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What is Theatre Lighting? (And what makes it different from other types of lighting?)

By David / 8 months ago

What is Theatre Lighting?I love the theatre.

Many of my early and formative experiences were spent figuring out how to make lighting work in my high school’s theatre, where blood (uh-huh), sweat (of course) and tears (a few) were left in the pursuit of a great show.

Moving on from there, I’ve since had the opportunity to design and work with a handful or community theatre and church groups, and advise many more through this website.

Every year, I still light performances that are theatrical in nature, though they’re not usually typical theatre shows!

And I love the theatre.  Did I mention that?

If you’ve been bitten by the theatre bug, you know it!  The blend of long hours, tough decisions and often having to make magic out of $10 makes the theatre both unique and the same as other types of lighting.

So What is Theatre Lighting, Anyways?

As I begin to share what I’ve learned about theatre lighting, I want to start with the basics.  The very basics.

Theatre lighting sets itself apart because it is one of the most intentional types of lighting.  The art of theatre demands that the lighting designer works in tandem with the other departments to achieve the director’s, and ultimately the playwright’s vision for the piece.

Every lighting decision in the theatre should be made through the lens of the entire script, and how that moment needs to feel in comparison to the rest of the show.  The lighting designer, whether amateur, professional, or “just thrown into it”, gets to use light to shape the mood on stage.

A theatrical lighting designer may get to work with 1 light, 10 lights, or 500 lights.  You may have the latest technology, or maybe your newest piece of gear is from the 1990’s!

The big thing that I love about the theatre is that there really is no wrong way to do things (As long as it is SAFE!). 

You can light for the theatre with ellipsoidals.  You can light with pars.  You can light with fresnels.  You can light with LED’s.  You can light with conventionals.  You get the idea – no particular light source is out of bounds, as long as you keep the vision of the show alive and further it with the lighting!

And so, all of a sudden, theatre lighting actually isn’t all that different from the other forms of lighting.

In these next few articles, I’m going to describe how to work in the theatre, and how to design your first show.  Now, if you’ve worked with lighting before, some of this is going to be a review – but don’t skip over it – you can always learn something new to sharpen your skill set!

Theatrical Lighting isn’t Just for the Theatre

As I create and share with you how to begin with lighting in the theatre, keep in mind that theatrical lighting isn’t just for the theatre.

What do I mean by that?

If you think that theatrical lighting is just for people selling tickets to a show where they hand out a “Playbill” style magazine, you’re wrong.  While that is definitely one of the intended audiences for these articles, it’s not the end-all.

Theatre can be a part of any type of show or service.  Maybe it’s a church production.

Or a theatrical-style number in a rock n’ roll show.

Or even a skit as part of a corporate event or a set in a club.

Learning and understanding how to work with light in a theatrical manner isn’t just for the theatre.  So, even if you don’t consider yourself a “theatre” person, there is going to be something in here for you too.


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