Young Directors' Guide to Lighting

First off: all I can do is speak from personal experience, of which, admittedly, I don't have an awful lot.

I have, however, had an insight into workings of the professional world of theatre: I have shadowed lighting designers in largest UK theatres, been an associate LD and worked as lighting crew in medium-sized theatres, and designed my own shows at small theatres both in London and at the Edinburgh Fringe.

What I see over and over again are some common misconceptions that young directors have about how to work with a young lighting designer, how lighting can support and enhance their work, and the realities of what is possible at certain levels of production.

I'm not going to talk about technology or gear, because, for the most part, that's my responsibility as a designer: to talk to the director about high-level concepts and provide a layer of abstraction between you and the equipment that goes into producing the effect on stage.

Spot, Wash, Warm, Cold

A lot of young directors seem to have these four words ingrained into them from an early age, and will lean on them heavily when trying to describe what they would like from their lighting designer, which is by no means the most efficient or expressive way of doing so.

I suspect this arises from the times when they have had to make do with either no lighting designer at all, or from dealing with a repertory rig at somewhere like the Edinburgh Fringe, where the venues seem intent on supplying only "general washes" and "company specials", and labelling them as such.

It is true that a lot of lighting design is based on these building blocks — most lanterns fall into one of the two categories of spot or wash, and warm/cold tones are a very important way of establishing tone on stage. There's the rub, though: there are almost infinite shades in between the bluest 'cold' and the reddest 'warm', and the LD's choice of 'warm' and 'cold' are relative to the colour palette of the rest of the show. Sometimes, your warms are actually very pale greens1, and sometimes your warm is actually a cold, which appears warm when contrasted with something even colder2.

Woyzeck, Old Vic 2017, LD Neil Austin, Photo by Manual Harlan

Further, it is wrong to assume that 'warm = positive' and 'cold = negative': warms can be intensely uncomfortable and surreal3, and colds can become a neutral common ground from which you can push in either direction4. You're much better off describing what particular theme in that scene you're most interested in — by telling the LD the same thing as the actors, it allows the LD to decide how best to implement your vision, and everyone will be working towards the same thing with the overall outcome being that the scene will hold together better.

Similarly, the distinction between 'spot' and 'wash' isn't clear-cut: what many young directors think of as a 'spot' is a round circle on the floor in which an actor stands, allowing them to be lit apart from the rest of the scene. This is crude, however, and usually not the best way to achieve what you want. The lanterns commonly called 'spots' (profiles) can be used for many things other than round circles on the floor, and highlighting actors can be done by many more types of lantern than just 'spots' (profiles). It is fairly often that you'll see actors isolated from their surroundings, in what appears to be a 'spot', but rarely if ever is that achieved using one light. A front-on monologue is typically lit with six lanterns or more, to very precisely contour the face and balance shadows with light5, but, again, an LD can use many fewer or many more depending on the situation and the effect desired. In the photo below, Kate Fleetwood is undeniably 'in a spot'. However, notice that there are no hard edges present here. Hard edges are unnatural and draw attention to the theatricality of the scene, which was not appropriate here, whereas it would make perfect sense in something like Gypsy6, Cabaret, or The Entertainer. Counting the shadows on the floor can give you a good indication of how many lanterns are in use in this scene:

Ugly Lies The Bone, NT Lyttelton 2017, LD Oliver Fenwick, Photo by Tristram Kenton

Therefore, what I'm most interested in as an LD is why you're deciding to isolate that person: are they breaking the fourth wall and talking directly to the audience, performing an aside, the only person not frozen in time, or simply the most important character on stage?

By explaining these things to me in terms that you already know and use as a director, rather than in lighting and equipment vocabulary, we can talk about concepts and not implementation. This is important, because the implementation may depend on a lot more than just what is happening in that moment in that scene.

The Job of the LD

I'm most interested in the world that you want to create on stage, and your motivation for your chosen treatment of the text. It is my job to support that world in the best way I can with what I have access to.

The lighting designer is tasked with a lot more than the basics of illuminating faces so that the audience can see them. This is not a groundbreaking theory by any means, but many young directors seem surprised at the scope of what can be achieved with lighting.

Above basic illumination, we are often responsible for directing the gaze of the audience to where it needs to be, either to draw attention to someone or something, or to misdirect attention away from something that must not be seen: one of the other main tasks of the LD is to conceal the theatrical mechanics of the show. On shows like Aladdin, it would be disastrous if it was accidentally revealed to the audience with a light spill how the magic carpet flies. There are less obvious examples, too: perhaps a piece of scenery needs reconfiguring, or an actor needs to enter without initially being seen. Note that none of the above are complete blackouts, instead they are selective applications of darkness in an otherwise lit scene.

