11 The Lighting and Sound Teams

Michael Riha

The role of the lighting designer is simultaneously complex, and quite rudimentary. Simply put, the job of a lighting designer is to “put light when and where it is needed to support and enhance the story being presented.” However, it is an art form that demands the specificity and skill of a surgeon and at times, the brute strength of a bodybuilder. It is an incredibly influential and manipulative design element as it relates to live entertainment.

Lighting design is also one of the more recent additions to the ever-growing list of collaborators when it comes to mounting a live theatre production. Scenery and costume design is, without a doubt, the oldest elements that were “designed” when it came to live theatre. Aside from using candlelight and gas lighting fixtures, the primary role lighting played was simply to illuminate the actors so the audience could see what was happening on stage. It wasn’t until the late 19th Century with the introduction of electric light that we began to see the full potential of just how powerful lighting would become in the enhancement of storytelling on the stage.


A Conversation with Shawn Irish

Throughout this chapter, I have included portions of an interview I conducted with USA-829 lighting designer and Head of MFA Design at the University of Arkansas, Shawn Irish.

What is the most exciting aspect of being a lighting designer?

Shawn Irish: My favorite part about being a lighting designer is getting to tell stories. I know that sounds a little bit cliché, but it’s the combination of the technical requirements of lighting along with the artistic part that is the most satisfying to me. Ever since I was a kid, I have enjoyed storytelling and I think that’s one of the exciting things about lighting. It’s one of the last elements that is added to a theatrical production, and to me, it feels a little bit like the glue that holds all of the other design elements together.

In this chapter, I will outline both the technical and artistic skills one needs to develop when training to become a skilled lighting designer. I will also be including quotes from professional lighting designer and colleague, Shawn Irish to help put it all into context.

What you will not find in this chapter is an extensive history of how lighting design has evolved over the years or an in-depth examination of the equipment available to a lighting designer. However, I will allude to how electric light changed the concept of how lighting design could play a role in a more “realistic” way to enhance live theatre. It is my opinion that realism is better suited for film or television and live theatre is home to an advanced sense of imagination and theatricality.

I hope that by the end of this chapter, you better understand what it takes both practically as well as artistically, to become a professional lighting designer. As Robert Edmond Jones said many years ago, it is important to become a “jack of all trades” when pursuing a career path such as that of a theatre designer.

Theatre Architecture and Equipment

Fundamentally speaking, stage lighting is any source that emits light. This can come from any electric lighting fixture that is equipped with either LED or incandescent lamps. It can also come from any natural light source as well, such as a candle, the sun, or a torch. I will focus my examples on electrified sources that are readily available in most theatres you may encounter as a lighting designer. However, the type of equipment used by a lighting designer is one piece of the puzzle that faces any lighting designer as they begin the journey of developing their skills as a theatre artist.


Three actors stand on stage in a triangular formation. One actor is slightly in front of the others and facing forward. The other two actors face each other. The set behind them has two doors and is lit with a teal wash of light.
Fun Home, produced by TheatreSquared. Light Design by Shawn Irish in 2017.

Once the type of lighting equipment is determined, there are a number of factors that influence how those fixtures will be used to light the stage. Let’s start with the most obvious and perhaps, most influential: the architecture (or lack thereof) of the space. The type of theatre you are working in will play a large role in how you approach your design. Is the space a proscenium theatre? Is it a thrust theatre? Is it in the round? Is it a storefront “theatre?” Is it an outdoor venue? Each of the previously stated spaces brings unique challenges that impact all designers working in the theatre, but it is safe to say, lighting designers must consider as many practical concerns, as well as artistic concerns when designing for a variety of architectural spaces.



How does the theatre’s architecture inform or influence you as a lighting designer?

