A Process for Designing Lighting for the Stage: Creating a Lighting Key

For many years, I have adhered to a particular process when designing lighting that includes the creation of a Lighting Key (a graphic representation of how I imagine a production will be lit.

Of course, this process begins with a thorough reading of the text, a study of directorial and collaborative colleagues’ conceptual ideas, A close examination of the preliminary (or finished) set and costume designs, the creation of a preliminary cue list based upon close reading of the text and any preliminary run through of the play that I can watch.  Armed with as much of this information as I can gather, I am ready to begin imagining how I am going to achieve the director’s and my vision for lighting the production.

A Rough Sketch of The Set Design of Prima Donna

The first step is to be to create an abstract plan view of the stage starting with symbol that will represent the actor in space.  Sometimes I just use a letter (such as the letter A).  Often I choose a plan view of a human figure.  Then, bearing in mind the functions of lighting (particularly Visibility, Selective Focus, Modeling, Mood, Storytelling, Reinforcing Colleagues Choices), and the intersection of the textual information and the environment of the setting, I begin imagining how lighting might effectively support the production.  Below is the example of a lighting key for a production of Prima Donna (a one-act opera by Arthur Benjamin).  In this production the setting is in an Islamic-inspired room with windows overlooking a Venetian canal. The scene starts in a largely empty room.  The occupant is in financial trouble and his furnishings have been confiscated, hence the room is largely empty of furnishings. The time is late afternoon.

Note that the warm afternoon sunlight is described as coming from the back stage right and reflected afternoon sunlight from the SL front at a low angle.  Meanwhile a top light in a color suggestive of bounce light from the sky is called for as well as a fill light of cool or neutral from SR front for the sake of visibility.  The actual colors are not specified (as in the gel colors from Rosco, Lee, Apollo…etc.)  Rather functional descriptions serve to explain the relative color.  The actual color will be chosen once the set and costume paint and fabric colors are known and once the entire lighting scheme is decided upon.

By the end of the first scene, the resident has made preparations to entertain his wealthy and influential uncle.  Furniture is rented and delivered, food procured and entertainment in the form of two chorus girls both masquerading as a certain opera diva (instead of just one) arrive to entertain the lecherous Duke.

The second scene occurs an hour after the first, but for reasons of heightened passion, the director wants a very nighttime feel to the scene.

Notice that the moonlight lights the room from back SL with reflected moonlight from FOH SR.  A top-light reinforcing a nighttime look and fill light from FOH SL serve to complete the general illumination for the scene.  And added feature of this scene is the chandelier, which should appear to be providing the illumination for the scene.  This light breaks down into an overall front-light to provide warmth to the faces and an effect light that will be a steep back, top, or sidelight, depending on the relationship of the lighting area to the chandelier.

Putting both together, we arrive at a comprehensive lighting key:

Notice that each lighting area will have as many as 10 fixtures focused into it.  Also recognize that this key is just dealing with the main playing areas.  Ancillary areas such as out on the balcony, both upstage R & L doorways, lighting the drop seen through the arched windows at the back of the setting and any specials that might be required, will require additional lighting and additional fixtures.

See future blogs for subjects that address subsequent steps in the process of designing lights for theatrical production.

That’s enough for now! Have fun!  Be safe!



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