I am sure that many of you have been in the situation where you need to work out how to create a lighting effect, or have seen an effect on stage, and wondered how it was created. We can have wonderful ideas, but until we try things out we do not know how they can work in practice, or we can achieve achieve our intentions.

Stage lights

Recently I have been doing lighting for a show at my local theatre, and it has alerted me to how effective subtle lighting can be. This blog will explain how I achieved some lighting effects for ‘The Railway Children‘ that I co-designed the lights for recently, and will also refer to a play I saw in New York recently, that used very subtle lighting, very effectively. The play was ‘The Height of the Storm’ by Florian Zeller. If you have not come across Florian Zeller yet, then look him up. He is French playwright who is getting a lot of attention for his sensitive writing that addresses mental health issues in older people.  I hope that these ideas will help you and your students with your own lighting designs. 

Below are some of the techniques we used in ‘The Railway Children’ and after each moment I have added some detail about the types of lights used:

Outside to inside and day to night with the same stage area: During the play there is a moment where the children and their mother arrive at the station then walk from the station into their new home and try to find the lights. This all happens as they walk from upstage (USC ) to stage centre (CS) and down stage left (DSL). As they moved we did the following: For the station the lighting was a wash with a yellow tinge, bright and soft at intensity 80%. As they left the station we did a slow cross-fade to intensity 20% and the area light slowly changed from the USC area to CS. Again, as they moved into the house area the lights followed, them with an overlap of the CS and DSL to add a slight pink tinge for the warmth of the room and the night glow. When they found candles and lit them we brought the intensity of the lights in that area quickly up to 60%. 

Train pulling into the station: For this the director had the Old Man character in an arm chair on wheels entering from USL to CS to represent the train (sounds a bit odd, but did work in practice). As he entered we did a slow chase light (a short sequence of lights that goes from one place to another, in this case across the stage from USL to USC, adding lights to the stage areas as they come on) that followed him and the smoke machine was positioned underneath the set USL so that it could billow after him and follow his moment. The smoke machine was rigged up to go on at the same time as the chase light. The smoke grew with the increase of light on stage.

Night at the station around the coal pile: This was a scene where Peter was creeping to steal coal from Perks’ coal pile. We needed to swathe them in darkness then show a contrast when Perks puts his lamp on. We did a side and overhead light of pink at about 20% and then added some warm yellow light from the downstage lighting bar when he brought his lamp to Peter’s face, to light the area where the railway children were standing.

Land slide of trees landing on the platform: This is a moment in the play where the children see the trees literally sliding down the hillside onto the line. We had the area lit where the children were (USC) as they moved downstage we had a full stage wash, but then dimmed the lights as they took their positions CSR. Once they were up on the platform looking up at the hillside we could do a side light from CSR onto them and a chase light of green across the stage, repeated, to show the trees falling. This was accompanied by a sound effect of branches breaking and soil moving.  

Train passing in a tunnel: This is a scene where the children are in a tunnel looking for the hare in a paper chase that has not emerged from the tunnel. They are walking along the tunnel wall when a train passes. The stage was a very dim wash then as the train passed we put bright white lights on them as they screamed, before they were plummeted back into darkness. The lights on them were made more effective when them screaming as the train was imagined to pass them as the light came on. 

Lighting for ‘The Height of the Storm‘ by Florian Zeller

I went to see this play in New York, and it is about an elderly couple. The man is experiencing the onset of Dementia, and Zeller, through his writing, helps us see the world through the old man’s eyes. His goal is goal is to blend what is happening in the present, memories and the imagination. The play is cleverly crafted so that scenes mix and blend, but the lighting designer helped up to know what state we were in by doing the following:

  1. Having characters in shadow when they were on stage but they had become a memory or an echo
  2. Areas lit brightly for the present with daylight coming in from the windows to show changing times of day – when shifts took place in memory and imagination the lighting through the window changed too
  3. Doors took on different meaning when lit differently and the old man on stage shifted a new location with the door coming from/going to a different place 

What was so clever about this play was that we, as an audience, were confused about time of day, location and who was real or imagined, but the piece was so fluid and seamless that things disappeared from and merged into shadow without us being conscious of it to start with.