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Lighting the gym

a student focuses a theatrical lighting fixture

By Jennifer Womack and Steve Nelson

If you and your students work in a modern, well-equipped theatre, lighting is probably as much a part of a production as any other dramatic element. But if your school theatre program is limited to mounting plays in multi-purpose spaces—most likely a gym or cafeteria— perhaps lighting has been an afterthought. It doesn’t have to be. Even in a large, open room it’s possible to create simple but effective lighting. In this article, we’re going to cover all the steps you need to complete in order to light an open, non-traditional performance space—everything from where to locate lights, support towers, and power sources, to cable and dimmer requirements. We’ll also cover safety issues, equipment costs, what your students should and should not be allowed to do, and how to deal with electricians and rental companies.

The first thing to understand about using temporary lighting is that you’re probably not going to set it up by yourself. We’re going to review all the things that need to be done, but the majority of the tasks will probably be completed by a rental company. While there are certainly some steps you and your students can do (such as helping to determine the stage area in your space, and drafting a set and lighting design plan), unless you have the training, equipment, and time to do the lighting setup yourself, renting is definitely your best option. Here are four reasons why:

  1. A rental company offers, in addition to hardware, the expertise of staff who know the field and their equipment. They have probably done numerous lighting setups in high school gymnasiums and cafeterias. They’re going to know how to adapt their equipment to your space and budget.
  2. The rental company will likely do a site visit without charge to help you (and the school maintenance person or electrician) locate the safest and closest electrical power source for the lights, and do a walk-around of the gym to determine the best placement for lighting towers, dimmer packs, and the control board.
  3. They can deliver the equipment on the appointed day and pick it up when the show is over (this is usually included in the rental price).
  4. They can provide an experienced crew to hang the lights, run cable, and get the system up and running, and perhaps provide learning experiences for your tech students.


On this final point, bear in mind that a full set-up crew provided by the rental company not only would be expensive, but also would deprive you and your tech students of a valuable opportunity to learn about temporary lighting. Most lighting rental companies realize that the more they can educate the people renting their equipment on how it works and how to use it, the more return business they’ll get (see the cost list on the opposite page for information about buying versus renting lighting instruments). At your initial discussion with a rental firm, explain to the company representative that you would like someone to supervise your students in the setup, preferably a technician who has worked with teenagers before and is skilled at sharing his or her lighting knowledge. Also inquire as to whether or not this same individual could give you and the students a brief tutorial on safety, focusing, troubleshooting, and all the features of the control board supplied. If you’re lucky, perhaps the company will be able to employ some of your brighter students in future rental gigs. The point is, just because you and your students are not taking full responsibility for lighting the show does not mean that it can’t be a learning experience. Take advantage of the rental firm’s expertise—that’s part of what you’re paying for.

Again, while the steps we’re going to review include tasks that you probably won’t do yourself, it’s important that you understand all the issues that are involved so you’ll be an informed consumer who understands the design process, instrument selection, and technical considerations that come into play when you’re lighting an open space.

student adjusts a theatrical light fixture

Paying for it: two rental packages

Here are two different rental packages that will put the same amount of light onstage using twelve lekos located in the house. Package A assumes your electrician has established the existence of four independently breakered 20-amp 110-volt wall outlets within the space. Package B is for a three-phase disconnect box power system (located behind the temporary stage in the space) that is used exclusively for stage lighting purposes. Both packages are priced to reflect the same terms: one-week rental; all equipment delivered and picked up at the stage door; one supervisory technician for load in, setup, focusing, and brief instruction session on system use and troubleshooting.

*Special thanks to Randy Scheib of Vincent Lighting Systems in Cincinnati, for his technical advice and help in pricing these lighting packages.

