The purpose of lighting design

Illuminating action on stage

One of the most important functions of lighting design is illuminating the action on stage. Lighting is needed so that the audience can see clearly what is happening.

Conveying setting and time of day

Lighting can be used to help show the audience where the production is set. For example, a play set in a hot country may use warm, orange lighting to demonstrate that the climate is hot. Lighting can also show different times of the day. For example, bright lights can create the effect of a hot summer’s day, while lower light levels may indicate night.

Two performers are on stage within dark blue lighting to represent the night time - the window behind them is illuminated orange.
Darker blue light is used to show that it is night, contrasted against the warm lighting from ‘indoors’, in this Calderon Theatre performance of West Side Story

Creating mood and atmosphere

Lighting can help to create mood and atmosphere on stage. For example, to create a cold, damp jail cell, a lighting designer might use a cool, blue light with a low intensity.

Focusing the audience’s attention

Lighting design is particularly effective in focusing the audience’s attention. By lighting different areas of the stage, a lighting designer is able to guide the audience’s eye.

Influencing pace

Lighting can also be used to influence the pace of a piece of theatre. Lots of quick lighting cues can provide an exciting, dynamic energy to a performance, while slow fades can create a more calming effect.

Communicating themes or symbols

In some productions, lighting can be used to communicate themes or provide a symbolic dimension to a performance. For example, the colour red might be used to represent love or romance.

Supporting the style of the production

Lighting can support the style of a production. Plays in a naturalistic style often use lighting to create the illusion of real life, while non-naturalistic performances often use more theatrical lighting effects.