The Function of Stage Lighting

At some point the examination of the procedures and equipment used  for stage lighting, the theatrical lighting designer needs to consider the role that lighting plays in a theatrical production.  Variously called the “Lighting Designer’s Goals” or the “Functions of Theatrical Lighting” there is no definitive list that I have come across that meets my aspirations for a completely symmetrical and succinct listing.  Each time that I teach this concept to students, I adapt the presentation to include new ideas and understanding.

I usually begin the conversation of the “Functions” of theatrical lighting on the text by J. Michael Gillette entitled Theatrical Design and Production:  An introduction to Scenic Design and Construction, Lighting, Sound, Costume, and Makeup (in its sixth edition at the time of this writing).

Visibility

The first and foremost goal of the lighting designer must be to provide the illumination necessary for the audience to adequately see the performer and to perceive the performance.  If there is anything like a hierarchy to the functions of theatrical lighting, then it is my opinion that visibility is the most important.  If a lighting designer is incapable of achieving any of the other functions (due to limitation of time, resources or skill) then it is of paramount importance that the Lighting Designer achieve at least this goal.  Without it, the adage “if you can’t see ‘em, you can’t hear ‘em” will likely doom the production.

Selective Focus

This function is on its most basic level almost the automatic result of theatrical lighting.  The act of illuminating the stage and leaving the auditorium in relative darkness immediately creates a situation that the audience will be inclined to direct their attention to the stage.  This function can be taken much further, by directing the audience’s attention to the actors, while illuminating the environment to those levels that achieve the overall visual goals of the production.  Further focus can be directed to certain characters or performers for certain sequences or moments when it is in the interest of the theatrical production that the spectators should be directed to attend to them.

Modeling

This function calls for the lighting designer to be mindful of the 3-dimmensional aspect of theatrical performance.  This goal will be manifested differently from production to production and among different modes of theatrical production.  For example, a dance or movement performance may require heavy emphasis on the sculptural qualities of bodies moving in space.  Alternatively, for a language-based performance, the Lighting Designer might need to concentrate attention on illuminating the environment in appropriate and interesting manner and in separating the performer from the scenery with light.

Mood

When young designers approach lighting design, this is the function that seems most appealing and important to them.  It is also the function of lighting design on which most energy is spent when in discussion with directors and other collaborators.  Read any lighting design concept paper and it is most likely that defining and achieving the mood of the production is the major topic of examination.  Just as every production has some kind of concept, every production will have some level of mood that the Lighting Designer will achieve (either by intent or through accident). Often that mood is attached to some aspect of realism, but is also integral to the production.

These four goals don’t seem adequate.  It has always seemed to me that four or more additional goals must be considered:

Story-Telling

The lighting designer needs to satisfy obvious dictates of the script in a language-based production.  This may mean portraying a lightning storm, a sunrise, an aurora, a starscape or blazing sunshine in service to the author.

Reinforcing Conceptual and Design Choices of other Collaborators

Similarly, the Lighting Designer will need to reinforce other choices related to the directorial concept or to the choices of the other design collaborators.

Rhythm and Punctuation

Perhaps very much related to story-telling and to conceptual choices (particularly related to directorial concept).   This goal is focused on the pace of the show and toward the journey that the designer takes the audience on as she constructs the speed and character of the lighting transitions and the contrast between lighting states from one sections of the performance to another.

Coolness factor

A director colleague of mine uses this phrase whenever his concept is calling for some production element that is primarily intended to heighten the spectacle of a production.  This function can quickly devolve into pandering to the lowest common denominator…sort of a bread-and circus for the masses.  On the other hand, sometimes a splashy gratuitous effect is just the thing that is needed.

I believe that being mindful of your goals, you can make better and more informed choices.  Remember too, that every designer will probably have a slightly different perspective on the functions of stage lighting and that the role that stage lighting plays may vary from production to production and from theatrical mode to theatrical mode.

Enough for now!   Have fun!  Be safe!

SJM

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One Response to “The Function of Stage Lighting”

  1. helpful! 🙂

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