Sets, Lights, Sound, Costumes, Props and More!

Strong design elements, even if simply done, can greatly enhance a production.  While this section is still under development, in the next few months, look for our panel of experts to roll out a massive reference guide to design and technical theatre that will help you achieve success.

Scenic Design A-Z

Multiple Ovation Award-winning scenic designer Tom Buderwitz answers questions for designers and producers alike.

What is the job description of a Scenic Designer?

The Scenic Designer is responsible for developing the overall look of the stage environment and working with the director to establish an overall aesthetic concept from which to proceed.

What are the requirements of a Scenic Designer?

The Scenic Designer will make an initial presentation outlining in general the scale and scope of the design. It is common for this stage to include a series of rough sketches or renderings and a basic ground plan. After the initial presentation has been made, the designer will revise the design as needed. Scaled models and/or color renderings are commonly used to convey detailed design ideas. Once the design is accepted, the designer is then responsible for developing a complete set of design drawings. The designer will be expected to supply a basic ground plan showing all stationary scenic elements, a composite ground plan showing all moving scenic elements indicating both their onstage and storage positions, a section of the stage space incorporating all elements, front elevations of every scenic element, additional elevations and/or sections of units that may require them.

It is the responsibility of the designer to meet with the technical director, conveying all the information necessary for him/her to execute the design. The designer should be attempting to work within a given set budget during the design phase. If it is determined that the design is over budget, it is the designer’s responsibility, in conjunction with the producer, director, and TD to modify elements of the design until it meets the budget guidelines set by the producer and to provide updated drawings. In addition to being reasonably available to the TD in order to answer questions that may arise, the designer is responsible for following the progress of the set construction to be sure it conforms accurately to the design. If changes are required for any reason it is the responsibility of the designer to provide whatever drawings are needed to convey the necessary information to the TD. It is also the responsibility of the designer to provide paint elevations for the painting staff.

In addition, the designer will be required to attend rehearsals as needed. This will most often entail only specific run-throughs designated for this purpose. The designer will be required to attend load-in calls and technical/dress rehearsals as necessary to ensure the scenic elements are installed properly and are functioning within the show as intended. The extent of this requirement will vary from show to show and will be established by the director and the producer.

Integrates requirements including:

  • Reads and Analyzes script: Reads script to determine location, set, or decoration requirements, keeping in mind themes, metaphor and overall visual aesthetic.
  • Compiles visual research, researches architectural and furnishing styles to depict given periods or locations.
  • Confers with heads of production and direction to establish budget, schedules, and discuss design ideas.
  • Complete design ideas and prepare sketches, illustrations, and detailed drawings of sets, and or graphics.
  • Designs and builds scale models of set design.
  • Designs within budget (estimates costs of design materials and construction, and/or rental of set dressing).
  • Presents drawings for approval (and makes changes and corrections as directed).
  • Prepares rough draft and scale working drawings of sets, including floor plans, scenery, and properties to be constructed.
  • Selects decorative/detail items such as: furniture, draperies, pictures, lamps, and rugs for quality and appearance.
  • Directs and coordinates set construction, installation, or decoration activities to ensure conformance to design, budget, and schedule requirements.

Where does one find a Scenic Designer?

United Scenic Artists (USA 829) is the national union for Stage Designers. There are direct links to all types of theatrical Designers and their websites for online portfolios. Also information about fees, contracts, obligations and rights are also available here.

What is a typical timetable process for the design?

At the very minimum, a designer should be given 4 weeks to design. This means doing research, sketches, models and finally detailed drawings for construction / load-in. For a large show like a multi-set musical, 8-14 plus weeks is more necessary.

What is important in collaborating with the director?

This is a most important relationship. It is best if the designer and director begin solely with discussions of the play, the text, the larger metaphors or themes within the story and then slowly work towards the physical needs of the text. The designer is processing and developing the director's vision for production and not imposing his own mark. The designer must make sure to give director and actors ability to have discovery in their process. The designer and director keep in constant communication throughout the design, rehearsal and technical process.

Collaborating with the other designers (to what extent is it necessary, for example):

It is very necessary to collaborate with all of the other designers. Usually, costumes first, then lights and sound. It is very important to consider how do actors look, move and interact with the set. The designer needs to make sure all of the colors are compatible. Designer needs to make sure that the set can be lit properly. Are the given lighting positions available and clear? Can sound be integrated? Does the entire visual and aural world seem cohesive and connected?

What are some design safety issues?

The scenic designer is not an engineer but must understand safety and must defer to issues of “safety first” always. The designer must understand architectural standards such as step heights, railing heights, doorway opening clearances. The designer must never put the actors in danger or harm's way, and must also make sure the set meets all fire and safety codes and that audience egress is never compromised within the theater space.

What are some Do's and Don't's of set design?

Set design must follow the axiom that form follows function. The form, or look of the scenery, must come after the function, how the set works, how the set moves, how the actors move in, on and around the set. Always go back to the script to answer questions. All of the clues and answers are there. Do plenty of proper research. You can almost never have too much research. Know your period. If play is set in 1900, ask yourself: How old is the house? Who lived here previously? How long have the play’s characters lived here? No design decision is ever arbitrary. Choices are always specific and relate back to the world, the characters and the specific story. A beautiful set doesn’t mean it is the right set. Design the appropriate set for the play. Sometimes ugly is better.

What is important regarding set budgeting?