Shawn Irish: The theater architecture is extremely important to how I do my work as a lighting designer. It informs the type of lighting fixture I choose, the saturation of colors that I can use, and the angles that I have available to light the stage. It would be wonderful if I could use the same lighting fixtures all the time! Sometimes the distance from the lighting positions to the stage is quite far, which forces me to pick entirely different fixtures in order to do a basic lighting design. If I’m working in a proscenium theater, or a black box, or a studio theatre, the angles, and fixture types must be quite specific to the kind of work you’re doing. At the end of the day, my job remains the same – tell the story, but how I go about it is always influenced by the architecture. Sometimes in the 21st century, we find ourselves doing theater in found spaces such as storefronts, mall food courts, etc.) and with less-than-reliable electrical power. In cases like that, the designer must completely rethink how to go about lighting the play. And often, those opportunities can be the most exciting ones!

A second factor in executing a lighting design for a live theatrical event is to assess the available equipment and the positions from which the lighting fixtures will hang within the theatre space. As we will discover later in this chapter, a healthy inventory of a wide range of instruments will make the job of a lighting designer that much easier when it comes to selecting the proper instrument that fits both the throw distance and beam angle (diameter of light emitted from the instrument) relative to the distance the lighting positions are from the stage and the desired outcome of the fixture. The throw distance from the lighting position to the stage coupled with the angle from which the fixtures are hung are critical calculations every lighting designer must understand when selecting equipment to light a theatrical production. If the angle is too shallow, the stage can become washed out and flatten the actor and or scenery. If the angle is too extreme (anything greater than a 45-degree angle) the shadows created by the actor’s facial features may make for a ghoulish appearance. Additionally, the longer the throw distance, the narrower the beam of the instrument must be to maximize the efficiency and brightness of the lighting instrument.



What are some of the factors you consider when selecting individual lighting fixtures?

Shawn Irish: This goes back a little bit to the architecture question. I’ll ask myself things like how big is the room, where are the lighting positions and how far or how close will my fixtures be to the actors? I am a lighting designer who likes to be very specific, and so very often that means a very specific type of fixture. I also want to be as flexible as I can, so that I can respond to the script, or to questions from the Director as quickly as possible.

Advances in lighting technology including LED lighting fixtures has really been a boon to our industry. Gone are the days where are you must get on a ladder to make a new color choice. Of course, that comes with its problems as well. Sometimes designers don’t make color choices until tech because they have any color that they want at their fingertips. I still decide on a narrow range of colors before I start, which certainly makes the tech process more efficient, and it allows me to tell the story that’s on the page instead of making color choices based on a whim or what color is closest on the color picker. I’ve also been designing lights for well over 25 years, so I still love the old technology. A colleague of mine and I will always choose a plain old 6” fresnel or a PAR 64 if I can.

And finally, the type of lighting control (light board and dimming capacity) is also an important factor a lighting designer must consider when designing for the theatre. Is the system a sophisticated computer-based light board with endless flexibility that demands a highly skilled programmer and operator, or is it a simple analog board that has fewer “bells and whistles” and is manually controlled? Although the latter is not as common these days, you may find yourself in a situation where simplicity will be your only option and must be embraced to execute a design.

The Light Plot and Paperwork

Another way a lighting designer’s choices influence the way an audience responds to the stories being told on stage is the way in which the lighting fixtures are arranged. This is called the Light Plot. The light plot is a graphic “map” that is drafted in scale to inform the electricians who hang the instruments, exactly where they are located in the theatre. This is a very specific and accurate way the designer can communicate her intentions for where all fixtures are located. The light plot communicates to the electricians not only the placement of the instrument within the theatre architecture but also specifies the type of instrument, the focus area, the color, the texture, and the channel from which the instrument is controlled.



Do you believe it is important for lighting designers to develop their technical skills alongside their artistic skills?

Shawn Irish: I think more than any of the other design elements in the theater, lighting design is most closely tied to the technology. Scenic design is not about 2x4s and paint, nor is costume design about fabrics and pins. Lighting design, however, really does rely on the designer’s knowledge of the technology to be effective. Lighting technology changes so fast, and we have gone through such rapid changes in the way that we light plays in the last 15 to 20 years, that having a knowledge of it is absolutely essential to doing the work of a lighting designer.

