Lighting design: the process

Last week I asked Elizabeth Rand, who is a lighting designer, theatre manager, and author of several books on lighting and high school technical theatre, if she’d like to do a guest post here. I was delighted when she agreed, and here it is.

Lighting design: the process

Following is roughly the process you would go through as a lighting designer. It’s not always in this order, and it may include other steps, but the process is fairly universal. So, here we go…

Obtain a copy of the script

  • Perform a script analysis: Read the script. Note possible cues, black outs, etc. that dialog and stage directions in the script call for. The script “tells” you how and what to design. For instance, stage directions might indicate that a character turns a light on or off, where the scene is set (a living room, a forest, an office interior, etc), when the scene is set (day time, night time, sunrise, etc), and the mood of the scene (dark and scary, joyous and bright, sad and gloomy, etc).

Meet with the director and the rest of the design team         

  • Meet with the Director to discuss his/her concepts and visions for the play.  Meet with the design team to find out what the set and costumes will look like, and what colors are being used.  The set will also “tell” you what to design, and the set and costume colors will “tell” you what color palette to use.

Watch a run-through rehearsal

  • Make notes in the script (in pencil!) of possible cues and blackouts.
  • While you are watching the run-through, think about:
    • Location: inside, outside, in a living room, in a circus tent, in the forest, on the street?
    • Time(s) of day (what color is the light, from what angle does it come).
    • Do you need specials: where do the actors move, does one or more actors or a part of the set need to be isolated, is there a dream sequence or other motivation for non-realistic lighting? The blocking also “tells” you how to design the show.
    • When do the cues happen, how fast should they happen; a slow fade or a bump.
    • What is the motivation for each cue.
    • How bright should each individual area, special and/or cue be.
    • Where (from what angle) should the light come from; what is the motivating factor?
    • What color should the light be and why: what color is the light in a forest, in a living room, in an office. (Start to notice these things in your daily life.)

Draft the plot

  • Make several copies of your light plot (always keep an original).
  • Think about all the instruments you will need to achieve the above objectives.
  • Make adjustments and compensations for dimmer and circuit capacity and instrument inventory.
  • Make at least two copies of your plot for hang and focus, keep your original elsewhere.

Write up the patch and dimmer schedule

  • Transfer the information on your light plot to your patch schedule and dimmer schedule; area or special, dimmer number, circuit number, number of instruments, gel color, etc.
  • Make at least two copies of your schedules for hang and focus and for your script binder, keep your original elsewhere.

Hang and focus

  • Hang the lights as per your plot, and call the focus.

First tech rehearsal

  • Design each cue as the actors run through the play.
  • This rehearsal is for you, not for the actors, so feel free to stop them at any time in order to get a cue designed and recorded.
  • If it’s done right the first time, it will speed up subsequent techs.
  • The Board Operator records what each cue is on his/her cue sheets or on the computer, and the Stage Manager records when each cue happens on his/her script.
  • Allow about two times the expected length of the play for this first tech rehearsal (sometimes more!).
  • Each cue should be numbered in sequence.

Re-draft and re-hang

  • Sometimes it is necessary to move, add, or delete some instruments.
  • Re-draft your plot, re-write your schedules, re-hang and/or re-focus.

Tech and dress rehearsals

  • Make adjustments to your cues (the look and the timing) as you see fit.
  • The Stage Manager should add Standbys (and Warnings as needed) in his/her script.
  • Have the Stage Manager and crew follow the Pre- and Post-Show checklist for all techs and performances.

Attend opening night

  • Attend the opening night as an audience member to make sure everything is running smoothly.

You can read more about Elizabeth and her work on her website, at, and you can find several of her books right here in my amazon store.