The Importance of Stage Lighting in a Theater

Updated: Sep 16

You’ve just left the theater and you ask your friend how they liked the show. They'll probably comment on the show’s length, actors’ performances, plot line, maybe even costume design– but they didn’t mention the stage lighting, right?

Stage lighting is one of the few factors in a live performance that is expected to always be on point, as if a robot automatically sets it based on the specific scene (well, technically it is but a human designed and set the cues). We don’t consciously notice the stage lighting unless there’s malfunction (or if we work in the industry, which is probably why you’re reading this). The point is, stage lighting is just as important as the performance itself. And here's few reasons why:


Directs the Audience's Focus


We can be easily distracted by our surroundings. At a live event, our eyes can begin wandering to the other audience members, the ushers walking up and down the aisles, the stage crew setting up the props. Just about anything that moves can steal our attention. So, what will direct our focus to what’s important?

You’ve guessed it— stage lighting. When an event is taking place and you want your audience’s attention on the something specific, direct them with stage lighting. Proper stage lighting can dim out the other aspects of the theater or stage and put a focus solely on where the show really is. But it’s not that simple. It takes the right training and equipment to do so. Let’s take a look at the example below:



Do you see how in the image on the left, all of the actors on stage are lit the exact same way? The conversation is taking place on the right side of the stage but there is no focal point to show that. On the contrary, the image on the right shows you exactly who's talking and where to focus because the lighting does the focusing for you.


Poor stage lighting distracts the audience from the scene's message. Unlike tv shows or movies where the viewers only see what the lens shows, the audience of a live performance is free to look around. It is the lighting designer's job to guide the audience's focus to the important moments on stage.


Sets the Mood


The color and brightness of lighting affects our overall mood and how we perceive what's in front of us. That's why we like candles at our dinner tables, white walls in our bathrooms, and bright LEDs in our classrooms. Warm lighting makes an environment feel more relaxing while cooler lighting can stimulate it. The same goes for a live performance.

Setting the mood is one of the most important functions of stage lighting because it assists in the emotional reality of the performance. The goal is to make the audience feel the emotions of the scene. Darker colors (red, grey) can portray a sad, somber scene while brighter colors (white, yellow, green) can portray a celebration. Even before the performance begins, you want your audience to be set to the mood you are in control of.

Do you feel a difference when looking at these two images?


Establishes the Setting


Just how the brightness and color of stage lighting alter the emotional reality, they also help distinguish the physical reality of the scene's location and time. With the right color and brightness setting, the lighting designer can give off the effect that the is scene indoors or outdoors, daytime or nighttime, sunset or sunrise, etc.


Award-winning set and production designer, Wilson Chin, shows us exactly how to do it below:


Cool tones, like blues and greens, help portray nighttime. In this example, a blue "moonlight" is casting through the "skylight" into a dark living room set.


From a stage lighting perspective, it's just a blue spotlight casting at an angle.




Warmer tones, like yellows and oranges, help portray daylight or natural lighting. In this photo, the entire scene is lit with a yellowish light to portray a natural, outdoor sunlight.


From a stage lighting perspective, it's full-stage lighting set to white/yellow.




Another moonlight representation but done differently. In this example, the white light "comes from" the streetlight and the light from the moon seeps through the trees. We know this is set to nighttime due to the darkness of the background contrasting with the spotlight of the streetlights.



All things considered, it's the little things that make the big picture. Behind every performance are the hundreds of tiny details that make the show whole. Without proper stage lighting, a performance would not have the same effect visually, emotionally, and physically.


For questions on how to properly light your theater, contact us.


Setting photos from wilsonchin.com/projects