So much of the work today is managing numbers. It’s almost like being an accountant! You must know channel numbers, address numbers, unit numbers, etc. And now that lighting fixtures can do so many things, those numbers have increased exponentially. If you learn the technology alongside the art, you will stand a much better chance of being successful. Also, sometimes it takes years to carve out our own career in the industry. Many of us work as assistant designers while we are networking our way into the industry. Knowing the technology makes you much more valuable as an assistant or as an associate.

Another important factor that must be considered is to understand what financial resources are available for the organization to contribute to the event regarding both equipment and support labor. I put this last because I don’t believe great design demands ostentatious financial support. Does the addition of a larger budget help a designer once she has begun to master the skill of lighting design? Absolutely. However, artistry lies within the imagination of the designer, and equipment can only enhance that artistry. If there is no imagination, no amount of money can make up for a lack of creativity, sensitivity, and skill. Simply put, money does not equal art.


In the bottom left corner of the image, two actors sit in a wooden boat on the floor of a stage with another actor standing directly behind them. Above them, a slight fog is picked up by a blue wash of light. In the top left corner of the image, a moon is seen.
Shakespeare in Love, produced by TheatreSquared. Light Design: Shawn Irish in 2019.


Does budget influence the artistic decisions a Lighting Designer makes when approaching a design?

Shawn Irish: I think budget can influence choices that a designer makes. Usually lighting budgets are relatively small compared to the budgets allocated to scenery or costumes. Theatres very often own the equipment that the lighting designer will get to use. Sometimes there’s a small rental budget that can supplement the theatre’s equipment, but that must be negotiated in advance.

I firmly believe that if you know what you’re doing, you can light almost any play with the rep plot provided to you. Of course, it’s always wonderful when you have an extensive selection of movers and LED color-changing fixtures. However, it all comes down to telling the story. Some of the most effective theater I have ever seen was done in a small theatre with a handful of basic lighting fixtures.

I do think theatres should think about increasing lighting budgets if they have the financial capabilities. Lighting technology is moving very fast, and soon the incandescent lamps that we have relied on for so many years will be a thing of the past. We all need to be ready for that sad day.

I have seen productions that utilized a simple, 2-scene preset light board, 12 par cans, and only white light that brought me to tears. I’ve also seen Broadway productions with an obscene number of lighting fixtures, the latest in moving light technology, state-of-the-art LED fixtures, color, texture, and a multitude of cues, only to confuse and distract me from the story I was trying to watch. A common misconception made by many inexperienced, as well as the most seasoned, lighting designers, is the belief that “more gear will make me a better designer.” A belief that is disproven many times over by skilled designers.



With the advent of LED technology and automated lighting fixtures, how has that changed the process for a lighting designer?

Shawn Irish: LED and automated lighting fixtures have changed the process tremendously. In the “old fashioned times” you only had to decide what color to put in the lighting fixture, and whether or not to add a gobo. Today, each lighting fixture has so many parameters that you have to make choices about. Every moving light can pan and tilt and change intensity. Most of them will zoom the size of the beam, and you can add a texture, too. Many of them allow you to use shutters just like you can on a traditional ERS fixture. All of these decisions add up to extra time at the tech table. You have to be really prepared as a lighting designer today, because every cue you write has a tremendous number of choices to make.

The Art of Lighting Design

Now that we’ve been introduced to the “nuts and bolts” of what a lighting designer needs to know, let’s dive into understanding the role that lighting designers play relative to the rest of the design team members. As I mentioned at the beginning of this chapter, a lighting designer’s job is to “put light where it is needed and take it away from where it is not needed.” That may sound oversimplified or even flippant, but in essence, that is the role of the lighting designer. The job is to light the actor, and in some cases the scenery, in the most appropriate way that enhances the themes, actions, and dramatic arc of a particular piece of theatre. This can be achieved in a myriad of ways utilizing many design elements: color, texture, intensity, shape, and movement, to name a few. The ability to appropriately incorporate a combination of design elements to shape a scene is the foundational skill a lighting designer must develop on her way to becoming a true artist of the theatre. Ultimately, a lighting design becomes another character in relation to the script. Light is a living entity on the stage as it moves and changes color, shape, texture, and tempo. These traits become the visual vocabulary of the play to help both the actors as well as the audience members “track” or follow the storyline in a way that enhances the actors while they convey the storyline.