Setting the tone of the scene, another major task of the LD, can be achieved in a variety of ways using any of the tools that an LD has at their disposal. One is through selective application of darkness: look at the desolation created in this scene towards the end of Hamlet7 Act IV by choosing to leave large areas of the stage in shadow:

Hamlet, Barbican 2015, LD Jane Cox, Photo by Johan Persson

Another element of the production that tends to depend entirely on lighting is the establishment of the time of day of a scene (as well as locating it inside or outside, if the set functions as both). That's usually achieved with a combination of colour, angle, and quality of light (which I mention more about later). There are more interesting ways to do this depending on the show, however: Common, a recent rural epic at the Olivier had an enormous textured sky cyclorama, which Paule Constable painted with light from behind to create vast sunsets and dawns. Nothing in the image below, except for the lighting, indicates time of day, and yet it is instantly apparent:

Common, NT Olivier 2017, LD Paule Constable, Photo by Johan Persson

Time of day is usually apparent from the script, whether explicitly in a stage direction (Waiting for Godot, for instance) or implicitly based on dialogue or its relationship to other scenes (as in Hamlet).

For the most part, lighting designers, having studied English Literature at secondary school or further, can analyse the text and come to conclusions about time of day and setting for themselves, as well as being able to judge the tone, tensions between characters, and the important themes of the scene within the play autonomously. This is not to say that young directors should not talk to LDs about these: communication is very important amongst the creative team to make sure that everyone is moving in the same direction. However, it should be assumed that LDs also have a firm grip on the text itself.

Use of Blackouts

The blackout is a tool that we can use, but by employing it you define certain parameters about how the world of the play is going to work. Often use of blackouts is a more involved discussion, with the participation of the set designer and sound designer: some sets require blackouts to hide stage crew moving scenery (The History Boys, for instance), and some deliberately never use blackouts in order to continue the flow from one scene into another2, as the scenery is changed in front of the eyes of the audience. If going the second route, it is usually the actors themselves moving the scenery, or, on higher-budget shows, automation can make it appear as if the scenery is moving itself.

Either way, it's the kind of decision that needs to be made during development of the set design, to make sure the show can be consistent in its treatment of scene changes throughout its length. Blackouts must also be supported by the sound designer, who often employs sonic punctuation to the beginnings and ends of blackouts, which helps to mark the change away from the world of the play and back again, along with music or soundscapes in between.

Intensity, Colour, Angle, Texture, Atmosphere

These are the fundamental tools that lighting designers have to work with. I have already written a bit about colour, intensity, and angle — it is texture and atmosphere that young directors would benefit the most from understanding further, with the main objective of this section being to illustrate what is possible.

Texture can be hard to pin down, and can created in a number of ways: pieces of steel known as gobos can be inserted into some types of lanterns to create 'patterns' of light. Some LDs, particularly those across the pond, use this to create artificial texture: the shadow of a venetian blind that doesn't exist, or light falling through trees. Others use them differently: Natasha Chivers created impressionistic blurs of light using them for Sunday in the Park with George9, a Sondheim musical about George Seurat, the pioneer of pointillism — an outstanding marriage of form and content.

Sunday in the Park with George, Wyndham's 2006, LD Natasha Chivers, Video still by JB3 Creative

Instead of artificial texture, many LDs opt to use physical objects to shape light. Howard Harrison used a rotating ceiling fan to cast an ominous shadow as the audience arrived at City of Angels10, and Jon Clark used Lizzie Clachan's forest of floating chairs to create the dappled texture of light as it would if it fell through real leaves11.

As You Like It, NT Olivier 2015, LD Jon Clark, Photo by Johan Persson

The above also demonstrates well the ability of light to become a solid form with the use of atmospherics, mostly haze and fog, both of which fall under the department of lighting (and are usually part of the lighting hire budget).

Haze, on the one hand, hangs in the air and provides a continuous atmosphere, filling space and allowing lighting to create dramatic beams. Fog, a much denser medium, billows in clouds and disperses quickly. Both are difficult to control, but can be tamed to some extent with the deployment of strategically placed fans. Many productions use a combination of the two to great effect, including War Horse12.

War Horse, NT Olivier 2007, LD Paule Constable, Photo by Brinkhoff/Mögenburg

War Horse, NT Olivier 2007, LD Paule Constable, Photo by Brinkhoff/Mögenburg

The first photo demonstrates what can be achieved with a bright single source, casting rays outwards from the focus of the scene: there is no doubt about what the audience is supposed to be looking at here. The second photo illustrates how light can be used architecturally: in haze, the beams of light become the background, painting late afternoon in what is otherwise a black room with a black back wall. Intense beams like this through thick haze can also be used to conceal what is behind them, as the air becomes opaque, allowing scene changes and, in this case, the replacement of the foal Joey with the fully grown version, which rates as my favourite theatrical moment of that decade.


It is rare that an LD is given the opportunity to be in rehearsals for a prolonged period of time: sometimes they are brought on to the project by the director/producer towards the end of rehearsals as the show is preparing to move into the theatre, and sometimes the LD is too busy to attend many rehearsals, having scheduled shows close together or on top of each other in order to make enough money to live. If it is possible to be in the early rehearsals, and to be present before the model box is completed, it is of huge benefit to both the LD and the show as a whole. Ideas can be discussed, and places for lanterns to be hidden can be created, before it becomes expensive or impossible to alter a fully-built set.

