Stage Lighting Then and Now

Stage Lighting Elements at a Glance

People Rehearsing On Illuminated Stage

Ole Spata/EyeEm/Getty Images

Stage lighting is too-often an underappreciated art for theatergoers. Not only does light illuminate the action you’re watching, it also directly affects the emotion and subtext of a scene. Would Romeo and Juliet be as swoon-worthy without just the right wash of romantic colors? Would Medea be as terrifying without those bloody reds washed across the stage as she enacts her vengeance? Would Streetcar be as touching in that denouement without those twilight hues?

In short, stage lighting isn’t just illumination. It is design, art, emotion, and subtext.

If you haven’t noticed stage lighting before, you may have taken the emotion it brings for granted. But once you notice it—or better yet, enter its world—you’ll notice it forever after. It’s a beautiful and often subtle and nuanced entrance into the world of stagecraft and design.

The Early Days of Stage Lighting

We’re used to a world of snazzy computers, color gels, and all sorts of electronic awesomeness, but the early days of stage performance in human history? Not so lucky. They had to be ingenious, using candles, torches, flames, and simple lighting effects to illuminate and shade the action being played out on stage.

In the early days of Greek theatre, for instance, most plays were staged in daylight, to simplify production and to take the fullest advantage of the sunshine.

But by Shakespeare’s time, even though many productions were still taking advantage of natural light through afternoon stagings, stage lighting nevertheless encompassed everything from the candles behind the footlights to the use of torches, candles, and rudimentary coverings to allow for more control of the lighting from scene to scene.

Modern Stage Lighting Elements

Today’s stage lighting tools are a heady combination of technology and creativity and truly allow designers to let their imaginations take flight. Requiring their own vocabulary of sorts, the tools of today’s lighting designers are high-tech marvels that are a far cry from the rudimentary candles and torches of old, but all accomplish the same goal—beautiful illumination for the action onstage. In the performing arts, light itself is a part of the performance, and the work of the light board operator can often feel very much like an interactive dance of sorts.

Some of the most popular lighting tools today include the following mainstays.


This basic spotlight’s name comes from its lens type. Used in conjunction with lighting gels to create innumerable colors and atmospheres on stage, Fresnel lighting is soft and rich and provides most of the ‘fill’ in stage lighting.

Ellipsoidal Spotlight, or Leko

When I was learning lighting design, these were typically ‘Lekos,’ although the term is now used less frequently. These lamps are versatile and able to be highly controlled—a Leko is the butter to a Fresnel’s bread. Lekos provide a harder-edged, stronger light whose beams can be easily manipulated or changed with shutters, gobos (cut out shapes and patterns), and more. Your basic stage lighting setup is usually accomplished with a mixture of Fresnels and Ellipsoidal spots.

Follow Spot

Follow spots are large, oversized, separate, and expensive spotlights. Very expensive. They’re generally run by a spot operator whose sole job is to maintain, point, and focus the spotlight.

PAR Lamp (or “PAR Can”)

The "PAR" in PAR Lamp stands for "parabolic aluminized reflector," and it's a simple, inexpensive, and popular flood light for concerts or touring. You can actually buy complementary fixtures for PAR lamps at home warehouse or supply stores, and it’s often called a "PAR Can" because in some cases the 'can' around a PAR lamp actually is ... a can. So adding one to your setup can be a simple procedure—slap it in the can, clip on a gel, hang or clamp it, you name it.

Beam Projector

A beam projector is a lensless reflective lamp with a tight, focused beam that is often used to create a hard, dramatic wash of light from above the performer.

Ellipsoidal Reflector Floodlights (Scoops) and Box Floods

These floodlights are typically used to light the backdrop, to provide broad washes, or to illuminate scenic elements on stage.

Striplights, or Lighting Strips

These rows of lighting elements are typically used to light backdrops, scrims, and cycloramas, and are often wired into multiple circuits for greater dimmer control from the light board. Today, LED strip lights are becoming increasingly popular, as they use less power, but they’re also not as powerful in strength.

No matter what you call them, put all these elements together, and your production will truly shine!