The designer must work within reasonable design budgets, and also must alert the producer (theatre) when design requests (either textual or from the director) are outside the bounds of budget. Best to look at difficult parameters as a “there are no problems only opportunities” situation. Learn to use stock sizes and materials. Lumber comes in even foot increments; design with that in mind. A designer can create the most beautiful set, but if he, or she, goes over budget, they will not likely get called to design the next show.

What are some types of materials that are best to use in set design?

A designer must be familiar with a full variety of different materials and techniques available to design from. Hard materials commonly used are lumber, steel, plastics and laminates. Soft materials commonly used are textiles, fabrics, foams and papers. A designer should be familiar with architectural ornament, digital printing, photography and upholstery. The designer should expand his imagination to think of alternate materials that might save dollars or time and labor.

In designing a season, to what extent can materials be recycled from set to set?

Try to reuse as much as possible. Try to save money for what is most important. Create with stock sizing in mind, such as 4x8 sheet goods materials. For a theatre company, keep everything that can be reused. Things that are too custom, get rid of. You won’t use them again. Don’t keep spending money building the same type of units/pieces over and over.

What is some important information for the construction and load-in process?

Make sure all drawings are comprehensive and contain details. Check the shop (vendors) as early and often as is possible. Ask questions, even if they seem redundant. Never assume anything. Establish a rapport with your technical director, the carpenters, the scenic artists and the stage crew. They are more likely to go the extra mile for you if you have been nice and respectful to them. Never assume. Check the simplest things, such as “is set on CL?” “Is it oriented upstage to downstage correctly?” Oh, and never assume anything!

Scenic design resources:

The Dramatic Imagination by Robert Edmond Jones, Theater Arts Books 1969
Towards a New Theater, the Lectures of Robert Edmond Jones, Limelight Editions, 1992
The Theatre of Robert Edmond Jones, Wesleyan University Press 1977
Designing and Painting for the Theater by Lynn Pecktal, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc. 1975
Designing and Drawing for the Theater by Lynn Pecktal, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc. 1995
Stage Design by Howard Bay, Drama Book Specialists, 1974
Contemporary Stage Design U.S.A., International Theater Institute of the United States, 1974
Designing for the Theatre, A Memoir and Portfolio by Jo Mielziner, Bramhall House, 1965
Mielziner: Master of Modern Stage Design by Mary C. Henderson, Back Stage Books 2001
The Scenography of Josef Svoboda by Jarka Burian, Wesleyan University Press 1983
American Set Design by Arnold Aronson, Theatre Communications Group 1985
American Set Design 2 by Ronn Smith, Theatre Communications Group 1991
Sculpting Space in the Theater by Babak Ebrahimian, Focal Press, 2006
The Theatre Art of Boris Aronson by Frank Rich, Alfred A. Knopf, 1987

Sound Design A-Z

Jefferson and Ovation Award-winning sound designer Lindsay Jones takes us through a sound design primer for prospective producers and designers alike:

What is a basic job description for a sound designer?

The simplest answer is that a sound designer is responsible for everything that the audience hears in the theatre. It can involve creating or selecting any sound effects, voiceovers or music heard in the show, and it can involve selecting the gear that the audience will hear the show through. If you're doing a musical, it can also mean miking the actors and the musicians so that they can be heard properly. It also means that you are responsible for the overall mix of the show that the audience will hear.

What are the most important Do's and Don't's of sound design?

The most important thing to remember about the use of music and sound in a show is that they frequently provide the emotional context and atmosphere for the show. So when you're putting that together, try to keep in mind two basic rules:

  1. Stay true to the moment.  Don't put your favorite piece of music in a moment of the show because of what it means to you personally. What you choose has to apply in a universal sense to everyone experiencing the show.  Try to remain objective in viewing each moment of the show, and look for the best thing for that moment, rather than something that you've always liked.
  2. Try to avoid pieces of music or sound that are very popular or a cliche.  The tricky part of choosing things is trying to make sure that you pick things that don't already have a context that will supercede the context you're trying to create. You may really love the song "YMCA," but because that song is so popular, when people hear it, they may go to their own memories about that song, rather than pay attention to the moment onstage where you're trying to get them to focus. Look for songs that have the emotional context that you're looking for, but will still be a fresh experience for the majority of your audience.


What is an acceptable, basic sound package at a theater?

To my mind, a theatre that is solely doing straight plays needs at a minimum the following things:

  • an 8-channel mixing console
  • 2 larger speakers to use as the main source of sound (and a power amp for those speakers)
  • 2 smaller speakers to use as onstage practical speakers (and a power amp for those speakers)
  • a playback source with a minimum of 2 separate stereo outputs (either 2 CD players or a computer that is dedicated to sound)

2 other things that you do not have to have but that I strongly recommend are:

  • 2 additional speakers that can be used for surround sound (and a power amp for those speakers)
  • a Telecue or voltage-generator device (which is a device designed to make a phone sound like its ringing without anyone having to actually call the phone)

If you're planning on doing a musical, there's a whole other level to equipment that you have to get, and it's not cheap, so be prepared for this if you're planning to do one.

  • Probably a wireless mic for each actor (or at least each actor who is singing in a non-choral role)
  • Mics and/or DI boxes for each instrument of the orchestra
  • Various speakers for monitoring for both orchestra and actors

It gets somewhat complicated, so you should really look for help from a professional designer to help clarify things further.