What advice would you give someone who is interested in pursuing a career as a lighting designer?

Shawn Irish: I would tell someone who wants to be a lighting designer to take as many art classes as you can. Go to any museum that’s available to you. Watch as many plays and musicals and operas and other events that you can. Become a voracious reader. To tell good stories, you have to be a student of the world. Travel if you can. Learn as much as you can about other cultures. Occasionally, step outside of yourself and assess the moment that you’re in. Being a lighting designer often means slowing down and really taking stock of what is happening in that moment. Learn to look at the world around you and be able to assess the lighting wherever you are. What does it really look like there? What’s causing that shadow? How might you re-create that if you were inside a theater? One of the greatest influences on my design work is the great lighting designer, Tharon Musser. She once said that to be an effective lighting designer you have to “learn how to see.” A great deal of the lighting designer’s job is to re-create the natural world. Time of day, location, time of year… all of these things are integral to what we do and knowing how to see what the real world looks like is very important in being an effective storyteller with light.


Hamlet, produced by TheatreSquared. Light Design: Shawn Irish in 2014.

Lighting Design and Style

Style also comes into play when deciding how to light a show. Is the play “realistic” where the lighting designer is called upon to imitate or approximate sunlight or moonlight, or to mimic a chandelier that illuminates a ballroom? This form of lighting design requires the designer to research what each of those moments may look like and do her best job to reproduce that quality of light on the stage. Since we cannot rely on sunlight or moonlight or even a chandelier to light a scene inside a theatre, the lighting designer relies on her knowledge of equipment, theatre architecture, available hanging positions, and intensity of stage fixtures to reproduce the “feeling” of sunlight, moonlight, or a chandelier. It is and will always be an “approximation” of those types of light, which is why it is imperative that a lighting designer always search her imagination for how she “feels” in the presence of a particular kind of light she is trying to reproduce. Becoming an observer of the world is an incredibly important skill all designers must perfect; they need to know how to tap into those emotions when faced with an opportunity to light a scene for a play. This is where the development of one’s imagination is so critical to becoming a skilled theatre artist.

When a designer is presented with an opportunity to light a play that is outside of the world of a realistic or naturalistic environment, this is where she is allowed to further develop her skills as a poet of the stage. Selectivity, sensitivity, and specificity become critically important when a lighting designer is working on any play or musical that is not based on realism. This is when lighting designers can focus their attention on creating “atmosphere” as the primary element of their work, rather than working to reproduce a “real” light source. Light can come from anywhere, any direction, any color, any texture, and can be expressed with any intensity when realism is abandoned. Lighting becomes an expression rather than a reproduction.



What are some of the biggest mistakes novice lighting designers make when approaching a lighting design?
Shawn Irish: I think the biggest mistake novice lighting designers make is choosing too bold or too saturated colors, especially if they are lighting a realistic play. I’m not a great believer in realism. I think, particularly for the lighting designer, anything we do has a theatrical element built into it. What I mean is in our regular lives the lights don’t dim out on us at the end of conversations! So, everything is inherently theatrical. Having said that, we have to be very careful to represent the natural world for our audience, so that they can “ignore” everything except the story the actors are communicating. Sometimes novice lighting designers also like to “comment” on the action in the play. If there is a symbol or a metaphor that is revealed, novice designers sometimes want to make that a “moment” in the play. We have to learn to get out of the way and let the other design elements and the actors tell the story.