Package A (powered from existing outlets)
  • 2 crank-lift lighting towers (includes crossbars, eight 6×9 ETC source 4-type 575w ERS instruments, four 6×12 ETC source 4-type 575w ERS instruments) $420
  • 4 four-dimmer 2.4 kw packs $180
  • 4 150′ cords, 110v outlets to dimmers $20
  • 1 twelve-channel two-scene preset control board $50
  • 2 50′ DMX control cables (dimmers to board) no charge
  • 2 100′ DMX control cables (dimmers to board) no charge
  • 2 30′ multi cables (dimmers to lights) $30
  • 12 stage pins (female) to Edison (male) adapters no charge
  • 1 sheet of X02 gel $6
  • 1 sheet of X60 gel $6
  • labor $200

Total Cost $912

Package B (powered from a three-phase disconnect box)
  • 2 crank-lift Genie SuperLift with crossbar $440
  • 1 twelve-dimmer 2.4 kw three-phase portable dimmer rack $200
  • 1 25′ five-wire Camlok feeder kit, 2 gauge no charge
  • 1 twelve-channel two-scene preset control board $50
  • 1 100′ DMX control cables (dimmers to board) no charge
  • 1 100′ 12 gauge, Soca multiconductor cable (dimmers to lights) $35
  • 1 150′ 12 gauge, Soca multiconductor cable (dimmers to lights) $53
  • 2 multiconductor fanouts—male no charge
  • 2 multiconductor fanouts—female no charge
  • 8 6×9 1000w ERS instruments, safety cable, and gel frame $144
  • 4 6×12 1000w ERS instruments, safety cable, and gel frame $72
  • 1 sheet of X02 gel $6
  • 1 sheet of X60 gel $6
  • labor $200

Total Cost $1,206

Step one: determine your own and your students’ role

As we mentioned, using the services of a lighting rental company can actually be a wonderful learning experience for you and your students. It places you and your students in a working situation with a professional lighting technician. For it to be useful for everyone, you, as the drama teacher, need to stay involved throughout the whole process. That, at minimum, is your role in creating the lighting. The first thing you need to figure out—in consultation with your tech rep from the rental firm—is what your students can and can’t do. The technician does not know your students, so he will need you to tell him who the most and least competent and reliable workers are and which ones are best suited to certain jobs. You need to be available to resolve any building-related issues such as providing keys to various doors and getting permission to run cables in different places. You’ll also serve as liaison to the building maintenance person or electrician when there are power problems to troubleshoot. It’s up to you to establish a relationship with the tech representative and for the two of you to decide how much supervision your students will need. If he feels that your students need constant watching, then it’s important that you provide that kind of support so the tech can get his work done. And don’t underestimate the value of being present as an observer or an extra hand—you can learn just as much as your students during a lighting setup.

So what exactly can your students do? They can unload the truck. They can place and erect the lighting towers. They can hang lights, run cable, circuit lights, focus and gel lights, run the light board, and strike the show. There are also a few things that students can’t and should never do. Those include putting in new outlets, installing new service or a disconnect box, and hooking up power to a disconnect box.

If the work we’ve listed sounds menial, you’re right; it is. Physically lugging around the equipment, setting it up, and fine-tuning it is 90 percent of lighting work. Doing this kind of “grunt work” is where everyone has to start, even someone who eventually wants to be a lighting designer. Working alongside a professional lighting tech, you and your students can pick up many tricks of the trade—everything from what tools you need to how to coil cable. This time can be as valuable to future lighting techs as onstage performance time is to actors.

Step two: design a floor plan

Before you can do a lighting design (and, for that matter, a set design) you need to calculate your available stage space. The floor plan needs to establish area, height, and location of the stage itself within the gym. (We’ll assume you’re working in a gym.) The same procedure would apply to any open multi-purpose space. Your floor plan design should be done in conjunction with the set designer and school building administrators. You also must figure out seating capacity and location, availability of power, and access to the space. Once these things have been clarified, a set design can be created for the designated stage.

After you’ve drafted a set plan, you’re ready to work on the lights. You’ll need a scaled ground plan view that shows the stage (with the set drawn in) within the gym, and a sideview drawing of all the elements as well. Our example plan includes three drawings: the gym setup (Figure One above), a section view (Figure Two on page 5), and the lighting plan (Figure Three on page 6). Most lighting designs are drafted at ½ inch to the foot, but it’s also possible to work in the much more convenient ¼-inch-to-the-foot scale on this simple design. CAD (Computer Aided Design) programs are an alternative drafting approach. One way or another, creating these drawings is something you can do yourself, and perhaps assign as a class project or a lesson.

