Switched On - Setting the Mood

Alongside basic illumination, stage lighting is all about realising an appropriate setting or mood.

And the act of creating a suitable atmosphere within which the drama can unfold, is down to the decisions the lighting designer makes about the choice of equipment: where to place it - how to shape it - what colour to give to it.  Each lighting unit working alone, or in tandem with others, to create a ‘look’ or a ‘mood’ on stage.

A lighting designer must be aware of how light ‘works’ - both in the real world and when applied to the artificial setting of a stage space. A keen visual awareness has to be allied to a practised use of instruments and the combining of them to create stage pictures, atmospheres and moods.


The creation of a ‘stage picture’ is defined by the creative need of any given moment, and can be literal or abstract, or somewhere in-between. For example – the lighting may need to suggest a cold moonlit winter’s night – a very literal use of light - or to express the notion of tragic horror – a more abstract concept. Or possibly both: a cold winter’s night imbued with tragic horror!

How to create a perfect stage picture comes from experience, and naturally in all aspects of light a sense composition is never far away.  This is because whether play with lighting angles or colour we start to make value judgements as to which we prefer and how we want anything to look.

Considering at all times, what it is we like and what we do not like, or: what works and what doesn’t.  It is but a short step, one of practice and more practice, between this and making the same decisions concerning a piece of stage action or drama.

And of course in making artistic visual decisions there is no ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, simply preferences – ours, a director’s, a designer’s, an audience’s.

We need to be in touch with the other artistic contributors to the drama – including most importantly the author’s. And with the expectations of our audience in particular – for they too have an underlying expectation of what light does in the real world and therefore what it’s use will mean or suggest to them within a stage setting.

It is important therefore that we refine and develop our ideas as to what is effective, and this we can do as follows:

LOOK – look at light everywhere and work out how it is being created and how you would recreate it on stage – light in the real world outdoors, indoors, on film, and on stage.

LEARN – look at how artists have used light and (even regardless of light) how they have composed their pictures – this applies to painters in particular – good examples being: Rembrandt, Caravaggio, Vermeer (right: The Girl With A Pearl Earring), Hockney. It is important that we develop a ‘good eye’ – an appreciation of what makes a good picture.

PRACTICE – take every opportunity to try out ideas, new things, better things; to explore, and to create with light.  For ‘practice makes perfect’. – and we need to learn how to balance the light from different sources in order to ‘paint’ great pictures on stage.


In developing one’s skills as a Lighting Designer there is no substitution for actually doing the job. However in preparation for undertaking an actual design it is useful to try things out first by practical experimentation.  You can usefully set your own experiments or set them for your colleagues. In addition, whilst described for the individual, most of these exercises can be easily adapted for group work.

It is also a good idea to keep a notebook or JOURNAL of ideas, references, sketches, past successes, pictures, photographs, postcards, etc, etc. Such a journal can become a source of good ideas and a useful aide memoir.  Certainly the results and any sketches or notes made whilst working on the following exercises could be usefully included in such a journal.

GENERAL NOTES: Most practical exercises require that you can obtain a blackout and the use of several light sources – obviously theatre lanterns are intended but in some exercises torches may also suffice. Some of the exercises may also work in miniature – i.e. using small torches and a table top. Other, non-practical exercises, are of the kind that will help you fill a note book or a journal of ideas.  These latter are marked***

Exercise 19: REALITY CHECK

a. Choose one or several from the following list of EXTERIOR scenes:







b. Choose a small stage area – (e.g. one metre square) – and place within it any normal abject to light – e.g. a chair, a potted plant, whatever you have at hand.

c. Create a piece of lighting within your chosen area to suggest the subject(s) chosen in a). Pay particular attention to the choice of colour and how it works alongside your choice of other elements – i.e. shape, direction, intensity. Also do not worry too much about what or who you are lighting - concentrate more on getting the mood and, in particular, its coloration right.

NOTES: In order to carry out this exercise you will, of course, have to decide where you will place yourself or your audience to view the final product. This point-of-view (POV) plays an important part in most of the physical exercises that follow.

