Lighting up the stage

 8 February 2011

Lighting technicians set up and operate lighting equipment during theatre productions. Both creative and technical, they can use lights to achieve a variety of effects to dramatically alter the mood and shape of a performance.

The Little Mermaid was one of The Rep's theatre productions.
The Little Mermaid was one of The Rep's theatre productions.

Kate Hall is the Deputy Lighting Engineer for the Dundee Repertory Theatre. Founded in 1939, ‘The Rep’ occupies a purpose-built theatre in the cultural quarter of Dundee. The theatre is home to Dundee Rep Ensemble, Scotland's only full-time resident actors' company, as well as The Scottish Dance Theatre and a Creative Learning Programme.

Lighting a stage production

“We're maintenance at the moment,” said Hall, speaking in July, as the theatre prepared to start rehearsals for its September production. “A dark period, usually during the summer when you get to clean all the equipment, get it ready for the next season and tidy up.”

Hall works alongside the Chief Electrician and the Head of Sound. The team has a few weeks before to prepare, but ultimately will only have two days to get everything on stage and ready for the actors.

“Lighting happens quite late in the process. Aside from getting the overall concept and being on the right wavelength, it's about where people are on stage. Once rehearsals are fairly well stabilised, we'll watch a bit of rehearsals and then we'll start the process - rigging lights, the set will come in, we'll focus the lights, spot the lights and then we'll begin our technical rehearsal.”

“What we are asked to do that week is very straightforward - we just have to do our own job. There are a lot of other people trying to create really good work and they are under real pressure, real stress. There are flare-ups, stresses and tensions, but the technician’s job is about not getting involved in that.”

Becoming a lighting engineer

Hall initially wanted to be a television camera operator, and only applied for a stage management course as an afterthought. “I didn't really know what it was, but the more I read up on stage management I thought this is really appealing and sounds like a lot of fun.”

"Working out how to get the best out of some rubbish old lantern is a really valuable skill to have and will make life a lot easier.”

Hall took a Diploma in Drama/ Stage Management at Queen Margaret College in Edinburgh. “Because it was a Diploma and not a Degree it was not too rigidly structured. I spent as much time as I possibly could in the Light and Sound Department. I thought: this is what I want to do, this is where you get the good toys and fun stuff to play with.”

Working with different production companies in London, Hall came back to Scotland and got a job at Dundee Rep. “The first few jobs I had when I came back up were stage management - you just have to be very versatile.”

When starting out in theatre, reputation and contacts are hugely important. “The more work that you do, the more you get. When you're starting out you just have to say ‘yes’ to everything. Because if you say ‘no’, they will get somebody else to do that job and then they'll ask them again next time.”

Skills for a lighting engineer

Technology is always advancing in theatre lighting, with stationary lights superseded by automated 'moving lights'. “When I started, moving lights were a real rarity,” says Hall. “You could only hire them, but now they are really quite commonplace. Things have got more complicated, but they have got easier.”

Despite this, it is important to have a solid grasp of the basic techniques. “Just working out how to do a good general coverage, or how to get the very best out of some rubbish old lantern, are really valuable skills to have and will make life a lot easier.”

Choosing a career in theatre

“The more work that you do, the more you get. When you're starting out you just have to say ‘yes’ to everything."

What is it like to work in theatre? “You're under pressure, but it's not like an office job.” The schedules for the lighting team are generally based around the show, and Hall’s working hours vary, “you've got to be very flexible.”

All of the Scottish theatres help and support one another, from lending a vital piece of equipment to a touring company, to passing on knowledge about where to source materials. “We work long days, but we're very supportive of each other.”

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