How to Work with a Lighting Designer
Jeffrey E. Salzberg
I sometimes ask friends and colleagues, "Is your job what you do or is it who you are?" Almost every dancer of
whom I've asked this question has replied with some variation on "I'm a dancer. It controls every aspect of my
being. It's who I am." Likewise, I am a lighting designer, specifically a dance lighting designer. I think in light
the way musicians think in music and choreographers think in movement. Some choreographers do not seem to
realize that effective dance lighting does not "just happen"; in order to do my work I must go through a specific
design process. This is what led me to write this article.
Please realize that the following describes my personal approach to the process; other professional lighting designers
may work in different ways. While other professionals may differ in practice, few will differ in principle.
NOTE: IN VARIOUS PARTS OF THIS ARTICLE I HAVE REFERRED TO LIGHTING DESIGNERS USING THE MASCULINE PRONOUN. THIS IS
NOT DUE TO ANY ASSUMPTION OF GENDER, BUT RATHER COMES FROM THE FACT THAT I AM WRITING FROM MY PARTICULAR POINT
OF VIEW -- AND I HAPPEN TO BE A MALE.
The word "design" implies both planning and execution.
Many people think the lighting design is created in the technical rehearsal. This is not so. Others see the myriad
pieces of arcane drawings and paperwork which surround the professional designer and think that they constitute
the design. Again, not so. The lighting design is created in the designer's head over the course of several weeks
before the production loads into the theater. The technical rehearsal is when the design is realized. The various
pieces of paper serve as road maps to further us on our journey. This is why designers find it frustrating when
choreographers turn to us during technical rehearsals and say things such as, "Oh, I wanted this section to be blue."
The subtext of that (which the choreographer may not even realize but which the lighting designer most certainly
does) is, "The time you've already spent working on this dance means nothing to me." The choreographer certainly has the
right to have that particular section be blue, but it would have been more respectful of the designer's time -- and art -- for that information
to have been shared earlier.
How much time have I already spent on the dance by that point? I've watched it, either live or on video at least
three times -- usually 5-6 times. I've analyzed the movement in terms of focus, mood, and tempo. I've spent an
hour or more (depending on the length, complexity, and overall nature of the dance) transcribing notes and writing
cues. I've spent a total of 4-8 hours drafting the light plot and preparing the associated paperwork. The stagehands
have spent 4-8 hours (sometimes much, much more) hanging the show and I've spent several hours working with
them to focus each fixture
When I begin working on a dance, I first watch it one or two times to get the general "feel" of it. I rarely take any
notes at this point; the idea is to get an overview of the work. After this, now that I have a frame of reference, I
like to talk to the choreographer and get her or his ideas (more on this later). I then begin to take detailed notes on
movement and music, watching the dance two or three more times.
In most cases, by this point I have not yet written a single light cue. I then watch the dance several more times, first
taking general lighting notes and progressively getting more detailed. At this point, I have several pages of notes,
none of which are in any form that a stage electrician could use to realize the design in the theater; in other words,
I have a lighting design, but not in a usable format. After I've watched and made my decisions for each dance on
the program, I must draft the light plot (the drawing which tells the stagehands which lights go where) and prepare
the various documents which contain explanatory detail.
By now, I've watched the dance anywhere from 3 to 8 times -- sometimes more. It's very helpful if at least one
of those viewings can be in the studio, but generally it's more convenient to watch the piece on videotape. It is very
important that the dance I'm watching be the dance I'm going to light. This means that:
A. I must see the entire, completed dance.
B. I must see an accurate version of the choreography. If you've made anything other than the most minute
changes since the videotape was recorded, please make a new tape. Once, I was given a recording of
a 2-minute dance. When I got to the theater, I discovered that the dance was 4 minutes long, with a
completely different beginning and ending. This invalidated all the work I had already done on the dance;
all I could do at that point was to build a general full-stage cue. This cheated me out of the chance to show
the best work I could do and it cheated the choreographer out of having the best possible lighting.
C. The videotape should be recorded under bright white light. Please do not give me a video recorded
during a performance. There are two reasons for this:
1. Performance videos are often very dim, making it difficult to see the movement. I was recently
given a video which was so dark that I could only distinguish the first 20 seconds of movement.
Choreographers seem sometimes to think that the purpose of providing a video is to give the
designer a blank tape on which to tape Star Trek; they don't seem to realize that the purpose of
the video is to provide the designer with an accurate version of the dance from which to work.
2. Just as you don't copy other people's dances, I'm not interested in copying another designer's
work, nor do I wish to be influenced by it, even subliminally. If you already have a lighting design
for your dance and wish to see it reproduced (I heartily recommend this, by the way -- you don't
use totally different choreography in each theater, do you? So why use totally different lighting?),
then give me the light plot and requisite paperwork and notes (you did contractually require your
previous lighting designer to furnish these, didn't you?)