Lighting designers frequently build their rig plans having only seen the set design, read the script, and talked to the director, because negotiations with hire companies and other logistical reasons mean that the rig has to be finalised to within a certain degree well in advance of the load-in. Being in rehearsals from the beginning may provide the opportunity for an LD to completely reassess their treatment of a scene, or the whole play, in time for those changes to be made without causing other problems further down the line.

An LD being in rehearsals also gives young directors more time to exchange ideas with them as the play develops, and provides more opportunities for happenstance conversations with other members of the team which may lead the project in exciting and wholly unexpected directions.

Money and Scope

The sad reality of lighting is that, no matter how perfect the image in the LD's head, it needs to be financially viable and physically possible. At the low end, this forces us to be more creative, and to come up with ways of using inexpensive technology to achieve the closest we can to the effect we want.

Nothing is free in the world of lighting, especially in small fringe theatres, who frequently do not even stock their own colour: at least for now, we're stuck mostly with putting lighting gel in front of lanterns to get the colour we want. This means that any show that wants anything other than 'open white' must buy their gel at £4-6 per sheet. Many young LDs like myself have a stash of gel for emergencies, but really there is no such thing as 'zero budget' lighting. Gel is considered a consumable, in that it becomes burnt out after many hours of use and must be replaced. To rely on your LD's personal stock is, in effect, asking them to pay to work for you.

Having said that, the scope of what is possible on shoe-string budgets usually surprises young directors. Many many things are possible on budgets of £100, the issue is that you can't have very many of them at the same time. At that scale however, it is unlikely that very much will be needed simultaneously — there's only one set, only a few places actors can stand, only a few scenes. Don't be afraid to float outlandish ideas at your LD, because it might just be possible.

The last, and perhaps most important limitation, is time. Unlike sound and costume designers, who can do the majority of their work during rehearsals before they even step into the theatre, the lighting is very equipment-orientated. Lanterns must be rigged, cabled, coloured, patched, and focussed, before the design can even start to be made in the space. Many LDs have a good idea of what they would like to happen well in advance, but it is during the tech rehearsal that they get to see them on stage for the first time (and find out whether they work or not). The more time you can give an LD in the space between the load-in and the dress rehearsal, the better their work will tend to be.


A quick side note about projection, which could have its own whole article to itself: projection is an amazing tool, and has lots of unexplored potential. It will be very exciting to see how it develops over the next few years. It can be used in the traditional sense to create 'screens' on stage, it can be used to enhance existing scenery (the Hamlet mentioned above does this very well. See also The Curious Incident, the previously mentioned City of Angels), used as a light source in its own right, casting impossible shadows onto windows. There is also a new breed of production where every inch of the set is projection-mapped and content designed to make the physical set almost fall away, of which City of Glass13 and Sunday in the Park with George9 are two great examples:

Two caveats: no matter what scale of show, there should be a video designer in the same way as there's an LD and sound designer. If a designer is doubling up, there should be someone on the production team whose only responsibility is projection, at least for the tech period. The systems involved with controlling projectors are more specialised and more finicky than lighting, and lining them up can take an age.

The other is that if you're doing anything serious, requiring more than just the presentation projector already hanging in the venue, it can become very expensive very quickly. Use projection because it's the only thing that can do what you want, not because you think it'll save you money elsewhere. It won't.

Conclusion & Further Reading

I hope this has been a helpful article — my aim was to better describe how lighting can enhance your production, what to expect from your future LDs, and how to communicate your vision to them.

I'd encourage young directors to watch professional shows with lighting in mind, and to keep an eye out for who the LD was. Being able to describe what you want by comparing it to shows you've seen is massively helpful, and identifying LDs whose style you like can help you better understand and develop your own directing style.

If you have any feedback, or can think of anything that'd be worth adding, please do contact me at @alexforey, or by email from my site.

Below is a list of resources that may be of interest:


Article header photo of The Female Gaze, photo by Lily Vetch.

There is relatively little documentation about the designs mentioned in this article, and much of what I've written about them is based on memory and notes from when I saw them in person. If anything is factually incorrect, please do let me know.

Thanks to Andrew Broughton, James Lye, and William Eustace for help with proofreading.

A list of productions and LDs I've mentioned in this article:

  1. The Threepenny Opera, NT Olivier (2016) LD Paule Constable

  2. Woyzeck, Old Vic (2017), LD Neil Austin

  3. The Treatment, Almeida (2017), LD Neil Austin

  4. Mary Stuart, Almeida (2016), LD Jackie Shemesh

  5. Ugly Lies The Bone, NT Lyttleton (2017), LD Oliver Fenwick

  6. Gypsy, Savoy (2015), LD Mark Henderson

  7. Hamlet, Barbican (2015) LD Jane Cox

  8. Common, NT Olivier (2017), LD Paule Constable

  9. Sunday in the Park with George, Wyndham's (2006), LD Natasha Chivers

  10. City of Angels, Donmar Warehouse (2014), LD Howard Harrison

  11. As You Like It, NT Olivier (2015), LD Jon Clark

  12. War Horse, NT Olivier (2007), LD Paule Constable.

  13. City of Glass, HOME and Lyric Hammersmith (2017), LD Matt Daw, VD Lysander Ashton a