An important part of this exercise will be the creation of a strong and defining ‘key’ light source (or sources) – whether it be sunshine, a street light or whatever. The effectiveness of this, along with the way other elements are combined, will see how realistic your lighting is.  And how well you have seen the manner in which light and colour work in the real world.

Exercise 20: OUTSIDE IN

a. Choose one or several from the following list of INTERIOR scenes:


b. Follow all the steps for exercise 19 above.


Once again ‘key’ light will play its part in these creations, but unlike exteriors, the interior can be a mixture of many real and artificial sources of light.  However, once again, the manner in which these are combined and connected to each other will lend itself to their effectiveness. And will again show how well you have seen the manner in which light works in the real world.


a. Stand a friend or colleague in a central position to light.

b. Rig some units to create lighting to place your ‘actor’ in one or more of the following moods:








NOTES: As with previous exercises this is a good one to ask unsuspecting friends or colleagues to try and guess the mood you are creating.  Your ‘actor’ should be asked not to help – he/she must just stand or sit in place.  The question of setting is not such an acute one here – it matters not where the scene is set, or whether the light sources are ‘real’ or not. However a use of key and a good sense of balance in the light sources is going to be imperative if you want to create effective, dramatic and exciting lighting.

Exercise 22: RELATIVITY


a. Stand a friend or colleague in a central position to light

b. Use a steeply angled un-gelled footlight to light your ‘actor’ as if in a horror movie

c. Add any other number of units to help set the mood


d. It is important that we understand the concept of CONTEXT within a stage setting.  The same footlight that has given you such an effective and ‘ghastly’ effect can (in the right context) also provide sympathetic and friendly lighting – thus:

e. Take away all units except the footlight

f. Take the footlight to a low, warm level

g. If possible, find a way to flicker it as if it is a warm, glowing fire

NOTES: This exercise is worth trying out for yourself and to show others. When a group look at the usually very persuasive first use of the footlight it is usually the case that very few, if any, can imagine the same light and angle providing something as cosily upbeat as the second use of it - and all with no refocus, and no colour. Often you need to describe the setting and get your ‘actor’ to appear to warm their hands at the glow – but once seen it is equally persuasive.

It just goes to show context is everything.


Exercise 23: IN THE MOOD

a. Choose a small stage area (1m–2m square), and place within it some everyday objects – table and chairs, pile of books, coffee cups, hat stand, etc

b. Choose or randomly pick one or more of the pairs of subjects in the list below

c. Create 2 lighting states that place the objects into the two contrasting moods of your chosen pair

HORROR / FANTASY                  FREEDOM / IMPRISONMENT                   GOOD / BAD

WAR / PEACE           FAST / SLOW                  HOT / COLD               BIG / SMALL

VARIATION: You can repeat this exercise, or something like it, with any pair of subjects – and they don’t have to be opposites, in fact the more obscure the better – your imagination is the only boundary – (and a sense of humour can make a big difference – these exercises should, after all, be fun) so make your own up, or try:

SWEET & SOUR        FISH & CHIPS         WEAK & STRONG                 DRUNK & SOBER


These ‘games’ are all about using light imaginatively – stretching your ideas and discovering new and wonderful things that you can do to bring a space alive.  Some of them could take some while to get to a satisfactory conclusion but it should be stressed that in most cases a very few units will usually suffice.  Certainly they should not become boring by taking too long. So, likewise, any outside opinion should be tempered by the need to find quick solutions – time to tidy up our lighting later – for now fun is the essence.



a. Choose a favourite nursery story or rhyme, or one from the following list:





b. These ‘tales’ are essentially very simple – having decided upon one of them, think out how you could tell the story and create the setting or settings within it using lighting and a few basic props only – i.e. a shoe, a cloth, a bean or even a cow.

c. Create this lighting in a small area – possibly even the corner of your usable space.  Creating either a single state or a set of cues as seems most appropriate to communicate the essence of the piece. Concentrate on the mood of the piece rather than being too literal.

d. Ask someone who has not been following your exercise to comment on the finished work. Hopefully they will guess the mood you have been aiming at, even if the actual piece itself remains obscure.