With this freedom comes the great responsibility of being sensitive to the power all the above-mentioned design elements contain. Human beings are conditioned to respond to colors, textures, and angles based on their lived experiences. Take, for example, that many of us consider flashing red lights to indicate danger and that pink is often associated with love. These are powerful triggers that tap into many people’s emotions. Intense, white light can also conjure up strong emotions simply based on the context in which it is presented. An audience sees an actor sitting in a chair alone on a stage that is being lit by a single, bright, tightly focused white light shining directly over the actor. This powerful image conjures images of a police interrogation room. Stage the same scene using the same chair and actor but now light it with only a candlelight being held by the actor, and the emotional response by the audience will be quite different. This is the power of light.

Another important aspect of lighting design is the use of the absence of light. The brightness of a light is relative to its surroundings and the darkness around the light. Simply put, shadows are part of light. The ability to cast shadows onto surfaces is another powerful tool used by the lighting designer to direct an audience member where to look on a stage. Imagine a scene where two characters are discussing another character and unbeknownst to them, a shadow of a figure appears on stage that is clearly visible to the audience. The storytelling is now changed by the presence of a shadow of a figure. Which character cast the shadow? Did the person who cast the shadow hear everything that was being discussed by the actors who thought they were alone?

Lighting as Scenery or Costume

This is an appropriate segue into the idea that lighting, aside from being additive in the sense that light is projected onto scenery and actors to reveal them, create the time of day, and set the mood, can also be additive in the sense of it becoming either a scenic element or used to create or alter a “costume.” What I mean by this is that light and its shape, intensity, color, direction, and texture, can become so influential that its mere presence can take on the characteristics of a new location and or shift the meaning of a character simply by altering the character’s costume color and/or texture. For example, if a scene calls for a character to be seen in a jail cell, a tightly focused rectangle of light with shadows that represent the bars of a jail cell can be introduced to create that “jail cell” without the addition of any physical elements. When the light cue appears, the audience and actors are transported into a jail cell. Also, if an actor is wearing a beautiful blue suit that expresses a sense of leadership and strength, but in a scene later in the play the same suit is lit in a dark amber color with texture added to make the suit appear more tattered or wrinkled, the actor is now able to portray an altered state of the once strong character.

The Artifice of Lighting Design

We all know that what we are seeing on stage is not “real.” We are in a building, watching artists recreate a story for us. What we do understand is that theatre allows the audience members an opportunity to escape the day-to-day stresses and struggles that make up their “real life,” even if it is only for a couple of hours. The level at which an audience member can fully engage or immerse themselves in that world is contingent upon the work of the design team and the performers. The success or failure of being able to create a world that an audience member can fully engage themselves in is contingent on the level of talent and commitment of the aforementioned group AND the level of distractions within the environment where the play is performed. A noisy patron opening a candy wrapper, someone’s phone ringing, a sudden coughing fit, a person fidgeting in a seat, these are all ways an audience member can be taken out of “the moment” and is reminded that yes, “I am sitting in a theatre watching actors pretending to be someone else.” However, those distractions are not limited to audience members’ bad behaviors only.


Actors on a stage during a musical number. One actor is in front of the others, who kneel in a line. The central actor wears a black jumpsuit with bellbottoms and sunglasses. He is positioned in a wide stance, leaning slightly back as he sings. Beams of purple light shine down on him.
Ride the Cyclone, produced by the Theatre Department at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville. Light Design: Shawn Irish. 2022.

Distractions can also come in the form of stylistic design choices. Scenery can be intentionally suggestive in its execution rather than realistic in its representation of a particular environment. Costumes can be exaggerated versions of real clothing to enhance a particular character or stylistic choice, and unless the entire design team is utilizing a similar visual vocabulary, an audience member may find themselves confused as they watch a production unfold. Lighting can also serve to remind the audience that they are clearly sitting in a theatre auditorium watching a play. This can be achieved by how the lighting fixtures that are being used in a production are masked, or hidden from the audience’s view, or if the design team chooses to reveal the theatrical instruments to the audience. By revealing them, the designer is indicating that what the audience is witness to, is not real. It is an artifice or interpretation of reality through the lens of theatricality.