What are the differences between designing for a musical vs. a straight play?

The biggest difference is that, in a straight play, you're looking to use previously recorded elements to support the play, whereas in a musical, you're mostly attempting to amplify and mix the live elements in the show to support those performances. In a straight play, you're preparing a lot of elements in advance so that they're ready to go once you get to tech, whereas in a musical, you're preparing a lot of equipment in advance, and doing most of the work during the performance itself.

Should you rent or buy your equipment?

If you can buy it, buy it. Renting usually costs about 1/2 to 3/4 of buying, and once you do more than two shows with the same equipment, you're now losing money on the proposition. If you can, consult with a sound professional about the sound equipment that you're looking for, and please don't buy something just because it's really cheap. You'll just ending up paying for it later.

Running Sound on a CD vs. a Computer

The bottom line is that CDs are on their way out. If there's anything that I've learned about technology, it's that once something starts to fade, the support for it becomes incredibly hard to find and incredibly expensive to get. Computer playback programs are incredibly reliable and relatively inexpensive, once you look at what they can do.

If you have to use CDs, make sure that you get a CD player that has an auto-pause feature. Most home CD players do not have this feature, but many decks that are built for DJ work do. Auto-pause allows you to play a single track on a CD and then cues itself up for the next track.

If you're buying a computer for sound playback, remember that you're actually going to be purchasing the following items:

  • a computer (which should have decent specs to run what you need it run)
  • a multi-channel sound card
  • the playback software that will run your sound cues
  • cables to connect the sound card to the mixing console
  • keyboard, monitor and mouse

If you can also have a 100' CAT 5 cable in house, this will allow the sound designer to network to the sound computer from their computer, and they can set levels from the audience perspective, rather than from the booth, where the sound may not be so accurate to the audience's experience.

I know that it is really tempting to use either an older computer that you might have lying around or someone's personal laptop as your sound computer, but I am going to beg you please not to do this. When a computer plays a sound file in a show, it's actually a pretty memory intensive process, and if that computer is either filled with a lot of other stuff or is an older machine with outdated specs, you run the risk of the machine failing during the show, which is something that you really do not want. If you can, please try to get a newer machine and just install the programs you need to run your show. You'll thank me later, I promise you.

How do you decide whether to create/compose a sound/song vs. license something that already exists?

It varies a lot, but the general rule of thumb that I use is if it already exists, and it works, then use it. If it doesn't exist, then you have to create it. Money always plays a factor in this decision, however, so ask yourself up front if you have the money you need to license material or pay for musicians to play your composed pieces.

Recommended Resource Sites for Sound Effects and Music

For sound effects and music, I frequently use or, as they have a very large selection of high quality clips for use in your show.

Music Rights

In general, if you want to use a piece of music in a show,  unless the music is in the public domain, you should ask for the permission and rights to use this piece. This requires you to discover who wrote the song, and what publishing company owns the rights to that song. It takes a little research, but once you have that information, you can approach ASCAP or BMI to help you contact the people you need to contact to get the permission you need to use the song in your show. Be patient. The truth is that these organizations are generally understaffed in this area, and are not really set up to handle requests from smaller organizations. But pursue them anyway so that you're legally covered when you use other people's music.

Pre-Show Music

You should generally have about 45 minutes of preshow music. The idea is that you have enough music to cover from the time that the house opens at half hour and can go up to 15 minutes past show time, in case the house holds for latecomers.

The thing to remember about preshow is that you're trying to set an environment that will prepare the audience for the show that they're about to see. The biggest misconception that people have about preshow music is that any music will do, as long as it's "background music." I could not disagree more strongly with this notion. My job is to provide music and sound that will convey a specific meaning for their experience. If you choose any random music for the preshow, then all you're doing is instructing the audience not to look for the music to contain any meaning, which is the EXACT OPPOSITE of what you want them to do once the show starts. The other common mistake that I see people making is that they select music based on lyrical content, where the words will inform the audience about the show that they're going to see. The truth is that people really don't pay enough attention to the music in this setting to receive this information, and when you choose music based on lyrics rather than on musical genre, you again run the risk of it all feeling a little random.

Instead, try to focus on creating a mood or environment that is consistent with the play, but also make sure that the preshow music does not eclipse the music that you'll be using in the show. For example, if I'm designing a play where the music that will be used is fully orchestrated versions of Noel Coward songs, then I might select as my preshow music to be Cole Porter songs played on a single piano. In this case, Cole Porter's music is similar to Noel Coward, but they won't be the same songs so the play's music won't feel redundant, and the piano versions will allow the play to sound like it's taking a step up in sound once the orchestral music begins.

What's the timetable for sound design? How much time should be allotted in the space?

This varies a lot by show and designer, but generally speaking, you want to first meet with the designer a couple of months before you begin rehearsal to plan out the show. Then, maybe check back in with them as you're starting rehearsal and maybe have the sound designer come to the first read-through of the play. They should come back towards the end of your rehearsal process to watch a full run-through of the show, and then you should meet with them again to confirm the plans for the show. The sound designer will need a little time in the space to set the sound levels, and then you will tech and open the show with them.

Roughly how much should one budget for sound design?

This is probably the toughest question to answer because literally every situation is different and no two shows ever have the same requirements.  That being said, I would say that whatever you have set aside as a lighting budget is probably very similar to what your sound budget should be. When in doubt, ask a sound professional what they think they'll need. I promise that they will tell you.  (See also the section on budget for some samples.)