NOTES:These ‘games’ are all about communicating ideas and moods to an audience.  If you find you are not getting the results you would wish, think again about the choices you have made and how they communicate to your ‘audience’. Think about the way your work looks to someone who is seeing it for the first time - think about the use you have made of lighting angles, shapes and colours.  And whether you are overcomplicating things (a common mistake – simple is best).

Make sure you have a clarity in your mind about what works; what is effective – and what is not, before moving on to the next exercises – if you are having difficulties at this point read over the previous notes or seek advice.



a. In a good translation (have one recommended to you if you are not sure), choose one of the following Greek tragedies and read it through thoroughly:




b. The stories behind these short plays are quite simple – imagine how you could tell the story using lighting and a few basic props only – i.e. a knife, a shoe, a cloth, etc.

c. In a small space, create this lighting as either a single state or a set of cues to tell the story (without any performers) .  Concentrate on the mood of the piece, rather than being too literal.

VARIATION:  The reason for this choice of plays is the overwhelming and rarely shifting mood

of each piece.  In fact any simple story will do – you may like to choose your own text – but the essence of the piece is that the arc of the story and its inherent mood be quite simple.

NOTES:These ‘games’ are once again all about setting mood and communicating ideas.  The Greek pieces may be rather obscure, but it is important that we begin to tackle text and plot.  Once again an outside opinion (from an interested and positive source) on your finished work will always be helpful.  Whatever else, the following remain important:

1) Do not set yourself too big an area to cover

2) Keep things simple

3) Remember there is not such thing as a right or a wrong answer

4) Enjoy yourself




d. Choose one of the following (hopefully) familiar Shakespearean scenes – looking them up and re-reading them if required;

The Balcony scene from  ‘Romeo and Juliet’

Macbeth’s first meeting with the witches scene from ‘Macbeth’

The Gravedigger scene form ‘Hamlet’

The death of Cleopatra scene from ‘Antony and Cleopatra’

Titania and Bottom love scene in the bower from ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’

The assassination of Julius Caesar from ‘Julius Caesar’

e. Choose a small stage area (1m–2m square), and place within it some everyday objects to light– e.g. table and chairs, pile of books,  etc.

f. Create a single state of lighting for your scene, concentrating on getting the mood for it as close as possible to that which you think most suitable for the scene.

VARIATION: Any familiar strong dramatic scene will provide what is needed for this exercise- it could as well be the trial scene from Miller’s ‘The Crucible’ or some other such like.

What is not important for this exercise is what an ‘actor’ would look like in the lighting but rather that from an observer’s point of view the mood looks right.  However on completion of the exercise it should be quite revealing to then ask someone to place themselves within or walk through the lit scene.

NOTES: The object of this exercise is to continue the exploration of mood setting – naturally the missing elements or elements here are the performers – hence the next exercise.



a. Choose one of the following (hopefully) familiar Shakespearean scenes – looking them up and re-reading them if required:

The death of Mercutio from ‘Romeo and Juliet’

Banquo’s murder from ‘Macbeth’

The courtroom scene from ‘The Merchant of Venice’

Antony’s ‘Friends, Romans, Countrymen’ speech from ‘Julius Caesar’

‘Henry’s ‘Once more unto the breach, dear friends’ speech from ‘Henry V’

The death of Desdemona from ‘Othello’

b. Choose a small stage area (1m–2m square), and place a student, friend or colleague as an ‘actor’ in it

c. Create a single state of lighting for your scene, concentrating on placing the ‘actor’ clearly within the scene and the mood of the scene as you understand it

NOTES: To get both the mood of the scene right and actor well lit is not always as easy as doing either separately.

Naturally the placing of the scene – the indicated time of day and whether the scene is interior or exterior will all have come into play. But also the overriding feeling or mood of the scene is also vitally important and has to be included in your thinking.

Hopefully you will have combined the need to see the actor with the task of putting him/her into an interesting and dramatic setting.  Having done so it is also interesting to see if you have managed this all over your area or only where you have placed your ‘actor’. In other words is the ‘actor’ free to move around the space, and in doing so, does the mood and visibility stay convincing.

As with all of these exercises the important thing is to learn from your successes as well as your errors.Building an increasing knowledge of technique and equipment, and developing a vocabulary and a facility within your work that you can take on to ever bigger stages.