How to Work With Stage Lighting

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Actors are often told to “find your light.” On a basic level, this means hitting a lighting designer’s cues—but there’s more to it than that. Great stage lighting “goes beyond simple illumination of the actor’s face,” says Tony Award–winning lighting designer Tyler Micoleau. “Great lighting plays a supporting role, imbuing an actor’s performance with an emotional and subliminal context.” 

Understanding lighting can be a secret weapon for an actor looking to fully realize a character’s traits and expressions. Here are five tips to help actors step into their light. 

Find the center. 

“On the simplest level, finding your light means the actor is supposed to center themselves in the brightest part of the light,” says Donald Holder, a lighting designer who’s won Tonys for his work in Julie Taymor’s “The Lion King” and Bartlett Sher’s “South Pacific.” “The field of a spotlight is almost 50% brighter in the middle than it is at the edge.” Feeling the heat of the light is perhaps the most important cue. When an actor loses the center, it can not only throw off their performance, it can also create production problems. “Lighting is composed very carefully,” Holder says. “It’s like painting on a certain level. If the actor is not where they’re supposed to be, it throws off the balance of the stage picture. No actor wants to do that.” 

Looking down can help.

“In a scene where an actor is asked to stand in the spotlight or ‘special,’ if they look down at the floor, there’s usually a circular pattern or semicircular pattern of light on the floor,” says Holder. “And if you can kind of subtly look down [and] glance toward that beam, then you can center yourself in it. Really skilled actors can figure out a way to do this so it doesn’t look like, ‘Oh my God, where am I supposed to stand?’ ”

Don’t look into the light… 

It may seem obvious, but actors should take care not to be blinded by the stage lights. “Just like walking outdoors on a sunny day, we may be facing the sun, but we don’t look directly at it,” says Micoleau. “That said, there might be hundreds of light sources in a given lighting state, so it’s inevitable that an actor will be facing one of those sources. When they do, they should simply look past and not directly at it.” 

…But don’t ignore the light. 

“An actor will disregard lighting at their own peril,” says Micoleau. “For actors used to film and television, ignoring the lighting is like ignoring the camera. You want to ignore the camera, but you always have to be aware of it.” Less experienced actors often don’t grasp that when it comes to lighting, consistency while moving onstage is key. “We want our cast members to stick to a consistent movement pattern, to land in the same place every time because the lighting is very carefully crafted to that,” adds Holder.

Make subtle adjustments. 

Sometimes during a performance, an actor just misses the light. “Even experienced actors can stop short of the light unintentionally,” Holder says. “Then you see the wheels turning and they’re trying to figure out: How can I subtly move into the light and keep it within my performance? It’s amazing how masterful some people are at correcting for errors when it comes to standing in their hotspot.” 

Tyler Micoleau is a Tony Award–winning lighting designer who has designed extensively throughout New York, as well as regionally and internationally, for world premiere plays, musicals, operas, outdoor spaces, and touring pieces. His work on Broadway includes “The Band’s Visit,” “Be More Chill,” and the revivals of “American Buffalo” and “Into the Woods.Micoleau lives in Brooklyn.

Donald Holder is a Tony Award–winning lighting designer for theater, opera, and dance. He has been nominated for 14 Tony Awards, winning the 1998 award for Best Lighting Design and the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Lighting Design for “The Lion King. He won a second Tony in 2008 for the revival of “South Pacific.” His additional Broadway credits include “Tootsie,” “Anastasia,”Kiss Me, Kate,” “Fiddler on the Roof,The Bridges of Madison County,The King and I,” and Big Fish.” He was the theatrical lighting designer for the first two seasons of the NBCUniversal television series “Smash.”