How Are Notes Like Lights?

How many lights do you need?

Wow – that is a hard question.

How many keys on a piano do you need?

At least one for every tone that is called for in the music.  Then you should think about if there is a tone that isn’t called for; can you really leave that key out?  Can the pianists fingers get to all of the right tones with the missing keys?  What if the composer wants to add something?  Leaving keys out would limit the artistic possibilities.


So…  How many lights do you need?

Enough to create every visual need of the show.  Plus some more if new ideas, scenes, blocking come up during the tech process.

The question of how much equipment do you need comes up in every show.  Often the question comes up to early in the conversation.  How can you give a real answer when you have not even discussed the style of the show with the director let alone helped formulate a ground-plan?  Of course the producer needs to put together a budget for the production.  Here is a classic battle of wanting to give an answer but making sure you don’t give an answer too soon.  This is one of the reasons why I am such a large proponent of doing as much homework in the beginning of the production discussion as possible.  The sooner you know how many visual notes you need to create then the faster you can give a realistic answer.

Often you will walk into a situation where you are handed a set list of equipment that you have to work with.  May it always be more plentiful than you need 🙂  However, it is often not.  Then there is the conversation of I need more or I need some instruments that can do multiple jobs.  I believe the more you have thought out your design the more you can defend the need to spend these resources to get what you are looking for.  If you present your needs in a well thought out manner and then ask the simple question, if I don’t have this equipment, how do I create that environment?  Then in the end either the resources exist or they do not and if they do not then it is your job to make the best concession possible.

Sometimes you get lucky and the facility has enough or more equipment then you need.  I’ll never forget the first time I designed at Plays in the Park in NJ.  I believe it was “Dracula”.  My light plot really only used about half of the equipment they owned and the electrician was talking a little “smack” behind my back that the show would be under lit.  I was hired back for multiple seasons after that show.  It wasn’t under lit, it was correctly lit.  Some productions don’t need a ton of equipment.

So I guess the point of this blog is to promote doing your work early.  The sooner you can get a reasonable rough light plot done the better you are.  Then you know if you have the equipment you need.  Heck, now that we mostly draft on computers it isn’t like you even have to erase to move a light around.  So go ahead…  do that rough plot early and then finalize it when necessary.


Educational Theatre – It’s not just about the production – it’s about them.

Subtitle – Careful BalanceSoap Box Louie

I bet we all could agree that no matter the production you always want it to be as good as you can possibly make it.  If you do not agree, then I would ponder; why are you doing the show?

I also bet we all could agree that Educational Theatre should be successful in educating the students while creating a quality product.

A challenge – presumably the student does not have a lot of experience.  If they did, why would they still be the student?  How do you balance your effort upon making the show great and giving the students as much of your attention as possible.

High Brow Answer (opinion) – Sometimes you have to make choices that benefit the students more than your personal production goals.

This subject is near and dear to me.  For a very long time I have been involved in Educational Theatre, mostly from a guest artist point of view.  I did do a few years in a collegiate setting where I taught a Stage Craft class as well as a Lighting Design class.  I believe there are very different tactics that you take in those two settings.  In the classroom I believe it is all about presenting information in as many different ways as necessary to make sure the student understands and absorbs it.  Then you must do practical practice in class to make sure they did understand it and also for simple redundancy.  Just like learning dance steps, the word Again, Again, and Again is a great way to learn.  So for example, if I were to teach what a leko can do I would first demonstrate it, talk about it and produce a handout that lists it.  Then I would have each person come up and manipulate the light themselves.  Answer any questions and ask the big question…  does anyone have any questions?  When they answer no, I then say – OK 10 pt quiz on the handout the next time you come in.  Then on the next class session, start with the 10 pt quiz that really shouldn’t take more than five minutes and move on to the next lesson.  Fairly structured but has seemed effective.