Could you show us a sample cue sheet?

Click on this link for a sample cue sheet Lindsay created!
Mine is in a format that I made up myself a long time ago. From left to right, you'll see the first column is the cue number, the next column is a short description of what it is, next is where the sound is being played back from (you'll see I've either specified SFX, which is a computer sound playback program, or Telecue, for phone rings). The next column is where the sound will be heard by the audience, then I've left a column in case I need to write down the volume level of the cue. The next column is where I specify if I need a cue's volume to be faded up, down or out, and the last column is the page number of the script where the cue appears. You'll also notice in the cue number column that a number of cues that I have that end in a .9, which is the number that I usually assign to a cue that's being faded out. You can alter this however you wish. Some people have a lot more information on their cue sheets, but I find that this format works best for me.

Lighting Design A-Z

Ovation Award-winning lighting designer K.C. Wilkerson provides a basic primer for designers and producers alike.

The Lighting Designer

The lighting designer is generally responsible for the design, installation, and cueing of the lighting for a production. That’s not to say they perform all those functions themselves; though that’s often the case in smaller theaters, so we’ll describe each one of these areas individually – and keep in mind, this is one approach.

Is there a basic lighting package for a theater?

Well, yes and no. Lighting technology has changed significantly over the years. The vast majority of designers are very dependent on the hardware to deliver what’s "in their head" to the stage. Of course, there’s no way for me to know whether your particular theater has a good basic lighting package, but I can tell you what a good package is comprised of. This won’t be an exhaustive list, and it won’t get into advanced technology – we’ll do that in a different section!

Luminaires (aka fixtures, instruments, or units)

An Ellipsoidal reflector spotlight is the name for the most commonly used fixture in theatre. It takes its name from the ellipsoidal-shaped reflector that collects and directs the light through a barrel containing a lens train. ERS instruments come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes from many different manufacturers. These fixtures are used for their bright, defined light and their versatility.

The characteristics of an ERS unit are:

  • Ellipsoidal reflector
  • Lens train
  • Two PC (Plano-Convex) lenses in the barrel which face convex sides together. The distance between these lenses along with the size of the lens determines how wide the output beam of light is. For example a 6x9 (6" Lens by 9" focal length) produces a 37-degree field angle. 6x12 instruments have a field angle of approximately 27 degrees. Field angle is the angle of the beam of light where it reaches 10% of the intensity of the center of the beam. Most manufacturers use field angle to indicate the fixture's spread typically in this series (5°, 10°, 15°, 26°, 36°, 50°, 75°, 90°). As the field angle narrows, the instrument can be used further from the stage.
  • An adjustable barrel, which allows for focusing of the light by changing the distance between the reflector and the lens train. "Zoom" ERS instruments can vary the size of beam as well as the focus.
  • A set of brackets on the end of the barrel for the insertion of gel frames or a color-changer unit (i.e. a scroller).
  • Shutters (four, generally) for shaping the light beam. Some fixtures have an iris to narrow the beam in shape of a circle, and some instruments have or can be made to have both.
  • A slot in the unit for the insertion of metal gobos (to change the pattern of the light).
  • An accessory slot may also be available for the insertion of gobo rotators or other effects.

Fresnels (named for the stepped Fresnel lens) are commonly used in theatre, as a wash light over an area of the stage. The Fresnel lens produces a soft-edged beam of light (which can generally be zoomed via a mechanical knob) commonly used for backlight and top light.

Theatrical Fresnels are generally manufactured in 8, 6 or 3-inch models (referring to the diameter of the lens). They are inexpensive to produce, so they tend to be small and wallet-friendly.

Fresnels do not have internal shutters. If beam shaping is required an accessory such as a barn door (a metal frame outfitted with four metal flaps) should be used in the color slot of the fixture.

Traditional PARs
A parabolic aluminized reflector lamp (also PAR light or PAR can) is a type of electric lamp that is widely used in theatre, concerts, and dance when a large amount of flat lighting is required for a scene. They are very affordable and are ideal for color washes. Note that they do not provide a great degree of control over the beam diameter, shape and sharpness, making them most effective for back, side, and top lighting, not front lighting (generally speaking).These types of instruments come in varying diameters, the most common being the PAR56, PAR64, and PAR20.

PARs use an integrated lamp/lens/reflector sealed together. The sealed beam lamp produces an intense oval-shaped pool of light with unfocused edges. The only focus adjustment is by rotating the lamp in the fixture (“spinning the barrel”) and thus changing the orientation of the oval. The diameter of the light is defined by the aluminum reflector and cannot be adjusted without changing the lamp. PAR lamps are available in different beam designations: extra-wide flood (XWFL), wide flood (WFL), medium flood (MFL), narrow spot (NSP), and very narrow spot (VNSP).

Source Four PARs
Okay, it’s not really a PAR because it has a separate lens, reflector, and lamp. But the optical properties are similar and it has the added bonus of using the same lamp as the Source Four ERS. As with traditional PARs, the only focus adjustment is by rotating the lamp in the fixture.

PC Spots
Also known as Plano-Convex spots, they are the earliest form of a theatre lighting system using a single lens. The planoconvex spotlight uses a plano-convex lens which is convex, or round, on one side and flat on the other. This lens is contained in a simple housing that also contains a bulb and a reflector. The output of the light can be zoomed by a mechanical knob located on the fixture. PC Spots can be used as front, side, top, or backlight. Similar to fresnels but with a sharper edge, PC Spots are extremely versatile and affordable.