When a lighting designer chooses to use traditional stage drapery or other architectural and/or scenic elements to “hide” the physical lighting fixture, a conscious choice is being made to allow the illumination of the scene to appear to be as “realistic” as possible or to help the audience members focus on the fact that the use of artificial (theatrical) fixtures are not being utilized. In order to illustrate this concept, I will use two examples. In the first, it may be the goal of the lighting designer to help illuminate a scene where a table lamp is the only light needed to provide the necessary illumination for a particular scene. It is safe to assume that a typical 60-watt light bulb from a modest table lamp will be hard-pressed to light an entire stage. Especially if the audience chamber is large. For a realistic scene such as this, a lighting designer will typically add additional Key (primary) and Fill (secondary) light using theatrical fixtures to enhance the single light source seen by the audience on stage. However, if the lighting designer chooses to mask, or hide, the instruments that provide additional key (primary) and fill (secondary) fixtures to enhance or provide additional illumination for the motivational source – the 60-watt light bulb – an intentional decision is being made to try and “trick” the audience to believe the single source that is visible on stage is creating all of the light on the stage. This technique allows the audience members an opportunity to fully focus their attention on the actors in an immersive, real way.


Three actors on a stage made up of white walls. Passageways are evenly spaced along the back wall and the wall on the left side of the stage. Three actors stand equally distant from one another across the stage. They wear white costumes.
Big Love, produced by the Theatre Department at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville. Light Design: Shawn Irish. 2014.


When a show calls for the Lighting Designer to “expose” the lighting fixtures to the audience rather than hide them with masking drapes, how does that change the way an audience responds to the production?

Shawn Irish: I think audiences are becoming more and more accustomed to seeing the lighting fixtures in modern theatre productions. That includes traditional proscenium staging in addition to thrust, arena, or other flexible theaters. So much of theatre is moving to smaller spaces that seeing the fixtures hanging around the room has become part of the experience. More traditional theatrical stagings like musicals or operas in proscenium theaters are even beginning to let the lighting fixtures show. I think this still has a great deal to do with the taste and design aesthetic from the scenic designer. Many scenic designers still would rather hide the lighting fixtures, especially over the stage. We all know that you will see the lights out in the house, but we are slower to embrace seeing the lights hanging above the actors’ heads. I think there are productions out there like Hamilton that are changing how we feel about that. I will tell you that as a lighting designer it never bothers me to see the lights, but when I design scenery from time to time, I usually like to hide the lights!

If the lighting designer chooses to reveal the theatrical lighting fixtures to the audience, there is an acknowledgment by the designer that she is OK with the fact that the audience sees the artifice of the event. Revealing the theatrical fixtures is a signal to the audience that, “Yes. We know we are all sitting in a theatre together watching an event unfold before our eyes. We are not trying to ‘suspend your disbelief’ and trick you, the audience, into believing that what you are watching is in any way a real event.”

The Use of Spectacles in Light

In addition to illuminating the actors and scenery, the lighting designer is also responsible for making sure the stage picture is beautifully lit while lighting the actors. Depending on the architecture of the theatre, a lighting designer will create a lighting design that takes into consideration all that the audience sees. If the show is being presented in a proscenium theatre, it is important that the entire stage picture is composed and there are no distractions created by either an area that is too bright or a scene that is too dim. Unlike a motion picture where a director and cinematographer can zoom a camera into an actor’s face to capture the raw emotion of a scene in a highly controlled manner, only the lighting designer can provide that form of focus by isolating a scene with intensity, color, texture, or shape, to bring focus and attention to a particular moment in a play.



Spectacle can be a useful tool for the Lighting Designer. What are some examples of how you incorporate Spectacle into your designs? When is it appropriate and when is it a distraction?

Shawn Irish: I love spectacle! And I think spectacle is a wonderful thing to incorporate into our lighting designs. Lighting, more than any of the other design elements, has a unique ability to create spectacle and change the mood immediately and then change it back. You have to be very careful that small choices that you make don’t affect the other work going on in the play. I would say that research is key. If your research leads you to a place that lets spectacle become an element, then go for it! I would also caution designers to be careful because even subtle changes in lighting can pull an audience out of the moment. I think just like doctors, lighting designers should maybe take an oath…“first, do no harm!”

