Theatre Lighting: Equipment & Terms

Instructor: Sunday Moulton

Sunday earned a PhD in Anthropology and has taught college courses in Anthropology, English, and high school ACT/SAT Prep.

This lesson takes a look at the basic terms and equipment used in theatrical lighting, including what light fixtures produce particular effects and when to use them.

Let There Be Light!

Imagine if you sat in a theater's audience and watched actors stumble around on a dark stage, or even sat in an outdoor theater and tried to watch a show lit only with sunlight. Not very interesting is it?

One of the most critical aspects of a theater performance is the ability for the audience to see the action. In a darkened auditorium, lighting professionals use several types of equipment to produce effects to:

  • highlight the main focus of action
  • separate foreground from background
  • create mood

Stage Lighting Example
Stage Lighting

Basic Terms

Before delving into the different equipment and techniques, let's look at a few basic terms used in stage lighting. While some of these are terms for equipment, knowledge of them will assist in explaining more complicated lighting technology as we go.

Lamps: lighting term for light bulbs used in theatrical equipment

Fixtures: the light fixture holding the bulbs; if it has no lens it is called an 'open-face fixture'.

Cyclorama: a curved backdrop, sometimes made of cloth, used to create background scenery with colored light and images projected onto it.

Patterns: cut-out design slid into a frame called a 'pattern holder'. These project the pattern onto the stage to create various effects.

Gels: sheets of colored plastic put in front of a light to create a colorful lighting effect. These are placed into a metal holder on the front of a light called a 'color frame'.

Shutters: moveable attachments that cover part or all of a fixture to control the output and shape of the light beam. If shutters have a hinged panel, rather than a sliding track, they care called 'barndoors'.

Snoot: long cylinder attached to light fixtures to help focus the beam, also called a 'top hat'.


Lighting systems generally have four types of equipment: fixtures, a control console, dimmers to control the intensity of the light fixtures, and a distribution system to send information from the control console to the other parts.

For this lesson, we'll focus on the fixtures and their two primary functions of accenting and washing.

Accent Lighting

Guitar player in spotlight
Guitar Player in Spotlight

Accent light uses bright lights with a focused beam to bring attention to a specific part of the stage, usually where the main action takes place.

Two fixtures fulfill this role, ellipsoidal spotlights and followspots:

  • Ellipsoidal spotlights produce a bright beam with features allowing technicians to adjust the focus from sharp-edged to diffused and attachments to hold patterns and gels.
  • Followspots produce a bright accent light on a subject in motion, but require a human operator to direct the beam. Think figure skating or dance routines where the light moves around to center on someone who moves around quite a bit.

Accent lighting fixtures
Accent Lighting Equipment

Wash Lighting

Wash lighting, or washes, uses lights without such defined edges to the beam and sometimes dimmer lights to create a soft illumination for the general stage area. Often, this includes colored lights to set a mood or patterns to create an interesting background.

Lighting experts generally use five different fixtures to create washes:

Stage filled with a red wash lighting.

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