The heartbeat of your system is the dimmer rack. Take good care of your dimmers and they will last decades! Dimmers are devices used to vary the brightness of a light. They do this by controlling voltage; so by decreasing or increasing the voltage to the lamp it is possible to vary the intensity of the light output. Modern theatrical dimmers are generally controlled through the lighting console by a digital control system like DMX. In newer systems, DMX is often used in conjunction with Ethernet over CAT5 cable. Modern dimmers are built from silicon-controlled rectifiers (SCR) for higher efficiency. Architectural dimmers generally come in 24-channel, 48-channel, or 96-channel varieties. In the US, each dimming channel is generally a 120 volt, 20 amp circuit. The dimmers feed electrical circuits which are spread throughout your theater/stage/grid.

So now you have lights plugged into circuits which are fed by dimmers. How do you turn them on? Generally, you need some sort of lighting control console. A lighting control console (also called a lightboard, lighting board, or lighting desk) is an electronic device used in theatrical lighting to control multiple lights at once.

All lighting control consoles can control dimmers which control the intensity of the lights. Many modern consoles can also control automated lighting (lights that can move, change colors and gobo patterns), LEDs, fog machines, video panels, and hazers, as well as many other special effects devices.

Lighting consoles communicate with the dimmers and other devices in the lighting system via an electronic control protocol. The most common protocol used in the entertainment industry today is DMX-512, although other protocols may still be found in use, and newer protocols such as ACN and DMX-512-A are evolving to meet the demands of ever increasing device sophistication.

You’ll certainly need gel and gel frames. All of your lamps should have clamps on them, allowing them to be attached to the grid, truss, or pipe. Each lamp should have a lamp safety cable on it. Each lamp will also have an electrical cable coming out of it, to which should be attached a plug that fits the receptacles in your theater (there are lots of different types out there – SPG, Edison, Twist, etc). You may also need gobos, gobo holders, barn doors, donuts, drop-in irises, and other accessories. It’s best not to buy accessories until you actually need them; otherwise you may never use them.

You’ll need an assortment of lengths of electrical cable. The plug and receptacle should match the plug on your fixtures and the receptacles in your theater. If they don’t you may have to use adapters, which are available in a wide variety of configurations. It’s generally cheaper to buy the plugs and cable separately, than wire them yourself (if you are sufficiently qualified).

Buying Equipment

Where do I find new lighting gear?
New lighting equipment can be purchased through dealers around the country and online. Just go to the manufacturer’s website (for example, ETC’s website is Click on their product pages to learn about what they make. Click on their distributor network to find someone in your area through whom you can purchase the gear. Call the distributor up and tell them what you want. They’ll probably ask some clarifying questions (“do you want c-clamps with that?” etc). They’ll send you a quote. Call them back after you receive it and ask if that’s the best pricing they can get you. Distributors have a lot of latitude in their pricing, and if they think you may be a good long-term customer, they may be willing to come down on the price. If they do that, your job is to then be a good customer! Create a good relationship by buying your lamps, gel, and everything else from them. On a related note, if you do find a good distributor, tell people about them and send business their way. Good people doing good business deserve to be rewarded!

Can I buy used lighting gear?
Used lighting gear can be purchased through a variety of online resources. It’s best to employ some caution when buying used gear, as most of it comes from large dealers who supply the touring industry. You may receive equipment that is "road-tested," which sounds great, but really means it’s been bouncing around the back of a big rig for 18 months. That said, if you have limited funds and a knowledgeable person asking the right questions of the dealer, buying used gear is a great way to save money AND keep theatrical gear out of landfills.

What about brand names?
I can’t stress this enough – buy legally produced gear from a known manufacturer with an industry reputation. It’s very tempting to cut corners and buy knock-offs. Please just don’t do it. Our industry is brimming with well-run global companies who invest significant resources in development of their product lines, and then stand behind them and support them. Not only are you buying the gear, but you’re buying the expertise and the customer service behind it. Just try reaching someone in Customer Service at the Knock-Off Lighting Company at 2 AM on a Sunday.

A Designer's Process

Analyze -
Many LDs read the script several times; once for pure enjoyment, again to note practical information (time of day, lights being switched on and off, etc), and perhaps a third time to note creative, abstract ideas or themes and symbols, etc.

Research –
Often, research is needed to determine the right approach to a play. Does it take place in Victorian England before electricity was invented? If so, how can you convey that the scene is lit with gas without actually using gas? Does the play take place outdoors in the Arctic? How might the light look in that part of the world? Active research can be performed many ways; through reference books, the internet, and video resources like DVDs. However, many LDs also engage in passive research. This can happen while seeing other forms of entertainment (plays, concerts, etc) or by visiting gardens and museums. It’s essential for LDs to know that every day holds an opportunity to observe.

Daydream/Brainstorm –
This is a personal process. Many LDs prefer an internal process like daydreaming; spending time letting their mind wander while they think of different ways to approach the play. One of the benefits of this approach is that it can often happen “in the background” while you’re doing other activities (working in the yard, going to a museum, etc). Others prefer to bat ideas around with one or more trusted associates. The benefit of this approach is that, many times, good ideas from an associate can spur you to think of even better ideas. Your approach may also vary from play to play.

