Jeff's Note: While most textbooks teach that there are four functions
of stage lighting, I believe there are seven:
- Visibility: If the audience can't see the
actors, everything else the lighting designer does is a
waste of time. Studies have shown that visibility
affects our ability to understand spoken speech.
This doesn't mean that the audience must see everything
all of the time; a German director named Max Reinhardt
once said that, "The art of lighting the stage consists
of putting light where you want it and taking it away
from where you don't want it."
- Mood: (or "atmosphere") "Mood" is the
evocation in the audience of the appropriate emotion.
Many designers err in paying attention to mood to the
point where visibility is sacrificed.
- Composition: The act of painting a picture, in
this case, with light.
- Plausibility: Sometimes called "realism", but
that's not always accurate, since not all plays - and
certainly very few ballets, modern dance pieces, and
operas - are realistic. It's the same quality that
Stephen Colbert refers to as "truthiness".
- Reinforcement: What are we reinforcing?
- We reinforce the playwright's text: In A
Midsummer Night's Dream, Puck has the line,
"And yonder shines Aurora's harbinger," meaning the
dawn. The lighting designer can reinforce this by providing the
first rays of dawn.
- We reinforce the work of the set and costume designers:
- We might use colors that flatter or
complement those used by our colleagues.
- If the sets and/or costumes are
sculpted and lush, we might light them so
as to highlight their 3-dimensionality.
- Revelation of Form: Decide on the level of
3-dimensionality you want the audience to see. In some
productions, you might want a "flat" look; in others –
particularly in dance – you might want a more sculpted
look. A case could be made that revelation of form is part of
composition or mood; however, it's important enough
(in some productions, at least) to be a stand alone
- Punctuation: The blackout at the end of a
climactic musical number! The slow fade to black....
- Telling the Story: Advancing the narrative, through use
of the other seven functions. Note that some productions, notably
(but not exclusively) in modern dance and ballet, do not have a
"narrative," per se.
Judy has a different list:
- Selective visibility: illumination and focus.
- Indication of time and place (and any other
realistic details necessary). (if not given in the play,
it is often a good idea to invent them.)
- Mood and atmosphere (often best conveyed
through the realistic details you have invented; these
are generally more specific and interesting than "blue
- Creation or emphasis of rhythm and punctuation.
- Heightening effect of other visual elements of the
production: set, costumes, mise en scene.
- Integrative function: brings all other aspects
of the production (dead scenery and live actors) and
unites them into one world.
- Just aesthetics - often there is a show where
you don't have much to do besides illuminate, and another
useful aim is to try and make it look prettier or more
visually striking than it would have without your lighting,
thus compelling audience attention more strongly and
heightening the theatrical experience. It might be a simple
comedy or ballet, and you might just want to frame it in
nice color or throw some gobos on the cyc.
- To aid in conveying whatever message you, the director,
the other creative artists are trying to get across.
An example might be that you're doing Othello and
the idea is to create a feeling of the evil in the world
overcoming the forces of good, so you (and the set designer
hopefully, but not always) would strengthen that impression
with light by having everything generally bright at the
start and closing in to more isolated areas with dark
outside as the play progresses.
- Helping the actors! Actors are generally happy
that the stage lighting shuts them off from the audience
in a different world, but sometimes they may need extra
help - it could be be as simple as some low-intensity light
to help them find their way in the dark.
Actors blinded by sidelights may be helped by having faint
light on the floor; this is an absolute necessity for
dancers en pointe.
Note that two designers who had never met
and who work 8,000 miles away from each other have developed
strikingly similar variations. Also note the differences;
in art, there is rarely only one correct approach. If your
instructor teaches a different list of functions and qualities
than the ones on this site, s/he is right...but so are Jeff and