The Joy of Theater

by Brad Schiller • in
  • April 2018
  • Feeding the Machines
• Created: April 6, 2018

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On Your Feet is touring the U.S. through March 2019. For more, see PLSN, March 2018, page 26. Photo by Matthew Murphy

It seems that most of us started our fascination with light early through the magic of theater. I personally started working in theater in junior high (well before automated lighting) and assumed that theater would be my primary work going forward. Of course, as my career grew, things changed, and I have been fortunate to work with many different genres of production. Programming automated lighting for theater is now standard practice for many, yet there are key routines and procedures that programmers find essential to know when working in this particular genre.

‡‡         Playback Organization

When programming automated lighting for a theatrical production, one must consider the nature of the show. Unlike a concert event, where each song has its own cuelist and page, a theatrical event will likely be organized in an efficient and repeatable manner. Typically, this means that a single cuelist will be used for all the cues in the entire show. Or perhaps, there could be a cuelist for Act I and another for Act II. If working with a musical, the cues for the individual songs will usually be contained within the show’s main cuelist.

Each and every cue should be clearly labeled in terms of cue number, name and description. This will help the operator understand which cue is which, when to take the cue, and perhaps the purpose of the cue. The cue numbers are essential as they are usually coordinated with a stage manager who may be calling the cues. For the programmer, the integrity of the cue numbering is very important. For instance, you cannot suddenly decide to renumber a cuelist, or define your own creative cue numbering. When programming, you must be sure that the cue numbers align with what the stage manager is expecting and that you do not alter the numbers out of the defined system.

‡‡         The Build Up

Theatrical productions are interesting in comparison to other types of shows because they often come with a bit more forethought from the designers (although not always, of course!). Generally speaking though, most theatrical LDs will come to the focus/programming sessions with some ideas as to what they want to achieve for the looks on stage. Often, they will have a Magic Sheet that has pertinent information about the rig easily accessible to them. As a programmer, you need to know what they have on the sheet and be sure the same information is in your desk and quick to recall. For example, there may be colors, gobos, focus positions, groupings, and other details on the LD’s Magic Sheet. Be sure to create these same items as palettes/presets and give them the same numbering/naming schemes as the LD.

Speaking of building palettes/presets, as with any show, these are essential and more than just a good idea. Focus positions should be created for all areas/locations that you expect the lights to point to. Then be sure to use these elements when building your cues. Furthermore, many theatrical programmers will create specific palettes/presets for each and every scene. This way, it is easy to update or change focuses or even swap fixtures and know where everything should be focused. There are no right or wrong rules for using palettes/presets, however I have heard of cases of theatrical programmers not using them at all. This is a terrible idea, and I highly suggest that positions (at the very least) are always stored in palettes/presets.

Once the show is programmed and opened, you can often go in and remove unused palettes/presets to help reduce clutter and later confusion. Most automated lighting consoles have a simple function that will show you the usage of your palettes/presets and then you can remove (or hide) the ones that are not actually used within the cues of the show.

‡‡         Documentation

Many theatrical productions rely on complex and hardy documentation processes. On Broadway, it used to be common to have a person track all the cue data in a separate method than the console. While this still happens on some shows, it is not standard practice for all theatrical productions. However, as theatrical shows may be mounted again in the future, it is always a good idea to save as much information as possible.

For the automated lighting programmer, this means keeping copies of the final show file along with notes, drawings, and other important information. You may even want photos or sketches of the lighting focus positions, colors, gobo loads, and more. While this can all be documented through different methods, there are some great programs available that can interface with lighting consoles to assist with the documentation process. For example, the aptly named FocusTrack software ( will help you keep track of how your lights are used in the show. By combining console data with photos and other inputs it will create a database of your show data to help in future recreations of the show. Moving Light Assistant ( is another program that does much of the same heavy lifting so that you don’t have to figure out the documentation process for your self.

‡‡         Tedium Abounds

Many find programming automated lighting for theatrical productions very tedious. In fact, this can often be true, as the process of lighting a show is nowhere near as action packed as programming for a concert, television show, or even a corporate event. You may find yourself spending hours waiting to adjust an intensity or update a focus palette/preset. However, remember that it is the art happening on stage (from the production as a whole) that counts. A wise programmer will use the slow times to clean up the show file, document as needed, or even work on other productions. Don’t sit at the console playing on your phone or browsing social media.

Then, when it is time to build the next look, you should be ready to go with a good understanding of the fixtures in the show. Without doubt, you should have already setup your fixtures to all move in the same direction no matter their orientation, built important palettes/presets, and spoken with the LD and stage manager about organization. You want to always be at the ready to make changes and not too distracted as you await the next command.

‡‡         Theatrical Mindset

The theater often becomes a second home for most of us, both literally and figuratively. When programming lighting for a theatrical production, it is important that you understand the unique characteristics and procedures that come with programming this genre of production. From the playback organization to the use of palettes/presets to documentation, programmers need to follow the theatrical methods.

With a theatrical mindset, you can program any play, musical, or other theater event with ease. As one of the oldest art forms around, theater will continue to adapt and change while also staying the same. Be sure that you know how to adapt your programming skills for your next theatrical programming session.

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