Collaborate –
One of the most important things a lighting designer can do is be a good collaborator. The playwright has provided a script that gives you an idea of how the show might be approached. The director may have very different ideas, however. It’s important to know what those ideas are. It’s important to talk with your director and find out what’s important to them.

Plot – 
Once you’ve collected all of your ideas and spoken with the director, you’ll want to sit down and put all of those ideas into a lighting plot. This is no small task and can be time-consuming. We’ll go into plotting in detail in a future installment.

Are there any specific Do’s and Don’t's in theatrical lighting design?

As far as design is concerned, it’s less about DO’s and DON’Ts than it is about assessing whether or not your design meets all of the criteria agreed upon by you and the director. If you and the director have decided that the play is going to be lit entirely from behind, using only seven shades of green because that’s what the script and concept requires, then you’ve fulfilled your job as a designer. Is that a great design? Maybe not, but then again maybe so! Remember that “great” is subjective. Many schools teach particular lighting methods and these are all quite good – but they’re starting places. Use your imagination and don’t be afraid to break whatever rules you’ve been told exist.

Of course, there are some DO’s and DON’Ts, but they relate more to process and how to conduct yourself than to any specific principles of design. So, in my opinion, these are some good ones to follow, in no particular order:


  • Come prepared (to meetings, rehearsals, tech, etc.)
  • Listen
  • Collaborate
  • Take responsibility for mistakes
  • Communicate
  • Be grateful for the opportunity to practice your craft
  • Be humble when your work is recognized or reviewed
  • Network with other theater professionals
  • Treat your crew with respect
  • Honor other people’s time
  • Recognize others contributions; thank and congratulate them when appropriate
  • Be realistic when obligating yourself to potential employers by accepting only the work you can follow through on


  • Get mired in the mindset that your design discipline is more important than any of the others
  • Blame design shortcomings on the hardware or the crew
  • Be timid about sharing with others when your work is recognized
  • Be shy about introducing yourself to other theater professionals
  • Be overly concerned about what other people (not involved with the production) think of your work
  • Be afraid to say "no" to a gig if your conscience is telling you something doesn’t feel quite right
  • Let your temper get out of control
  • Speak poorly of your previous employers

Lighting Functions

Theatrical stage lighting has many functions. Some are practical, others are more creative. As with any creative field, the following points are not absolutes.

  • Illumination: Unless the scene or creative direction requires the scene to be dark, the audience needs to see the actors and the setting.
  • Focus: Light can be a useful tool in directing the audience’s attention from one place to another, or in distracting their attention so that they don’t see something they shouldn’t see.
  • Shaping: Light is essential in shaping the space and separating the actors from the scenery.
  • Mood: Light keys into the audience's emotions, largely through color. A designer can very simply state a lot about the mood of the scene by their choice of color.
  • Location: By using color and gobos, the lighting designer can suggest a windswept beach, a dark alley, or the peak of a mountain.
  • Time: Through the use of color, gobos, and cue timing, the lighting designer can suggest anything from the middle of the day to a dark, stormy night.
  • Scenery: Lighting can act as scenery onstage.
  • Plot: A lighting cue can be used to support a specific action in the plot (for example, an actor flips a switch to turn a light on).

Lighting Properties

Typically, the controllable qualities of light are divided into four categories:

Intensity is the actual amount of light hitting the actors and scenery on stage. Intensity is controlled by dimmers which can extinguish the light completely or raise it to its brightest point, and anywhere in between.

Movement can be thought of several different ways:

  • Time-based – The amount of time it takes for the lights to execute a cue
  • Source-based – An actor can physically move a light source such as a lantern or candle about the stage
  • Effect-based – A moving light or followspot can be used to create movement on stage

This term can refer to a number of elements:

  • The direction of the light
  • The size and shape of the area being illuminated by the light
  • The quality of the light (such as diffuse or hard-edge)
  • The character of the light (patterned, soft-edge, etc)

Color is a very powerful tool which we’ll explore more fully in a later post. Color can establish time, place, and mood. Historically, gels are placed over the lens of the light to color the beam. However, advances in technology have allowed moving lights to use dichroic filters and LEDs to emit many colors.

Spotlights or Specials?
At some point, you’ll have to grapple with the decision to use spotlights or fixed specials for the performers. This is often a difficult decision and should be an early conversation between the LD and the Director. This decision can be informed by the following factors:

  • Genre – Musicals generally lend themselves to spotlight usage for certain types of songs; certain musicals even more so. It’s important, though, to weigh carefully what you’re trying to achieve creatively, and whether the usage of spotlights helps to achieve your creative goals.
  • Movement – A followspot may be the perfect solution if the performers' blocking requires them to move about large areas of the stage quickly, making it impractical to employ a lot of fixed specials.
  • Condition – You may be in a theater with an older spotlight. If you’re planning on using it, make sure you see it working. Even better, climb up there and turn it on yourself, working all the controls to check for any broken parts. If possible, check the brightness against the stage lights. If the spot isn’t that much brighter than the stage lights or has other operational issues that can’t be addressed prior to tech rehearsals, it may not be worth using.
  • Proficiency – Truly excellent followspot operators are a rare breed. If the available techs are not good operators (and you can’t train them, or get them trained, in the time you have available) you may be better off using fixed specials. Desired qualities in a good followspot operator are:
    • Ability to take direction from the LD or ALD during rehearsals.
    • Ability to take direction from the stage manager, who will be calling the cues on a nightly basis.
    • Ability to anticipate a performer’s next move and compensate accordingly so that the performer is always moving into the light.
    • Ability to fade the light out and transition color gracefully.
    • Ability to operate the light smoothly with regards to movement.
  • Location – If there is only one followspot in the theater, it’s best if it’s located near the center-line and at an angle between 45-60 degrees (in height) to the stage. If the followspot is too far off to one side of the theater, there is a risk that only one side of the performer will be illuminated, depending on their range of movement about the stage. If the followspot is at too low an angle, there is a risk that the performer’s shadow will be cast all over the walls of the set, depending on the depth of the stage. If the shadows are not a desired effect, it’s best to have the followspot located higher.