Now teaching while doing a production is a whole different animal.  My belief that teaching by example is the best way.  My goal is to make it the best production as possible, but to share my thought process continually while I do it.  I also like to treat my student as a junior colleague.  I want to engage them so they care about the show as much as I do.  The more they want the production to succeed the more successful their educational experience will be.  There is another side benefit to making the show as good as it can be, pride.  If the student feels great about the work when it is all done, they will want to do that again.  There is no better feeling then knowing something you participated in did well and was thought of as a success!

Recently while doing a show at a college we hit final dress rehearsal.  All went very smoothly and the cast and the crew, especially the stage manager, did a perfect job on doing what we gave them.  Now that it all came together I saw at least forty cues that I wanted to add to make the show even better.  I really wanted to do it.  I didn’t do it.  It would not be fair to the crew and the cast to give them the burden of unrehearsed changes.  If it was a show that had previews, then yes.  But, in this situation I gave up my personal artistic desire so that they could succeed in the product they were performing.

I also believe that it is incredibly important to educate as many students as possible in your setting.  If your department has a student body of fifty or more, do not pick a play that has five characters in it.  Sure, it’s a great play, but did you really serve your department as a whole?  Practical production education is essential for every student in that department.

So I guess my soap box here is…  when doing Educational Theatre don’t get lost on the fact that while you are doing a production, you also have the goal of educating the students along the way.  If you are there solely for you and the show, you should be doing shows in a different setting.


Soap. Box. Done.

Soap. Box. Done.

Balcony Rail – From Handrail to Lighting Position.

A Balcony Rail is also one of the first modern lighting positions installed in a proscenium house.  Much like the Box Boom, it was a quick solution to finding a place to hang lighting fixtures as front light so designers could go beyond foot lights being the only source of illumination.  To understand what a Balcony Rail is, think of splitting the phrase up.  It’s on the balcony and it is a rail to hang lights on.  Many balconies had hand rails made out of pipe to begin with, making them a quick, natural place to hang a light.  As time went on, it became apparent that the lights were now blocking the view of the audience in the balcony.

Front view of a typical Balcony Rail

Front view of a typical Balcony Rail

Folks started hanging the units off of side arms on the rail towards the stage to lower the lights.  Then, they also found ways to hang a pipe on the actual architecture of the face of the balcony keeping the light out of the eyes of the balcony audience.

Front light is often complained about, because it can be a flat position of lighting.  I happen to agree with that, but I believe there are many uses for the position beyond “area” lighting.

Here are some that I like…



  • Amazing place to do some template texture washes.
  • If you have to light a front / show drop or curtain from bottom to top.
  • Can help to fill in the front lighting of a down stage scrim.
  • Great place to hang a video monitor for the cast to see the out of site conductor.
  • If you really want to tone with a deep saturated color.
  • You need to cover that really far downstage center spot with the same color as the box boom washes
  • You have a text gobo that needs to be “dead on” to not be skewed.
  • View from under a packed Balcony Rail

    View from under a packed Balcony Rail


  • Pittsburgh Playhouse Balcony Rail

    Pittsburgh Playhouse Balcony Rail












Box Boom: Silly Word = Great Lighting Position

A long time ago, our indoor theatres were lit only with foot lights.  Those foot lights were initially lanterns with a live flame surrounded by glass.  There are obvious safety issues with this, which lead to many deaths.  Electricity was invented and the light bulb came into existence.  Foot lights began using lamps.  Theatrical lighting advances certainly didn’t stop there and we now have the modern theatrical fixtures of today

There was a problem though. The theatres that were in existence did not have any place to mount lights.  One method used was to hang a light on a pipe onstage.  This was a fairly quick solution to positions on stage, because the pipes were already used to flying scenery and backdrops up and down. Putting a light on a pipe was no great stretch. The front of house, though, was a much greater challenge.  Unsurprisingly, theatrical people are inventive.  They came up with two initial ideas,  the Box Boom and the Balcony Rail.  This post will discuss the Box Boom.

