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 Designers

Initially, you should think about what the production needs, in very broad terms. You can start by thinking of a palette of looks that are mentioned in the text. At this stage, there is no need to think about which lanterns you will use to achieve these looks.
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 choice of colour, in particular, will have a huge effect on how the set looks, so this conversation is essential.

It’s also vital to talk to the costume designer about how the actors will be dressed. If they’re in white (for example), colour and intensity will have a much larger effect than if they’re wearing darker colours. 

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 equipment you will use to achieve 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.

Many projects may be devised, with no script at the start of the process, so the conversation with the director or creators of the project will help you to get started thinking about what your approach should be. 

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.

It’s also important to have a conversation with stage management. If, during a rehearsal, there’s a pause while chairs are rearranged for a scene change, how will that look on stage? How will you ensure that scene changes are fully integrated into the flow of the performance rather than just going to blue backlight and pausing for 20 seconds while crew run around? 
See Scene Changes for more

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
– WHEN ACTORS IN POSITION, LIGHTS UP FOR SCENE 1 (Drawing room, sunny morning)


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.
a) Where From?
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.
b) What?
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.
c) How? 
You’ll need to think about what job each lantern in the rig is able to do, and how many of them you need to create the lighting ‘picture’ or ‘state’ that you’ve decided you need at this point. Think about everything on the stage, every actor position in the scene, every change of location or mood (as described in the cue list), and make sure you’ve covered it.

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.
More about Lighting Focussing.

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). The transitions between lighting states are of key importance and should be given adequate time. The way the lighting ‘flows‘ from scene to scene as it moves around the stage and through the play, can have a huge effect on the audience’s perception of the quality of the performance. 

As lighting desk software has become more portable, and with the addition of visualisers such as Capture or ETC’s built-in Augment3d system, it’s possible to do an approximation of the lighting plot offline, out of the venue, before the set is built and even before the lighting is rigged. This will always need tweaking to fine-tune it to the nuances of the venue or the set, or to change timings or positions depending on actor movements. However, pre-visualising the lighting plot can save hours of work in the venue. It also enables the plot to be tweaked by the design team without needing the stage. 

Technical Rehearsal

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

Lantern + Colour + Position + Focus + Flow = Lighting

What should Lighting Technicians do during rehearsals? 

It’s helpful for all members of the crew to watch a run-through, to start to get a feel for the show – how it’s paced, who the key performers are, where difficult / complex sequences are, and so on. This helps them to be one step ahead when the production moves into the theatre and they are expected to put the lighting design into action. 
However, it is not necessary for the crew to watch every rehearsal.


Author credit: Jon Primrose, Originally written in 2005. Latest revisions May 2022.

Video by Matt Kizer:

Keywords: Lighting Requirements, Working out lighting for a show, How to approach lighting design, process stage in theatre, technicians duties during rehearsals, lighting design process