If you’ve decided that a followspot is required and the theater doesn’t own one, you may have to rent. Some of the factors you’ll need to consider (and share with your lighting supplier) are:

  • Available power:
    • You’ll need to know what type of power is available for the followspot. Lower-wattage spots can be run on 120 volt, 15 or 20 amp circuits (your basic wall outlet). Higher powered spots will need 208 volt, 3-phase power.
  • Distance from the followspot location to the stage
    • This can be measured via groundplan or with a friend and a long tape measure.
  • How bright you want the followspot to be:
    • A good rule of thumb is that you want your followspot to produce between 100-150 footcandles on stage. It’s a good idea to know the relative brightness of your stage, because you’ll want the followspot to be brighter than the stage lighting.
    • A lighting dealer can help you with the photometrics of the followspots they stock, or you can utilize online resources of followspot manufacturers.
    • It may be tempting to just rent the highest wattage light you can find. However, there are other factors that influence the brightness of the spot, which are:
      • Lamp Type
        • Short-throw followspots typically use quartz/incandescent lamps, similar to what’s used in regular stage lighting.
        • Long-throw followspots typically use an arc lamp, producing a very bright source while consuming the same or fewer watts than incandescent. A 500-watt arc lamp can be far brighter than a 2000-watt incandescent lamp.
      • Color Temperature
        • Arc lamps run at higher color temperatures, which can often appear brighter to the eye.
      • Optics
        • The quality of the followspot lens can significantly affect the output of the lamp.

Finally, in some situations, it’s possible to use typical fixtures as a followspot. Conventional lighting fixtures such as ETC’s Source Four ellipsoidal reflector spotlights can be outfitted with accessories to function as a followspot. The advantage to this is that the fixture can be cued with the rest of the lights to fade up and fade down, with the operator responsible for moving the fixture. This solution is best implemented by using off-the-shelf parts intended to support using the fixture as a followspot, and not trying to jury-rig your own solution.

Lighting Design Reference Books

Stage Lighting Design: The Art, the Craft, the Life by Richard Pilbrow

A Practical Guide to Stage Lighting, Second Edition by Steven Louis Shelley

Concert Lighting, Third Edition: Techniques, Art and Business

The Business of Theatrical Design by James L. Moody

Automated Lighting, Second Edition: The Art and Science of Moving Light in Theatre, Live Performance, and Entertainment 

The Automated Lighting Programmer's Handbook

Costume Design A-Z

Award-winning costume designer Alex Jaeger answers questions for prospective producers and designers alike.

What is the job description of the costume designer?

One of the things I like best about being a costume designer is that the duties and responsibilities are different from show to show. Generally, the costume designer researches the setting and period, does a script breakdown indicating number of costume changes and pointing out quick changes, develops character profiles in much the same way the actor does, provides research, rough sketches and eventually finished sketches showing what each costume will look like. He or she chooses fabrics for the costumes that are to be built, and shops for purchased or rented items. The costume designer also collaborates with the other designers (set, lighting, wigs, make-up, sound) to create a unified look. He or she then presents the designs to the costume shop and works hand in hand with the drapers, cutters and stitchers to make sure the costumes are constructed to the proper specifications, and answers any of their questions. The designer then attends fittings with the actors, dress rehearsals and often previews if changes are made. The costume designer's obligation to the show usually ends opening night. At some smaller theatres, the costume designer may also be responsible for actually creating the costumes, but that is not generally part of the job description.

Where should you look for a designer, and how can you tell whether a designer is qualified?

There are lots of ways to find designers. Often word of mouth is a great way. Ask designers and producers at other local theaters. There are also portfolio websites, and USA 829 (the designers' union website) has listings. Many designers have their own websites, so if you see a show you like, do an Internet search to find their site. There are also theatre production websites and ARTSEARCH, where you can post an ad looking for a designer.

I suppose that if you like a designer's portfolio, they're qualified to design your show. I would say that the next most important thing in choosing a designer for your production is to make sure they are a good fit for your theatre. Even if their portfolio looks great, you want to make sure that they will be able to produce the design given your facility. For example, some designers don't sew, so if you're looking for someone who can design and sew the costumes, be very clear about your expectations. Some designers specialize in being creative with very small budgets, others are known for their ability to create elaborate, big-budget extravaganzas.

What are the important do's and don'ts of costume design?

I don't have do's and don'ts as far as the design itself goes. I am a believer in the adage that rules are meant to be broken. As for the process, I'd say DO your research. DON'T ever assume that you know a period, region, etc., even if it's current or recent. When you do research with a particular script or character in mind, the appropriate things for the show will jump out at you. I would also caution about being too slavish to history. Make sure your costumes serve the play and highlight the character over meticulous historical replication.

