The Invisible Magic of Light

Lighting design is one of those things, like film editing or magazine layout, that most people only ever notice when it is bad. While I might walk out of a show and babble on about the way that the lighting designer used backlight or shadow or color, I am without a doubt the exception. Most people just walk out of a good show and remember how they felt: the depth of emotion felt, the height of laugher reached, the majesty of wonder experienced. That means the lighting designer did their job.

I designed my first piece freshman year: about five lighting cues for a ten minute, student-directed one-act play. Later that year, I got to design for two dance pieces for a recital, and then by the start of my sophomore year I was the student in charge of all lighting design for the dance shows and for the one-acts festival.

Most theater people, at least in high school, get scared away from lighting because they view it as just another part of theater tech. And that is not entirely inaccurate: lighting design is a deeply technical and calculated job. You need to know about what angles of light you need to hit people’s faces properly and what colors of light you need to make them not look like ghosts. The imposing number of buttons on the lighting board itself is enough to scare away most would-be designers.

But for all the technicality and craft involved, it is also an art. Because the real job of a lighting designer is help the director tell the story that they want to tell. That takes a deep understanding of the play and of the emotion and meaning behind it. That takes a deep understanding of the human psyche.

And that is why I have enjoyed learning about lighting so much over the past few years in school. It is creative and analytical, precise and intuitive. It is technology and art.