Like most lighting designers, I am not a dancer (exceptions exist; some very fine designers are former dancers) and
in most cases I am lighting several dances in an extremely short period of time; I simply do not have time to
memorize every finite nuance of your movement. Even though I am lighting movement rather than music, musical
references are often clearer than choreographic ones; i.e., "an arabesque followed by a tour jeté" may be less
communicative than "a cymbal crash followed by a long silence".
Please be specific. Saying, "Hanya grabs Twyla from behind," may be of limited value if I do not personally know
Hanya and Twyla, or if Hanya grabs Twyla several times during the course of your dance. A more communicative
manner of expression might be "The woman in the red unitard grabs the woman wearing the tan jumpsuit after they
spin downstage from up center."
Communications concerning your dance are best done in writing. Please remember that I am juggling the needs
of several different pieces of choreography; information given verbally while I am performing other tasks may well
be lost in the shuffle.
The following should be furnished to your lighting designer well before the first technical rehearsal (You and the
designer should work out the exact deadline):
A. A script, if your dance involves the spoken word.
B. A description of your costumes. This should include information on color, type of material, and basic
line. Fabric swatches, if available, are always helpful; different fabrics reflect light in different ways.
It is always helpful if, in addition to this description, the dancers are in costume on the videotape.
C. A description of any lighting cues which you feel are essential to your dance. If this is to be a new
lighting design, please remember that, as you are undoubtedly more familiar with the choreographic
vocabulary than is the lighting designer, so he is probably more familiar with the dance lighting
vocabulary than are you; best results are usually obtained by telling the designer the effect which
you are trying to achieve rather than by telling him/her how to achieve it (for example, "I would
like to isolate Mischa and Rudy down left" is preferable to "Mischa and Rudy should be in a special
down left". The word "special" really communicates little; there are so many varieties and possibilities
that the word is almost meaningless - and the same effect might well be possible without hanging a
separate light which might have qualities which clash stylistically with those of the lighting being used
for the rest of the dance). Again, please remember that things that seem obvious to you might seem
less obvious to a non-dancer watching a video tape of your dance. Unless a particular cue is
essential to your concept of the dance, you might do well to trust the designer's talent and
NOTE: THE PURPOSE OF THE ABOVE IS NOT TO GET CHOREOGRAPHERS TO MERELY SUBSTITUTE
THE WORD "ISOLATE" FOR "SPECIAL" -- THAT WOULD BE POINTLESS. THE PURPOSE IS TO GET
CHOREOGRAPHERS TO ARTICULATE THEIR VISIONS -- TO DESCRIBE THE EFFECTS THEY WANT --
SO THAT THE LIGHTING DESIGNER CAN USE HIS OR HER SKILLS TO REALIZE THEM. IN OTHER
WORDS, THE CHOREOGRAPHERS SHOULD DO THEIR JOBS AND LET THE LIGHTING DESIGNER DO
If you would like the designer to recreate an existing design from your repertoire, please send a plot,
cue sheets and detailed descriptions.
D. A description of the location of any internal sound cues.
There are three different types of technical rehearsals:
A. The Cuing or Lighting rehearsal: In this rehearsal, the lighting designer and the choreographer sit
in the house while a stagehand or other person walks the stage holding costumes from the dance.
Dancers are not required (nor particularly helpful) at this rehearsal; its purpose is to allow the designer
to refine and present each cue for the choreographer's approval. If there are major props or set pieces,
these must be present and in finished form so that the designer and choreographer can see what they
look like under stage lights.
B. The Technical Run-Through: Although this is not, strictly speaking, a dress rehearsal, it is helpful
to have the dancers in costume. If this is impossible, dancers should at least avoid wearing extremely
dark or extremely light-colored clothing, unless they will be wearing similar colors in performance.
It is essential that all dancers be present at these rehearsals; this is when we work out any technical
difficulties which may adversely affect their performance and the designer must see the dancers in the
light in order to fine-tune his design.
C. The Dress Rehearsal: This is the final step. By this time, only minute adjustments should be made
to any part of the performance. No major technical changes will be made after the last dress rehearsal.
This includes the addition of new lighting and sound cues as well as any major changes to the existing
cues. Nothing other than the most insignificant details may be changed after this rehearsal unless
another rehearsal is scheduled; we do not "try things out" on paying audiences. Note: some
productions have "previews" which are attended by paying audiences and are held after final dress
rehearsal and before opening night. For purposes of this article, these are considered to be dress rehearsals.
The dress rehearsal must be treated as if it were a performance; all dancers, props, costumes, and sets
must be present and in finished form.
The choreographer and the lighting designer both want the production to be as good as possible. When they work together, each cognizant of the other's needs and concerns, great art can happen.