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Stage Lighting Tips

Theater Stage Lighting Guide


Theater lighting is an integral part of ensuring an incredible experience for the audience and the actors on stage. It helps convey emotion, direct attention, pose as scenery, add texture, etc. For thousands of years, theater lighting has been used to create impactful performances and continues to be a valuable performance tool today.

The History Of Theater Lighting

The world is no stranger to the use of theater lighting to enhance onstage performances. Dating back to the Grecian and Roman Empires, theaters were constructed with lighting in mind. Since the performances took place outside, venues like colosseums were built with open tops facing toward the afternoon sun, so the actors or musicians were lit on the stage while the orchestra was seated in the shadows.


The Greeks were famously known to use mirrors to direct the sunlight toward the stage to set the mood of the play. It was common for intermissions to take place until the sun was in the best position to provide lighting suitable for the needs of the scene. Eventually, the Romans began building indoor venues specifically for theater purposes, which they used candles, lanterns, and torches to illuminate.

As time progressed and the Renaissance began, theaters used candles and oil lamps to light theaters, but it only allowed them to cast a general light throughout the building, not targetting the actors onstage. Although the lighting of the time was rudimentary, there were some exciting advancements being made. In 1545 an Italian architect named Sebastiano Serlio created color filters by filling glass vases with a liquid called "bozze" and setting it in front of the candles. The color was dependent on the fluid used, like red wine, which would create red; saffron which created yellow; and blue, made by putting ammonium chloride into a copper vessel.

Serlio is responsible for identifying three qualities of stage lighting: intensity, distribution, and of course, color, making him the first person ever recorded to credit light as an integral part of the theatrical experience. Until 1783 candles were the main source of theater lighting until the emergence of kerosine lamps which quickly became the preferred method. With the creation of the Edison bulb, the lighting world began to change forever. Now theaters could control their lighting like never before, which compelled them to continue seeking new ways to improve the experienced lighting provided.

The Function Of Theater Lighting

Theater lighting is a powerful tool used during productions to create a unique look and feel that aligns with what the actors are trying to convey. There are multiple functions that allow it to create impactful performances that appeal to the audience.


Theater lighting helps set the mood of the scene. You can use different colors to create different emotions, like red for anger or blue for melancholy.


When the audience should focus on one area on the stage and ignore the other, lighting is an excellent way to draw their attention and keep them from watching areas they shouldn't see.

Plot Progression

Theater lighting can even be useful in aiding the progression of the plot by triggering an action either on or off the stage.

Select Visibility

If the audience can't see what is happening on stage, then the performance happens in vain. Quality lighting can illuminate the entire area, making it easier for the audience to see and safer for the actors.

Time Of Day

Theater lighting can help establish the time of day through color and placement. It can stimulate a setting sun, mimic a sunrise, or convey a night sky scattered with stars.


Thanks to the special effects available for theater lighting, it can be used to project scenery or even act as a part of the scene on the stage.

Qualities of Theater Lighting

There are select qualities that make theater lighting incredibly effective and serve to provide the audience with an enjoyable experience. Each quality is fully adjustable to meet the unique needs of every performance, providing each production the opportunity to have maximum lighting flexibility.



Color is a powerful tool that is often used in a wide variety of theater productions. The color temperature, which is measured in Kelvins, can affect the way the actor's skin tone looks and make or break their performance. The type of lamp used inside the light fixture directly influences the color it produces, meaning a tungsten lamp will create a different effect than its LED counterpart. There are filters available to easily and quickly change the color as needed, made for the specific fixture in use. Color is also influenced by the lamp's power, most notably seen in a tungsten filament bulb. As the power decreases, the amount of orange produced within the bulb increases, creating a phenomenon known as an "amber shift."



The intensity of theater lighting is measured in lumens, lux, or foot candles. The fixture's (also known as a luminaire) intensity depends on multiple factors, including optical instructions, lamp power, and its design. Depending on the production, the intensity may be greater or more subdued to create the desired ambiance on the stage. Another factor that affects the lighting intensity is the distance of the stage from the fixture itself and the angle of the light beam, known as the field angle. The color of the material being lit and the contrasts of other illumination regions can also affect the intensity of the light on the stage.


The direction of the fixture refers to the evenness, quality, and shape of its output. The ability to direct light into certain patterns is very useful for theatrical performances as it allows the production to create forms using gobos which act as a template. The gobo is placed on top of the light and creates a pattern that is then projected wherever it is needed.

Focus, Hanging, And Position

Arguably the most important use of theater lighting is to draw focus on specific aspects of the stage. Whether it's the actors, a prop, or another area, being able to place a spotlight when and wherever it's needed is vital. Hanging is where the fixture is located and has a direct influence on which parts of the stage are illuminated. The position also affects the beam of light, influencing where it hits and the type of illumination it creates.

Common Types Of Stage Lighting Used For Theater Lighting

The most commonly used instruments for theater lighting are as follows:



Followspots are a form of spotlight that creates an intense, focused beam on a specific performer on the stage. It's perfect for following a moving target as it is used manually, allows for intensity adjustment, and can have color added.


PAR Can lights are a theater lighting staple. They illuminate the stage and work as a headlight, providing the necessary light needed to increase the visibility in larger areas. They can be compact, light weight, easy to set up and operate.


Floodlights are another instrument used to light larger areas and can move horizontally and vertically. They don't contain lenses, so the lamp type and reflector determine their size. Look for solid housing with qualified aluminum material.


Ellipsoidal spotlights are excellent for front lighting sine they produce a well-defined and intense beam of light. Their focus and shape are adjustable and provide the option to use gels and gobos to create colors and patterns.

Strip Light

Stips lights are used to add a lot of lighting or color to the stage. They consist of rows of multiple lamps and come in LED and standard varieties.


Fresnel lights are unique since they produce an intense light down the center, which then softens around the edges. The adjustable barn doors are fitted to adjust beam angles between 8 and 50 degrees allowing for a broad stage-filling.

Cyc Light

Cyc lights are for use with a backdrop and provide an even wash of light. They can be placed on the floor or hung near the backdrop for effective coverage.

Theater Lighting Positions

There are four foundational theater lighting positions: backlighting, front lights, side and high side lighting, and downlighting.


Backlights help create dimension and are placed at the back of the stage behind the performers.

Front Lights

Front lights are the main lighting source and are often used to provide a wash of light on the stage.

Side and High Side

Side lighting helps provide even illumination and is placed along the side of the stage. High side lighting is placed higher, lightening the performer's upper area.


Downlighting helps add another layer of dimension either at the performer's feet or shining down from above.

If you want to know more about the amazing world of theater lighting, turn to Stage Lighting Gurus. Our passion for stage lighting drives us to provide you with everything you need to know to create the most beautiful lighting possible. We provide you with guides, reviews, purchasing suggestions, and more so you can get the best value for your money and become an expert in your field. With Stage Lighting Gurus, the world of stage lighting is at your fingertips.

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