Some Basic Principles of Lighting a Stage Production

Lighting is a critical aspect of any stage production is set to design and mood. Done well it can visually and emotionally enhance performance. Done poorly, it can take away from a performance. Here’s a brief overview of some of the basic principles to consider when lighting a stage production.

1.     Consider Your Performance Genre

Dance Production – Dance lighting is unique among performance disciplines as you are dealing with movement.  In dance, to display body tone, sidelights are the main feature of the lighting scheme. Emphasising the flow of the dancers’ bodies is paramount here and utilising side lighting is key to this definition of shape. In dance, a simple stage set up works well (often just black drapes or white cyc for a background). This allows colour changes in lighting to set the scene.

Standard Play – In productions that focus on dialogue and plot, it is important that the audience can visually connect with the character and so the key light should come from the public’s viewpoint. This is known as ‘front lighting’ and makes it easy for the audience to see detail in faces and lips moving.

Live Music Performance – Depending on the music genre and some performers on the stage; you may opt for bold colours and wash lights to highlight the energy of the performance, or calmer, more atmospheric lighting to reflect a more emotional performance. Spotlights can focus on a seated performance or follow moving performers around.

2.     Consider Your Lantern Stock

What lanterns do you have available to you? Here’s a simple list:

  • Flood – Fixed beam with a soft edged wash providing an intense flood of light. Use for lighting cycloramas, backcloths, scenery and curtains.
  • Fresnel – A soft-edged spotlight with some control over beam angle. These are ‘wash’ fixtures and have a fuzzy edge and will cover many areas. You can overlap beams to create smooth washes.
  • Profile Spot – Profile spots produce clearly defined spots of light and are useful when you want to light a particular person, object or area of the stage.  Zoom spots allow you to alter the size and the edge of the output and can be used for projecting over longer throws.
  • Parcan – Originally developed for concerts, parcan can produce a thick oval pool of light with unfocused edges and can be rotated. Use with high saturated colours downlighting, side and back lighting.

3.     Consider Content

Depending on your performance genre, get to know your content; if you are lighting a play, read the script. For musical performances, listen to the music. Watch rehearsals and note acting areas, dance positions and any special requirements for scenes. Do some parts of the stage need to be subdued or individual props enhanced? The stage lighting should pull all the aspects of the stage and performance together.

a)      Selective Visibility Focus the light on the parts of the stage the audience should be paying attention to. (A performer, prop or set piece, for example.) Lighting, in this way, can act as a camera as it focuses on what the director wants the audience to see, masking areas that are not relevant to the scene. This enhances the audience’s understanding and enjoyment of the performance.

b)      Mood Lighting – colour and focus can affect the mood of the performance. In the scenes below from A Christmas Carol, Lighting Designer Gary C Benson has chosen cool tones in Act I to demonstrate how chilly Scrooge’s outlook on life was. By Act V warmer colours are selected to show how the night has softened Scrooge. (Read more at



c)       Composition Lighting can provide structure and flow to the stage depending on the action of the performance. It can highlight significant points in a story or particular aspects of the set or cast. The composition of the lighting directs the eye which manipulates the thoughts of the mind and can adjust the picture of that scene.

d)      Movement of lights can convey the change in a scene or create a feeling of excitement or danger in performance.

 e)      Revelation Form Lighting is used to accentuate objects or performers against the set.

f)       Texture can be added using a gobo. A gobo is a stencil that can be slotted in front of a profile lantern to project a shape of light, such as a tree, window or texture. In this scene from Macbeth, the window effects on the stage are created using a gobo.


 g)      Naturalism and Motivation Stage settings may be realistic or abstract. If location and time of day are important, blues can suggest night while orange can suggest a daytime scene. Gobos can be used to project sky views or the moon.

4.     Plan Your Lighting Areas

Planning your light areas is dependent on space and expertise, and is a whole subject in itself! However, there are some simple rules to follow in a small stage area to achieve a simple, yet efficient and flexible, lighting scheme. A simple plan can help before starting to hang the lanterns.

There are five basic lighting positions:

  1. Front Light – Front of house lighting provides the primary source of illumination, and an overhead angle of 45 degrees ensures the features of the face are lit well, and shadows are eliminated.
  2. Side Light Side lighting is used to accent the side of the face, arms, torso and legs – particularly effective with dancers.
  3. High Side Light – Accentuates the top aspect of the head, neck, shoulders and arm and is usually overhead at an angle of 30 to 60 degrees.
  4. Back Light – Helps to separate the object or performer from the background and gives a more three-dimensional appearance.
  5. Down Light – A further essential requirement is to be able to light the whole performance space with an even wash of light. This can be produced by dividing the performance space into a grid of lighting areas that can be blended to create an even wash of light across the performance space. To produce this even wash of light, the beams from the lanterns need to overlap, and it is important to consider that the focal point for most lighting areas will be the face, not the floor. Therefore, the centre of the beam of light should be focussed on the actor at shoulder height to highlight the face and lower body.

Also, lastly – never under-estimate the power and beauty of candlelight. Actress Maxine Peake delivered an engaging and compelling reading of Shelley’s ‘The Mask of Anarchy’ at The Albert Hall in Manchester in 2013 as part of Manchester International Festival. Apart from a simple up light from the front, the atmospheric performance was entirely candlelit.

Further Reading

The McCandless Method

Stage Lighting: The Technicians’ Guide, Skip Mort Methuen Drama 2011

Stage photographs above reproduced by the kind agreement of Lighting Designer Gary Benson. Follow Gary’s entertaining and informative blog