When you hear the description of Box Boom you really have to break the word down into two parts.  The Box and the Boom. The Box comes from where people would sit in the elevated sides of the auditorium.  The Boom was a vertical pipe that was already being used onstage. Put the two together and voila(!) you have a vertical lighting pipe where people used to sit. It was a very easy solution that created a place to mount some lights in the front of house area.

There were also some artistic benefits that I believe happened by accident. Side lighting is one of the most attractive angles of lighting to the body. A Box Boom position is side light that is slightly pulled to the front. This gives you the benefit of side light, and the light reaches across the face of the performer a little.  If lit from both sides by the Box Boom you can have an incredibly attractive look on the stage that includes front visibility.  Put that together with a really tight head-shot from a follow-spot and you have what I believe is today’s most popular “Broadway” look.  If I had to go into a theatre that had absolutely no lighting positions and was told to pick one, a Box Boom is what I would choose.

Here are some examples of some Box Boom positions.


Notice that there is a long vertical right at the proscenium and then some further back. The proscenium pipe gives you the ability to have direct side light right at the proscenium but also gives you a position to light the show border. The ones further back give a great position for less flat front light and color toning. Wonderful that both could be accomplished. Please also note the units under the actual boxes. Pippin on BroadwayPippin on Broadway
This is a classic example of a situation where there was really no other easy way to get front light on stage. Sometimes it is a permanent installation and sometimes simply a fifty pound boom base with a ten foot pipe as the vertical. Cinderella on Broadway

Cinderella on Broadway


Rose Week

Tech Week – Rose Week
Would a rose by any other name smell as sweet?
This is one of those soap box posts.
I have often heard people call tech week, hell week.  Some speak of it in fear and others in a strange pride.  I am not a fan of this.  If our goal is to put on a complete production that marries the work of the performers and that of the physical aspects like scenery, lighting and costumes then why not do it in a pleasant way.  So here are some hints on making it pleasant.
1 – Does it really all have to happen in one week?  Plus if your show is going to open on a Thursday or a Friday do you even have one week?  Look at your schedule carefully and see if you can introduce technical elements into your rehearsal process earlier.  Adding them a little at a time helps build a solid production.
2 – Introduce elements that others need to work with first.  If you solve others needs first, they won’t be coming to you for it or upset that you haven’t supplied it.
3 – Be nice and respectful.  
4 – Sleep.  If you are over tired you are simply not efficient.
5 – Plan realistically.  Do not over promise.  Why cause a false expectation?
6 – Ask for help when you need it.  Not getting something done because you didn’t ask for help doesn’t help in getting it done.
7 – Do not believe in this false idea of Actor vs. Techie.  We are not putting on two productions.  We are working together to make one magical event.  
8 – Then when it is time to join all of the elements the performing side of the show has to be ready.  If it is still being blocked or choreographed then the technical elements won’t have the time to get it right.  Tech does not just magically appear.  It does need time to work out the issues that arise.
9 – Learn when to let it go.  It is better to do 50 cues really well then 75 cues not as well.
10 – Look forward to the challenge of creating on a time frame.  If that is not you, then perhaps a different art medium is for you.  Opening Night is Opening Night.  It is on a calendar and usually does not change.  The greatest lessons I have learned in life have been from doing shows.  Theatrical People have a very special work ethic.
What we do is wonderful, fun, enriching and touching.  Why would you call it Hell Week?Soap. Box. Done.louie_hancock

Blending New and Old Technology From a Design Point of View

Theatrical lighting equipment has changed so much over the last century. As in our personal situations, stage technology is changing at an exponential level. Some people will say it is great and others are not happy about it at all. Suffice it to say that change is here and it will always be here. Either embrace it or become obsolete.

