An Approach to Lighting Design


J. Michael Gillette. Theatrical Design and Production, 4th edition. Mountain View, CA: Mayfield Publishing Company. 1999. Chapter 12: Lighting Design
Stanley McCandless. A Method of Lighting the Stage, 4th edition. New York: Theatre Arts Books. 1932 - 1958.

My approach to lighting design is based on Stanley McCandless' (1897-1967) method of lighting the stage. McCandless, one of the first teachers to offer a college level course in Stage Lighting was a professor at Yale University from 1925 through 1964. There are four steps to the McCandless' method:

  1. Lighting the Acting Area
  2. Blending and Toning the acting areas
  3. Lighting the Background and
  4. Creating Special Effects
His two major works, A Method of Lighting the Stage and A Syllabus of Stage Lighting were originally published in the 1930s.

Acting Areas

1. What is an acting area? A lighting area?
Acting areas are "those spaces on the stage where specific scenes are played." (Gillette, pg 301). The shape and size of the acting area (or areas), is determined by the scene designer's setting and the director's blocking. The entire stage space may be one large acting area (as in a Neil Simon comedy, for example) or divided into numerous small acting areas (as in Tennessee William's Streetcar Named Desire, Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman or any of Shakespeare's tragedies).

A lighting area is a small section or portion of the total acting space. Each lighting area is "a cylindrical space approximately eight to twelve feet in diameter and seven feet tall." (Gillette, page 301) Typically, the size of a lighting area is determined by the size of the pool of light produced by one instrument.

Although there is a clear distinction between a lighting area and an acting area, I, like many teachers and designers, use the terms interchangeably.

2. What is the function of the acting area lights?

Acting area lights illuminate (make visible) the performers face and, by varying the intensity between the areas, helps focus the audience's attention.

3. How many acting areas are normally used for a small production?

The number of lighting areas depends on the size of the stage. Small productions on a small stage (24' wide x12' deep) generally use six areas. Larger works on larger stages (36' x24') may use up to fifteen.

I used 8 "lighting areas" in Northern's production of Fiddler on the Roof. -- 4 down stage under the first electric and 4 mid stage under the second electric.

    Where are they usually located?

With a six area system, three are down stage and three are up stage.

4. How many instruments should be used to light each acting area?

Two (or more). Stanley McCandless' original system (Yale University: 1932) used only two lights. Depending on the amount of equipment available, I tend to use between two and four lights per area.

5. Where should they be placed?

Following McCandless' theory, both lights should be mounted above, in front of, and to the left and right of the performer. The three down stage areas are usually lit by six lamps ( Ellipsoidals ) hung in the Ceiling Cove; the three up stage areas are lit by six units ( Fresnels ) hung on the First Electric. A total of 12 lights for six areas.

A Basic McCandless Plot

6. What colors are traditionally used to light the actor?

McCandless believed that one of the two lamps should be gelled in a warm color (R01: Bastard Amber) and the other in cool color (R63: Pale Blue). I, like most designers today, would gel both units in the same color (R02: Bastard Amber) or in two similar colors (R33: No Color Pink from SL and R02: Bastard Amber from SR). If I was designing a musical I would either create a "double hung" area system -- six warm areas (12 lamps) and six cool areas (12 lamps) -- or I would add a cool front wash.

7. What is the difference between a "Key light" and a "Fill light?"

The Key Light establishes the high lights; the Fill Light controls the color and depth of the shadow area. The Key / Fill relationship can be established by either a difference in color or intensity. The Key Light is the brighter or the warmer of the two units.

8. What is the Lighting Key?

The lighting key is a drawing indicating the direction and color of each instrument lighting the acting area. The key on the left is from the summer 2005 ACT production of Annie Get Your Gun. Each acting area was lit from the front and back in both pink (R33: No Color Pink [front] and R34: Flesh Pink [back]) and blue (R68: Sky Blue [front] and R80: Primary Blue [back]) and from the side in white (no color). The four front lights would be considered acting area lights and the two back and two side lights would be toning and blending units.

Toning and Blending

9. What is the function of toning and blending lights?

To blend the pools of acting area light and to add a layer of more intense color to tone the costumes and setting. Toning and blending lights can be used to both reveal the actor's form and separate him from the background.

10. What "patterns of light" do I use to tone and blend the stage?

I use combinations of front, side, and back/down washes to tone and blend the acting areas. A typical layout might include 2 circuits of down light and pipe ends left and right.

The eight 8" Fresnels in the center of the pipe would provide a two color soft edged wash of down light. The two 6" Ellipsoidals hung at the ends of the pipe could be gelled in a third color.

11. What is a wash?

According to Jean Rosenthal, the "mother" of lighting design, a wash bathes a section of the stage with an "even field of light using a circuit of two or more lamps." (The Magic of Light, page 178)

12. How many different colors of toning and blending lights are usually used?

Usually two, a warm (pink, yellow or amber) and a cool (blue). Often a third color, a neutral (lavender or white) will be added.

