Stage lighting theory

Written by anne hirsh
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Stage lighting theory
Lights aim downward toward the stage to simulate natural light's direction. (Stage lighting system under roof. Spotlights, outdoor theatre. image by asmik from Fotolia.com)

No single stage lighting theory suits every performance situation. For beginning designers, two of the most common lighting theories are useful for special event lighting: McCandless lighting theory and three-point lighting. Special activities, such as dance and puppetry, have their own lighting theories, but all lighting design should focus first on visibility from the audience's point of view.

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McCandless Lighting Theory

The McCandless lighting theory, developed by Stanley McCandless, considered the father of modern lighting design, proposes dividing the stage into overlapping acting areas. Two sources from the front and one source from the back light each area, forming an equilateral triangle around the area with the light fixtures with the apex at the back. The two front lights should overlap the same space, generally with one coloured blue or lavender and the other coloured pink or amber, mixing to form white light. Additional lights can be added straight down from the top or from high or low side angles. The two-point front lighting with different colours helps illuminate both sides of the performers, yet casts slightly different shadows on each side to create shape. The back light helps separate the performer from the backdrop, enhancing the visual depth. Other lights can add colour or fill in shadows.

Three-Point Lighting

A popular film and photography technique, three-point lighting also divides the stage into areas. In this case, each area is lit from the front by a single source, called a "key" light, plus a back light, usually from a high or low angle (this avoids shining the light into the audience's eyes, as a medium or flat-angle back light would) and a third light from one side to fill in shadows. This lighting theory stems from the idea that natural light, such as sunlight or interior lighting, usually comes from a single source, mimicked by the key light. Back lighting adds dimension, while the fill light enhances visibility by adding soft light into the shadows left by the key light.

Dance Lighting

Dance performance lighting often relies heavily on lights from unusual angles, such as low-angle side lights or lights that shine straight up or down. The theory behind this lighting technique is that shadows help add dimension. The curves of a dancer's musculature are highlighted by side or low-angle light, which also make each movement more visible to the audience. Because body movement is often more critical than facial expression in dance, this lighting style emphasises whole body lighting over a focus on bright face light.

Other Special Lighting

Lighting for puppetry and magicians often focuses on drawing the audience's attention to one portion of the stage while hiding other portions. Bright light from low or high angles may shine directly across the stage, so objects placed within the light are seen while puppeteers or magician's assistants are hidden in the darkness just behind the light. Stage lighting for other events also pulls from this technique, using lit areas to pull focus to certain areas of a stage while leaving other areas dark or dim to control what the audience sees.

Considerations

For any lighting situation, choose the theory or lighting style that suits the venue, available lighting equipment and performance needs. There is no wrong way to light a performance as long as the audience can see what you want them to see.

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