Lighting Design – The Process

This page describes the stages that a theatre lighting designer should go through when taking on the role.The lighting design process is broken down into a number of stages, which require different types of engagement with the project, from completely creative (reading the script and coming up with ideas with the director) to completely technical (drawing the lighting plan). It’s not ‘lighting design explained’ as there’s a lot more to it, but it will give you an overview of what happens in what order.

Read Script and Discuss with Director and Designer

Initially, you should think about what the production needs, in very broad terms. You can start by thinking of the lighting equipment (the lanterns) that you’ll use as elements of a ‘palette’ that you, the designer, are creating. At this stage, there is no need to think about which lanterns you will use to achieve these elements.
If there’s a moment set in a forest, for example, you could note that ‘forest lighting’ will be required. If there’s a scene in the living room of a house at night-time and early morning, that gives you two more elements of the palette to note down. A discussion with the set designer willl enable you to work together to ensure that there’s room for your lighting equipment in the rig, and that the set can incorporate any ideas you have, and that the palette of ideas you’re creating will cover the set designers’ ideas and wishes too.
The need is for jargon-free friendly terminology for the other members of the creative team – the director, for example, has no wish to know which lanterns you will use for the downstage centre blue special; only that there will be one.
If the performance is in a non-theatre space, or a space with limited installed equipment, you may also need to think about hiring additional equipment, so your palette may be limited by what’s affordable on the show budget.

Watch a rehearsal or run through.

With the director sitting beside you watch and note actor positions and moves as relevant to the lighting. The director should let you know of any specific needs (I’d like a snap blackout here, this actor should be isolated, I’ll need the whole of this part of the stage to go pink here) and you should note them also.

Produce the Cue List

Having gathered all the information about the actors from the run-through, and all the artistic and colour decisions from the initial talk with the director and set designer, you now work through the show noting each point at which the lighting will change. This is potentially the most creative (and hence important) part of the process as you bring all the elements of the palette together for each scene of the show. Again, exact details aren’t necessary; this list is to assure the director that you’ve covered all the specific moments in the show that she/he’s requested. You could also pop in a few extra ideas of your own, some of which will be rejected, but if a few are accepted, you’ll feel great.

Cue List Example
– HOUSE LIGHTS AND PRESET ON STAGE
– HOUSE LIGHTS OUT
– BLACKOUT ON STAGE
– WHEN ACTORS IN POSITION, LIGHTS UP FOR SCENE 1 (Drawing room, sunny morning)
– AS BUTLER CLOSES CURTAIN, CHECK STATE DOWN A BIT
– END OF SCENE, CHECK DOWN TO AREA DOWNSTAGE RIGHT THEN FOLLOW ON TO DIM SCENE CHANGE STATE
– WHEN SCENE CHANGE COMPLETE, LIGHTS UP ON DOORWAY (DIM)
– AS CLIVE MOVES FROM DOORWAY, DIM AREA DSL IN HALL
– BUILD STATE AS LIGHT TURNED ON (VISUAL CUE ON CLIVE LIGHT SWITCH)

Draw the Lighting Plan

This is the point where the creative contents of the palette get translated into lanterns, using the cue list as a reference to check that the whole show has been covered.
Initially, don’t worry about exact details – don’t think about which manufacturer’s lanterns you should use, don’t even think about whether you need a fresnel or a PC.
Draw a sketch plan with simple arrows where you know you need a light source. Label each arrow so that you can remember what it’s doing.
Once that’s complete, think about which of the available lanterns you can use in each position. If you know you need hard-edged spots or gobo washes, that’s an easy choice – it has to be a profile.
The choice between a Fresnel or a PC is more tricky. Fresnels are better for soft-edged washes from the front over a short throw. PCs can offer a slightly longer throw, and are not quite as soft-edged, so may be better as backlight or specials on particular areas, or as floor lights.

Lighting Rig

The lanterns are hung in the rig, according to the positions drawn on the plan. The people doing the rigging don’t necessarily need to know the creative effects being achieved by the lanterns, just that they are in the correct position. The lighting designer should do a quick check that the lanterns are still going to do the creative job – are they too close to where that bit of scenery will go, for example….

Lighting Focus

Lanterns are turned back into creative instruments, as the lighting designer instructs the team where and how to focus the lanterns, to achieve the ideas of the palette.

Lighting Plot

Using the Cue list as a reference, director and lighting designer decide which elements of the palette are used at each point throughout the production, how the transitions are timed, and communicate the exact cue positions to the member of the stage management team who is ‘on the book’ (usually the DSM).

Technical Rehearsal

The lighting designer refines cue positions and carries plotting while the actors and stage management teams are rehearsing the show.


Lantern + Colour + Position + Focus = Lighting