and a PC-free setup when working from a tablet.. For many groups, the time saved is well worth the cost.

The Basics

At the most basic level, you’ll want to create a single cuelist inside your console that contains all of the cues for the show, in order.  You’ll then note where those cues happen in the lighting operator’s script so that they can follow the show and press the “Go” button at the correct times.

Just like many of the other concepts discussed in this article, we could go and write a whole book on how to program for a theatrical show…but we’ll stick to the basics here.

So, once you know what console you’ll be using, learn how to use that console from it’s manual and/or videos on YouTube.

Now it’s time to program.  Don’t forget to run through the whole show as you program – starting from the “curtain warmer” look that you deploy during doors, all the way until everyone has left the theatre.

It’s best to have a “dry tech” with the director if possible so that you can pre-program out most of the show before the actors are on stage.  Then, when you get the first tech rehearsal with actors, you can be focused on hitting the cues correctly and editing things as you see the need – there’s always something!

The End

With that, I think we’ve covered your first theatrical show quite well.  While this article only goes into the basics, I hope it’s helpful to you as you begin working with lighting!


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