In the above drawing, I have added 12 toning and blending back light lights (6 warm and 6 cool) on the 2nd and 3rd Pipe to the basic 12 lamp McCandless plot.

I used five systems of toning and blending lights in Northern's production of Fiddler on the Roof

  1. A four lamp front wash in R67: Light Sky Blue
  2. A six lamp high side wash in R55: Lilac from stage left (3 lamps) and stage right (3 lamps)
  3. A six lamp head high side wash in White from stage left (3 lamps) and stage right (3 lamps)
  4. A six lamp head high side wash in R65: Daylight blue from stage left (3 lamps) and stage right (3 lamps)
  5. A four lamp down wash in R121: Blue Diffusion and


13. What is a special?

In a way, any instrument which is not an acting area light, a toning and blending light, or a background light is a special. Generally a special is used to create a tight pool of light to isolate a specific moment in the play, emphasize an important entrance, or provide a shaft of sun light (or moon light) through a window.

There were five specials in Fiddler on the Roof

  1. Moon Box
  2. Sun Box
  3. DC Pool
  4. Fiddler's Special (UR)
  5. Taylor Shop area (UL)

14. What is the difference between a motivating light, and a motivated light?

The motivating light is the practical, or fixture, which is "illuminating" the scene. The motivated light is the theatrical unit (or units) which actually light the actor. The Ellipsoidal mounted outside a window to produce a beam of sunlight is a motivated light.

The floor lamp, wall sconce, or chandelier is a motivating light. Both motivating and motivated lights are considered specials.

15. Can a major dramatic scene be played only under the motivating or motivated light?

No. Both motivating and motivated light create interesting, and often revealing, compositions, but they tend not to provide enought light on the actor's face to satisfy either the director or an audience. Generally the specials are reinforced with a little front light from the acting area units or perhaps a more tightly focused front special..

16. What is a fixture, or practical?

A fixture is the on-stage motivating light. It can be a floor lamp, desk lamp, wall sconce, or chandelier. It can also be an oil lamp or candle.

17. Why should they be controlled through the switch board?

Normally every fixture (motivating light) has at least one theatrical unit (motivated light) to create the dramatic effect. If the practical is turned on in a Light Q, at least three channels will move: (1) the fixture, (2) the special area, and (3) the associated front area light.


18. What is a backing light?

A small light placed behind (or off-stage of) a door or window unit and used to light the scenic backing.

19. What instrument is normally used to light a backing?

In the academic and community theatres, the usual instrument is the 6" PARCan with a 150 watt lamp. I have also used clip-on reflector lights (with a 60 to 100 watt lamp) which I have purchased at Menards.

20. Briefly describe how to light a window backing?

I would use three lights per window. Two floodlights (Scoops) mounted near the top of the flat to light the Sky Cyc and a spotlight (an Ellipsoidal or Fresnel) hung off stage and focused through the window to provide a shaft of sunlight or moonlight. Obviously it would require 6 units, 4 scoops and 2 spotlights, if there was both a day and night scene.

21. What lighting instruments are used to light the sky cyc?

Either Scoops (4 to 6 units per color), Border lights (40 feet -- 5- 8' strips), or Cyc lights (4 sections).

I used seven Scoops, 4 in R121: Blue Diffusion and 3 in R123: Amber Diffusion, to light the back drop in Fiddler on the Roof.

22. Why should it be lit from both the top and the bottom?

If the drop is lit with Scoops or Border lights, and the designer wants an even wash across the sheet, it is necessary to light it from both the top and the bottom. Also, if the drop is lit from both the top and the bottom, it is possible to create a sunrise effect.

23. How many different colors are normally used to light the sky cyc?

Three. Why? Because strip lights are traditionally wired with three circuits.

24. What specific colors are commonly used?

For realistic productions of drama, opera, musicals and dance the Sky Cyc is often lit with three different shades of blue-- A dark blue (R80: Primary Blue), a middle blue (R68: Sky Blue) and a no color blue (R63: Pale Blue). If the designer was forced to use only two circuits, I would gel one in dark blue (R80) and leave the other circuit white. I used blue and amber in Fiddler... because the director wanted an orange sky for the day scenes.

Abstract non-realistic productions, such as modern dance, often light the cyc with the three primaries: red, blue and green.

In the above drawing, I have added 8 cyc lights on the 4th Pipe to the revised 24 lamp McCandless plot from question 12. The design now includes 32 units...

  1. 12 front acting area lights (Left. Center, Right) in the Cove and 1st Pipe
  2. 12 back toning and blending lights (Warm, Cool) on the 2nd and 3rd Pipe, and
  3. 8 background lights (Nite, Day) on the 4th Pipe

Although McCandless' approach was initally developed approximately 70 years ago for the staging of realistic drama within a realistic "box" set in an intimate theatre with a ceiling cove for its primary front-of-house mounting position, much of McCandless' Method can still be applied to lighting the arena theatre, the musical, the dance, and even the concert stage.

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Revised: December 1, 2008
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