Friday, September 30, 2011


Theatrical lighting enhances stage performances in many different ways. Through the use of colors and intensity, good lighting can set a mood, it directs attention to-or away from- a certain performer or place on the stage, it can take the place of scenery, mark the passing of time, or even be used to enhance the action onstage, or move a plot along.

Lighting can make or break a performance, turning an average piece into something special, or even turning a beautiful and technically perfect dance piece into something mundane- or worse, something that cannot even be seen!

Lighting technicians used to change the moods onstage manually, but nowadays, many theaters are equipped with computerized lighting boards that can be programmed to change in a split second.

While not all dancers regularly perform in a proper theater with state-of-the-art lighting, it is still a good idea to be familiar with some working knowledge of theatrical lighting.

Have you ever experienced this all-too-familiar exchange?

Question: “What kind of lighting would you like for your piece?”
Dancer: “ Um…. I’m not sure…?”

With a little bit of know how, you will be able to decide exactly what sort of lighting you would like for your dance piece, lighting that will enhance your performance and make you look beautiful…or menacing, innocent, young, old, remote, friendly and accessible or even as grotesque as you want!

While this is by no stretch of the imagination any sort of complete guide, it’s a quick 'n' dirty, easily memorized guide to the basics of theatrical lighting.

House Lights
These refer to the lights in the actual theater, not the lights on the stage. The house lights illuminate the entire audience area, and can include everything from chandeliers to sconces on the walls, and the runner lights on the floor that illuminate the walk ways and aisles. House lights are often controlled by the theater’s lighting designer, and can be dimmed or brought up before and after the performance, as well as during intermission.

Work Lights
Work lights refer to the lights that are on ( both onstage and in the house) for the cast and crew to work by during a rehearsal or tech-check, while the theatrical lights for the performance are being set up.

Spot Lights
There are many different varieties of spotlights, but they all have one thing in common: they focus an intense beam of light directly onto a performer or place on the stage. A follow spot is mounted on a moveable base, so it can literally follow a performer around the stage, continuously illuminating the individual. A pin spot directs a very narrow beam of light onto a person or place on stage.

Fill Lights
Fill lights and side fills are supplementary lights, usually used to lighten up the shadows cast across the performer’s features.

Accent Lights
The type of lighting used to accent a person or a place on stage, to make it stand out. Accent lighting may be done with colors or with intensity- a spotlight is basically an accent light.

Black Out
This term refers to a total absence of lighting on stage. Many performances begin and end in a black out, while the cast members walk on and off stage. There should ideally be a small mark on the floor done in glow-tape or fluorescent paint at center stage, so it can be seen it in the dark and help performers get their bearings as they step into place. Whenever possible, have a stage hand or the lighting tech make a separate mark on the floor for you if you are beginning in place on stage anywhere other than center.


A “wash” refers to the mix of lights being used onstage at any given time.


A gel is the thin sheet set across the front of light to alter the color of the light. Nowadays, gels are commonly made of plastic, but “back in the day” they were originally made of gelatin (from animal tissue) hence the name.

A Gobo is a generic term for any sort of opaque object placed in front of a light to block a portion of the beam, or the entire beam of light.

A Gobo with any sort of design cut into the surface. When placed in front of a beam of light, the patterned Gobo projects the design onto the stage.

Colors of lights and/or gels, and the effects they will have on skin tones, make up and costumes:

Black Light/ UV Light
Black light, UV, or Ultra Violet light, this is a bluish- purple light used for theatrical effects, and will highlight white or fluorescent-colored costumes and props, such as hula hoops or juggling clubs.
Black light is often used for psychedelic effects at parties and nightclubs. Aside from the fact that it makes almost any skin tone appear lavender to dark purple, it also evens out the skin and makes it appear flawless, and makes teeth appear glowing white, which is why so many “gentlemen’s clubs” use UV lighting. However, black light or UV light onstage is so unnatural and unusual, that on a stage, it should be used judiciously, for special effects only.