ETC Four Ellips

Old spot technology


New spot technology

I think having the ability and artistic sense to be able to blend technologies is incredibly important. Years ago I was designing a series of A Christmas Carols at Theatre Three in Port Jefferson NY. A Christmas Carol is a story that lends itself to magical moments and visual interest. Much can be done with good old fresnels and lekos. Choosing the right color, shape and direction can help set the environment that moves the story along. Can they be helped with adding some new technology? Hecky Doo – YES! Back then, having color scrollers was “new” technology. Imagine it though. Now instead of that light only having one color, I could choose between ten or fifteen colors. Then what about this new swanky thing called a gobo rotator? Now I can have Marley being sucked into his world of hell with a spiraling gobo instead of just a red or green light uplighting him.

Check out this very informative video to see more on today’s new spot technology.

With today’s technology you can add variant color and movement like these pictures to enhance your look.  It can go well beyond just simple color changing.

With today’s technology you can add variant color and movement like these pictures to enhance your look. It can go well beyond just simple color changing.

My point to this story is that in the productions I was doing, I went ahead and invested in some actual moving light spots. With these units I was able to have the Ghost of Christmas Present glow every time she gave a blessing. The Ghost of Christmas Past was able to walk around at all times surrounded by an aurora borealis effect. Then when the Ghost of Christmas Future came out, I was able to have so many lightning bolts happening in so many varied places that could never could have happened before. Those sort of effects greatly helped the show. Those sort of effects are also fairly obvious.

In today’s world of Broadway, LED Wash Units and Moving LED Spots are common place in the rig. It is the designer that uses them with the idea of correct style that really impresses me. Recently I saw Ken Posner’s lighting for Cinderella. Now what I am about to say is not because I know Ken. I actually haven’t seen him since undergraduate days. His work is elegant. He blended the sensibility of Rogers and Hammerstein’s music with today’s, and yesterday’s technology. If you are a lighting student or just someone who loves lighting, please go see it. Sure, everyone thinks the costume changes are the star of the show, and yes they are amazing, but Ken’s work is just wonderful. Each and every scene is visual excellence.



chauvet-COLORdash-Par-Hex-12 copy

An example of new wash light technology

Altman 6inch

An example of old wash light technology


My point to this blog is that you can use the color options of the LED’s and the moving options of moving lights without them just being a Rock Concert. If you’re careful in your choices, you can make them match any style you need to do. Just because a LED fixture can put out a really saturated dark blue with huge vibrancy doesn’t mean you have to use it. I guess the real trick always comes down to understanding style.









Let’s Play Jeopardy!


Answer – Use Stage Lighting

Question – How do I get visual variation quickly and without spending on extra scenery?

So often we need to transform the environment we are in.  It may be a musical review with a very simple set that we want to keep visually interesting so the audience doesn’t get bored.  It could be a dance recital with just one group of people after another coming on the stage. It could be the television show “The Voice”, which has the same basic scenery but each song needs a different feel.  All of these events want to be able to change the look and vibe of the location.

One of the principal goals of stage lighting is to be flexible and have the ability to change.  The easy way to do this is by color and shape.  The really really easy way of doing that is by using lighting fixtures that allow you to change their color and shape from a control panel.  Often we speak of the benefits of LED fixtures that have built in color mixing.  What a wonderful thing it is to be able to change the color of your wash at your whim!

In this example we are able to show how a school cafeteria that is draped can have so many different looks simply by changing the lighting.

Fire and Ice

As budgets get tight, it is often more important to spend a little less on the scenery options and more on the lighting because you can go from just a few scenic choices to a hundred scenic choices.

Since prom season is coming up, consider these thoughts.  Draping fabric is a great way to hide ugly walls, and drape works for many different types of events. Drapes and lighting are an investment into all of your events.  When choosing drapes, do consider the fire rating of the fabric.  Visit our fabric section to see some options.  Then choose LED fixtures where you can change your look through out the evening.  The students will think they are in a really “Swanky” place 🙂