Two actors stand on stage. The stage is lit in pink on the left side and blue on the right side. The light beams are visible at the top of the image. Each actor stands on one side of the stage in a spotlight of white light.
Spring Awakening, produced by the Theatre Department at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville. Light Design: Shawn Irish. 2014.

Light also plays a fascinating role in how well an audience hears the actor. Often, a lighting designer will choose to light a scene with a lower intensity to encourage the audience members to focus more intently on what the actors are saying to one another, or directly to the audience in some instances. Low levels of light also illicit stronger feelings of suspense and mystery as well. Conversely, brightly lit scenes are found to elicit stronger feelings of happiness and humor.



How do you approach the use of shadows, or darkness when you design a play or musical?
Shawn Irish: I will admit that I am a little bit “of two minds” about this approach to lighting. I personally love shadows and I would never put a piece of scenery on the stage without throwing some kind of texture on it. The natural world is full of shadows and I think we should embrace that. Having said all of that, I always like to make sure that actors – particularly in plays, have nice clear light on their faces. I am very influenced by an experience I had as a young lighting designer. It was during a competition when the adjudicator remarked that I must have gone to the “school of squint” because much of the play was dim and shadowy. Ever since that moment, I have made sure that I can clearly see the actors in the plays that I light. I find that directors like that the best, and they are probably going to ask me for more face light anyway!

Developing Technical Skills

In addition to developing as a sensitive and thoughtful designer, a lighting designer must also be competent in a wide variety of technical skills. In addition to being able to accurately draft a lighting plot, the designer must be trained in play script analysis, collaboration, equipment knowledge, color theory, and basic electricity principles. These are just a few of the critically important tools a designer must obtain and maintain throughout her career in order to work as a freelance lighting designer. The skills mentioned above represent a wide range of what is ostensibly nothing more than communication skills. Skills that are both artistically and technically based are equally important to developing and maintaining a long, successful career as a working theatre artist.



Do you have any final thoughts or advice to give Lighting Designers who are pursuing this career path?
Shawn Irish: I would love to tell young lighting designers – get out of the theater once in a while! Go to a museum or go see a play that someone else is putting on. Go out and have some real experiences in your life, because those are exactly the kinds of things that will inform the work you do when you are sitting behind the lighting console.

Who does what?

  • The Lighting Designer designs the lights for a production.
  • The Master Electrical and the Electricians hang and focus the instruments.
  • The Light Board Operator records and operates the Light cues on the Light Board.

The Sound Designer

by Kiara Pipino

We can all agree that sounds and music make a huge difference in the way we perceive and experience something, so it should come as no surprise how much sound influences the audience’s reception of a theatre production.

Sound Design is a relatively new field in theatre although its contribution can really make a difference in the success of a show. Ultimately, the sound designer is responsible for everything that the audience hears coming from the stage.

The advent of microphones and recording devices has made a significant difference and actually is what led to the definition of a professional in the field. The first sound designer to be credited as such is the American artist Dan Dugan, who worked at the American Conservatory Theatre, in the 1968/1969 theatrical season.

The Process

Similarly to all other creatives, the Sound Designer’s first task is to read the play several times looking for what is needed in terms of sounds. The next step would be to compile a list of sound cues and research them. Similarly to costumes and sets, sounds need to be consistent with the style of the production. Sounds in fact can be incredibly telling of the timeframe of a play. Most ordinary, everyday sounds have changed hugely in time! A doorbell in the 18th Century sounded very different from our current one! The same can be said for phone ringtones, announcements, radio advertisements, train sounds, car sounds….and so much more.

The Sound Designer’s job is therefore to make sure that the sounds are accurate and consistent with the overall design and concept of the production.