Non- UV Lighting in the violet family will cause any sort of warm color to appear redder, and will make yellows and greens turn brown and muddy. Red colored make up used on the performer’s face will look very deep and unnatural, and sometimes black. Shadows under facial features (like cheek bones) will also appear dark gray or black.

Deep purple lighting effects makeup and costumes in the same way violet lighting does, only even more intensely. Any costume or prop in with blue coloring will appear violet.


Less intense than purple or violet, a soft lavender light will make the performer appear lifelike, but with a slightly cooler cast to the tone of the flesh.

Though an intense color on its own, careful use of magenta lighting can actually look rosy and romantic when used an accent color onstage.

Straight up pink lighting will intensify warmer colors and gray down cooler colors. For example, a lemon yellow costume will appear almost orange, and a royal blue costume may appear to be dark purple, black or gray. Red or pink lipstick or blush will appear intensified and doll-like.

Light Pink or Peach
This rich, warm color flatters most theatrical makeup, and mixed in with whites, will bring a softer look to a bright stage.

Used on it’s own, red lighting will either wash out or muddy up almost any color of costume, and plays horrendous tricks with stage makeup. On the face, everything but the darkest color of make up pretty much vanishes…. in other words, you will look like a corpse! Light and medium rouges fade into the performer’s foundation make-up, whereas dark red rouges turn a rusty brown. Yellows will become orange, and the cool shaded colors turn dreary shades of gray and black.

Orange or golden-toned light will make most flesh colors turn sallow. It will also turn colors in the red or pink family even more orange. Cool colors- blues, greens, purples, will be grayed and won’t stay true.

This color is pretty much universally flattering, because it warms the skin and picks up the lively pinks and flesh tones in almost any sort of theatrical makeup, making the performer appear healthy and “life-like”.

Bastard Amber

This is a warm pinkish-golden tone that is commonly employed onstage to mimic daylight- it adds a rich,robust tone to almost any shade of skin or any kind of stage make-up, and costume colors appear bright and true. And really is called Bastard Amber!

Yellow lighting on it’s own makes most skin tones appear sallow and sickly, and can wreak havoc on almost any color used in costuming or back drops.

Another color to be careful of using too much of onstage is green. It can make performers look sick…or just plain weird! Green lighting will make all flesh tones appear white and/or gray, and reds or pinks will appear black in proportion to the intensity of the green light. Any props, sets or make up that is already green in color will be intensified, blues will become greener and yellows will appear light green.

Used by itself, blue-toned lighting will definitely gray most flesh tones and cause them to appear more red or purple, again giving a zombie-like appearance to performers. As a special effect blue light can be very interesting, but use blue lighting with caution, and as an accent, for lighting that will highlight the performers themselves.

Almost all colors in the spectrum tend to stay true under white lighting, as do metallics and mixed neon brights, or costumes with patterned fabric. Any sort of shiny trim or sparkling stones will gleam and twinkle insanely and supernaturally.

Though pretty much any color costume will look great under white lights, unless you mix in other colors in a wash with the white lights, most skin-tones may appear ashy or extremely pale and facial features- no matter what the age of the performer- will look rather harsh.

If you are unsure of what sort of lighting effects to ask for, or there is a limited amount of lighting in the venue, a nice, bright stage with a mixed wash of whites, pinks and ambers is a safe bet.

It will compliment any performer’s skin tone and show the true colors of costumes, props, sets and backdrops. These colors used together will warm up and soften white lights, and make the performers on stage look life-like and animated without looking harsh. A stage lit like this will also allow the audience’s eyes to take in a performance without being distracted.

Photo: Princess Farhana basking in a spot light, during Hollywood Music Center's "Soul Of Bellydance" DVD shoot


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  2. Great article! Now I know what to ask for to avoid the super bright "alien abduction" lighting I usually end up with!

  3. very nice article but I am still confused, my costume s red and black and I m still not sure what colour of lights I should use, any suggestions ? thank u!!

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