What makes a good costume?

In my opinion, a good costume doesn't look like a costume, but like real clothes - unless it's supposed to be fantastical. I don't believe that a costume always has to be flattering in the traditional way, but rather "right." The costume needs to visually take the actor from who they are in real life to the character they are playing. It should support the story, character and mood without calling attention to itself, unless there is a specific reason that it should. A good costume shouldn't be obvious or cliche.

What are the safety issues involved in costume design and in the costume shop?

There are the hazards you would expect in the shop: hot irons, heavy duty machines and sharp instruments. The less obvious - but most dangerous - are the chemicals. Dye, solvents, paints and adhesives used in costumes can be toxic and need to be handled with care and following OSHA guidelines for protective gear and ventilation.

Is it better to buy, rent or build?

One isn't necessarily better than the other. Most often, shows end up being a combination of the three. If something is highly specific or unusual, you will probably want to build it, although I have found some wonderfully strange and unlikely things already in existence! It's always worth looking. If you have actors of unusual size, whether very large, very small, very tall, etc., you may need to build their costumes or at the very least customize purchased items. This is something to take into consideration when budgeting. Clothes for unusual bodies cost a lot more. Also, consider if a piece will be useful for future productions. If so, it may be worth buying or building. If a costume is at high risk during a show - blood, food, violent fight - owning it is a good thing. Replacing damaged rental costumes can be very expensive. A costume that rents for a hundred dollars can cost many hundreds or even thousands to replace. Another consideration is the consistency of the quality of all the costumes in any given show. If you rent some beautiful, high-end things, are you able to make the other things in the show of similar quality? The opposite also applies. If you have created beautiful pieces, you don't want to rent cheesy things to "fill in," even for the extras. It brings down the whole design. You don't want a few things to stick out like a sore thumb.

How much time does a designer reasonably need if building is involved?

There is no one answer for this. There are lots of variables. Of course, a modern shirt is a lot faster to make than a bustle period gown. Also, the skill level and size of the work force make a huge difference. Something that takes one stitcher a day may take another a week. Stitching costumes takes a lot longer than most people think. There is also time required for pattern making, making mock-ups, several fittings with the actor and the construction of the actual garment. A period gown can take 60 hours or more to make. Only experience can tell you how much time is needed. The more quickly you need something, the more it generally costs.

What is a reasonable costume design budget?

This can vary widely from theatre to theatre and show to show. Having a great stock to pull from saves a lot of money. If you have a small stock, see if you can set up reciprocal agreements with other local theatres (or other schools or universities, as the case may be). Sometimes a play that seems as if it will be easy or inexpensive to costume may not be. I would suggest asking an experienced costume designer or shop manager to cost out the show. Every show is unique. I think that having a formula like $100 per costume or $500 per costume can get you into trouble. Also remember that a costume consists of everything the actor is wearing. A costume is never just "a dress." It's a dress, shoes, stockings, underwear, jewelry, and may include things like a hat, purse, gloves, glasses, and a coat. These things add up. A hundred dollars might sound do-able for a dress, but isn't much when you consider the whole costume.

Can you recommend any resources for costume designers?

There are so many! In recent years, with the advent of the Internet, great resources have become available to designers everywhere, not just in big cities. There are research books on almost every period and very specific subjects such as buttons, underwear, handkerchiefs, etc. Many museums have textile and clothing collections. Call and see if your nearest museum has any items of interest. You can make an appointment to see them. Large theatres often have rental departments and will email you pictures of anything they have that would work for your production. University theatre departments are a great resource for rentals.

How should one properly care for, handle and store costumes?

If your cast has Equity actors, the Equity handbook has guidelines as to how often the clothing needs to be cleaned. In general, anything that touches the body directly should be cleaned every performance. This includes t-shirts, sometimes shirts, tights, etc. If you can afford it, having doubles on these items cuts down on how often you have to do the laundry and makes two-show days much easier. It also cuts down on the wear and tear of these items. Dry cleaning is usually sent out once a week. In between, you can freshen these items with steaming, Febreeze, Dryel and vodka sprayed into the armpits. Storage can be difficult. It requires space. Covering hanging items with a sheet helps protect them. Store stretchy things folded flat. Plastic bins are great for sweaters and you can throw in mothballs to protect them. Only store clean costumes! The acid and salts in sweat will discolor and eat away at fabric and also attract bugs. Folding rolling racks are really useful for transporting costumes.

What should every costume shop have?

There is an endless list of useful equipment and things specific to costume construction. Of course, sewing machines (preferably at least one industrial), because costumes are often made of heavyweight fabrics. A professional iron, a washer and dryer. A separate washer and dryer for dyeing is great. Sometimes you can pick up a good one at the thrift store exclusively for dyeing. A steamer. An overlock machine is pretty essential. Dress forms in various sizes, a large cutting table, good scissors, stock of dye, elastic, hooks, thread, etc. These items can be expensive, so try to purchase one or two each season as an investment. Also keep an eye out for used items at yard sales, on eBay and Craigslist. Also send out a wish list to your supporters. Sometimes someone will have an industrial sewing machine sitting idle in their basement. You never know. I suggest taking a field trip to a professional costume shop. You'll be amazed at all the equipment. Also check out a supplier's website and catalogue. There is a specific tool for everything.


Coming soon.


Coming soon.