Tips, Tricks and Road Stories


How To Achieve Good Lighting With A Minimum Budget

Using Projections From the Front of the Stage Instead of Costly Backdrops
January 11, 2012; Jeff Samaha

Lighting for community theater can be quite troublesome depending on what the venue looks like, what kind of stage you have available and how much you have in the budget to spend on lighting equipment. It is very difficult when a group is saddled with a low budget and cannot afford to do a show in a professional theater, But if you have the luxury and budget to be able to rent a professional theater, you will find that most will have their lights set up in what’s called a standard repertory plot (basic focusing of light for the actors to walk in and out of, perhaps divided into six areas of the stage ) (See Figure 1) for you to use and you might find a way to utilize that plot to work for your show. It is very basic, but sometimes doable. If your show has a complex lighting requirement, you may have to hire a lighting director to rehang and refocus the lights to your liking, to get the look you want. So if you can live with the repertory plot and move your actors around in the existing light, you'll save a lot of money.
What to do when you don't have a professional theater                         
When you have to light with only a few instruments available..or maybe none at all, it's wise to rent some gear from a sound and light company. Have them provide trees (pole stands to which you can clamp lighting instruments vertically up and down the pole. Place them on either side of the audience. Or if the room has a steel bar across the ceiling of the room about a third of the way into the audience, you can hang lamps from there. (Make sure the bar is secured firmly and can handle the weight and you've flown your cables keeping them off the floor).
Once you have the safety issue solved, it's time to choose your lamps and hang them for focusing. If I'm not lucky enough to have access to a professional theater, which is most of the time, I rent a selection of lamps (along with the power amps, cables and a simple lighting board to go along). If you tell the rental company what your show requirements are, they will know what kind of instruments to provide. They will most likely have pars, leikos, scoops and/or fresnels which have various usages and throw power.
Much of the design will be determined by the movement of the action on stage, the set pieces, the backdrop, whether or not you need walls to make a room. It could be simple and it could be complex. I've seen groups who have no money and just throw on the overhead lights that most church halls have on the ceiling of the stage.. which are basically work lights. It will illuminate the stage and by shutting the house lights over the audience, they will see just fine ... but it won't be pretty! So if you have the money to rent a simple set up and you place the lamps effectively, you can hook them up to a simple light board (See Figure 2) giving you the ability to fade individual/groups of lamps. You can make presets which allow you to light different parts of the set for different scenes, and crossfade back and forth between them.
I don't like using follow spotlights except maybe to create a mood for a song by dimming the set lights and putting the singer in a follow spot if he/she is moving, or a "special" (designated lamp for a specific area on the stage and if the singer is stationary). Place a gel on the special or spot for skin tone.  I've also seen groups use follow spots to light the entire stage by widening the beam, squaring it off and locking it down. Well if you have no other choice what can you do? At least you will see the action. However it will look flat with huge shadows from the actors and set pieces against the back wall of the stage.
Once you have your lights up, focused and configured in the board, you might find the light very harsh. That would be the time to make sure your lighting company brings along some diffusion paper and colored gels to put over some of the lights. Colored gel paper will help take out some harshness as well and will also add some color as when mixed in with the diffused white light. It really all depends on what kind of show you’re doing. Don't be afraid to experiment with the various types of instruments. Oh by the way, If you're lighting from the front with lamps on the overhead bar, cross light the areas of the stage as if the lights were on the side poles. Try not to light head on, which may create hot spots. What I'm describing here is the bare minimum to save money and still give a decent look to the stage.
Projections used as backdrops for the stage
Years ago, I would rent fancy backdrops (See figure 3) with scenes or textures for the back wall of the stage which was very costly, and I would have to rent several drops if the show had more than one look or setting. The problem with hanging backdrops is... if your hall doesn't have fly space (high ceiling) and it's not equipped to hang those drops (pipe rigging) you're out of luck unless you use one backdrop for the entire look. Even if you're lucky enough to have your show in a real theater, your stage area will need to have a high ceiling with the proper pipes from which to hang backdrops (one in front of the other) and be able to fly (raise and lower) them it in and out as needed, not to speak of the big expense involved. So I said to myself, "self" what would be the next best thing.
One day while looking around the theater, I noticed they had a projector mounted just below the booth, in the back and up high. I thought, 'well they must use that to show movies," since there was a screen rolled up just behind the act curtain. I thought, "why couldn't I use the projector to create a setting or backdrop up against the back wall?" The tech guy said, "you really have to project from the rear so the image doesn't fall on the cast." Guess what? There was no space behind the back wall of the stage to rear project. Plus, he said “with the stage lights up, the projection would be washed out.” He was somewhat correct, but I was determined to get around those problems. So I experimented with projecting a photo onto the back wall. It was dark and empty on the stage so It looked pretty good. The moment I put actors in place and turned up the lights, the photo looked washed out, and you could see the image fall on the actors. The tech guy said, "see, it doesn't work."
I suggested perhaps lighting from a steeper angle and masking the light off the back wall, and he said, in his Australian accent, "you caahn't down light ... this is not daance." (hope he's not reading this article). And I said, "why not? Let's light low key, from the wings and at a steeper angle from the front.(taking as much light off the back wall as possible)." So with a little persuasion, he acquiesced and sure enough the photo looked less washed out, but the image still fell on the cast. I raised the height of the projector and brought it forward (closer to the stage) creating a steeper angle, but then the image began to keystone (distort). Luckily most projectors, even cheap ones have a keystone adjustment on them. I was able to correct that, but some of the image still fell on the actors. I continued to rehearse while the tech tried to make more lighting adjustments, and what I realized was...after a while I no longer noticed the image falling on the cast, especially when they were moving around. It felt more like they were moving in and out of dark areas on the stage and less like a mistake. I went with the "optical illusion" for the show and virtually no one noticed the problem. (See figure 4) The audience was drawn by the performance and "forgave" the visual issue.
Another way to create a backdrop is with "gobos" which are 3 or 4 inch round metal filters that slip into the slot on a leiko (lighting instrument) which create patterns on the back wall, or on the stage floor, if you want to create a breakup (pattern). They are usually monochromatic (one color unless gelled, since the light focuses through cutouts in the gobo). There are gobos that are made of glass and have a photo image on them. However, they can be expensive, plus you would have to have them made to your liking for your show. There are generic ones, but again more expensive than hole-cut gobos.
Incidentally, as you gobo an instrument, you are eliminating that particular lamp for any other usage. So if there are 6 gobos being used, you're also using 6 precious lamps for lighting the stage. And for the gobos to work well you need to focus the lamps on a cyc or cyclorama (a curtain made of muslin which is stretched across the back of the stage). (See Figure 5 ) However, In a church hall, you would have to pray there is a light colored wall at the back of the stage area. Plus you wouldn't want to waste your instruments on gobos especially with so few lighting instruments in this situation. 
To sum up: You can use the projection technique in a small room (church hall), or on a large professional stage from the front, and change the backdrops as many times as you will need to for the show or concert. Use gobos as a second choice or maybe a mix of both. In either case have a great show and don't be discouraged by the cost involved.

Jeff Samaha is a network television stage manager/director who also produces, directs and conducts orchestra for Community Theater and Chorus in Brooklyn, New York. Good lighting is a must for him and this article explains how he achieves the quality he wants for his productions. Feel free to email him with your production issues.

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