There are databases of sounds – all recorded sounds are called canned sounds – that can be accessed and that provide a wide variety of sounds belonging to several time frames, but if nothing fits what the designer is looking for there might be the need to make a recording of it. Most Sound Designers have a background in music and technical theatre and are usually very skilled at recording new material, including sounds, music, or even announcements. The greatest value of a canned sound is that it will always be the same, while the volume can be adjusted according to the needs of the production.

At times, music is also required in the production, to underscore a scene and provide atmosphere, and music usually plays as the audience enters the theatre and at the end of the production. Selecting the music or composing the specific music that is needed is also a task that the Sound Designer needs to accomplish. Like the other designers, the sound designer needs to discuss the choices with the entire creative team, specifically with the director.

When the designer has completed the list of sounds needed for the production and has shared it with the creative team, it is time for the sounds to be implemented in the production. Hence, the designer hands the sound cue list -or sound plot- and the recorded sounds to the Sound Board Operator, who records them in the Sound Board and then launches them during the show.


Body Microphones – or Wireless Microphones

One of the most delicate decisions that the Sound Designer needs to make is about the right kind of microphones needed for the production.

Mind you, not all shows require to be amplified. For example, intimate productions staged in Black Box theatres or small venues can usually rely on the actors’ ability to project. Actors are trained to support their voice in a way that it can carry more sound, and theatres are also usually designed and built to facilitate the acoustic. Yet, in particular when it comes to musicals or when productions take place in big venues microphones have become necessary.

The most common microphone in use is the wireless body microphone, which is a small device that is given to each actor and is concealed in their hair and secured to their body. Those microphones work on a radio system and rely on batteries, which need to be changed before the show. Each microphone is given a number, and all mics are operated by the Sound Board so that they can be turned on and off according to the needs of the show. Body mics are reliable, although they can malfunction and generate odd sounds and  “background noise.” Most notably, the microphones will pick up everything, and that means that they have to be carefully secured and the mic itself needs to be as close as possible to the mouth of the actor.


Actor in costume and make up for Wicked! An actor is painted with green makeup and wears a black witch's had and a black dress. A small microphone is visible on her forehead.
You can see the wireless mic on the actor’s forehead. “Look at that smile!” by The Western Sky is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Panoramic microphones

Panoramic mics are more complex, wired microphones that are mostly utilized to capture and amplify the stage area rather than a single person. They are particularly used for concerts, where the orchestra is on stage. They can be located downstage, on the apron,  if there isn’t a lot of movement on stage (otherwise they would pick up the sound of the steps!). Otherwise, they can be hung above the stage.


A directional microphone. Photo by Kiara Pipino.

Hand Held microphones

Hand-held microphones are the ones that are most loved by singers, as they provide the greatest support to the voice with little alteration to the overall sound. They are rarely used in theatre productions though, as they would break the illusion of realism in the storytelling.


The Foley Table

In the early/middle of the 20th Century, radio dramas – theatrical productions that used the radio as their platform, sort of the ancestors of podcasts, and audiobooks- needed to include sounds that could not be recorded but had to be created live during the broadcasting of the production. In order to make it happen there was an artist would work alongside the actors and create those sounds with various objects. At times, it was sufficient to use everyday things, such as shoes, or a bell, or a bucket full of water that could be stirred and generate the sound of the waves. At times, on the other hand, the artist had to be creative and build something that could achieve the needed sound. These artists, called Foley artists, use what is known as the Foley Table, which is a table with all the sound-generating objects that are needed and has microphones to amplify them. The name Foley comes from Jack Donovan Foley, who was a sound artist working at Universal Studios creating sounds to underscore silent movies.


Image of a Foley artist operating sounds. A man in a white shirt and black headphones stands at a table that holds various objects.
“Brand Upon the Brain Foley Artist” by Steve Rhodes is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.




Canned Sound


Foley Table/Jack Donovan Foley


Led Fixtures

Light Board

Light Board Operator

Light Plot

Master Electrician



Sound Board

Sound Board Operator

Sound Plot

Sound Databases




Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

#TheatreAppreciation Copyright © 2022 by Michael Riha is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book