Begin creating the ground plan by dividing the acting spaces into equal areas, as shown in Figure One. Using a compass, draw a series of 10-foot diameter circles on the floor plan. (The center of the stage is almost always the strongest acting position and should have its own area designation.) A standard approach would be to take a 24-foot stage space and divide it into three 10-foot lighting areas that overlap from stage left to right. Our sample ground plan if the height of the lights are raised to create a 45-degree angle from the tower to the head of the actor. Positioning the towers approximately 45-degrees from the center of the stage, as they are in our lighting plan, should provide adequate coverage across the front of the actor. Obviously, having just two tower locations limits the horizontal lighting range. But light design always includes compromises. Getting the best look out of the available instrument inventory and positions is the mark of a superior lighting designer.

Once the basic design layout is complete it’s time to pick the appropriate instruments. You’ll want to use one tower for warm lighting and one for cool. Figure Three shows how the dual systems create area and color separation. Pale blue and amber gels, for instance, will suggest moonlight or daylight when mixed at different proportions, or white light when mixed equally. Whether warm or cool, ellipsoidal reflector spotlights (ERS), also known as lekos, are the best choice for lights being placed in the front of the house. An ERS will give control of the beam through shutters that allow you to cut the light off scenery and adjust the lens. ERS lights are designated by two numbers. The first number (6 in Figure Three) is the diameter in inches of the lens at the front of the instrument. The second number is the focal distance of the instrument lens. Instruments with shorter, or features six areas labeled A through F that have been drawn to cover a 24-foot-wide by 18-foot-deep acting space. Make sure you overlap your circle areas so that there are no dark spaces across the stage.

Step three: select and position the appropriate lighting instruments

With the acting and illumination areas established, the next step is to pick the right instruments to light them. In our simple set-up, as shown in Figure Three, we’ll be providing only front lighting primarily for actor visibility. Each area will be lit by two lekos out in the house, one from house right and one from house left. In our example, that adds up to twelve lights—two for each of the six acting areas. (Special accent lighting from the top, sides, and back is certainly possible, but to keep our example basic, we’re not going to cover them here. If you want to imagine what elaborate temporary lighting setups are like, consider the touring shows mounted by bands like the Rolling Stones in football stadiums.)

How and where you position your lights will be based on the limitations of the towers that are available from your rental company. In this case, we’re using crankshaft telescoping towers with 6-foot crossbars that will allow for six lights to be hung per tower. At minimum, the towers should be able to manually raise to a height of 24 feet and hold a load of up to 650 pounds. When the instruments are hung, each should have a wire rope cable that has been manufactured to hold the weight of the unit in case the c-clamp holding it to the crossbar fails. All electrical cable should be safely secured and strain-relieved to the crossbar and tower with tie-line or gaffers tape. Each tower will need approximately 4 square feet of floor space and be positioned to the actors at an angle of about 45 degrees both vertically and laterally.

You can use simple diagrams to plot the best location of the lighting towers in relation to the acting space and the tower height, as shown in Figures Two and Three. First you need to determine where the actors’ faces will be. In our example, we assumed a 5-foot tall actor standing on a stage that’s elevated 3 feet from the gym floor. Thus to establish the correct distance from the stage to the tower positions, plot a line on the section view drawing (Figure Two) out into the house and upward at a 45-degree angle from a point eight feet above the gym floor in the center of the downstage acting area. The point where that line intersects at a distance of 24 feet (the working height of our towers) is where the tower should go. The scale drawing shows that’s about 16 feet from the stage.

To position the towers laterally, draw lines on the ground plan (Figure Three) from the center of the downstage acting area out into the house at a 45 degree angle to the centerline. The ideal tower positions are on those lines, 16 feet from the stage. When we plotted those points on the ground plan, we determined they were approximately 11 feet on either side of the centerline.

While these calculations are helpful, in truth, setting the lights is not rocket science. A skilled and experienced lighting technician will probably be able to determine the location of the lights quite accurately by simply looking at the stage and the actors’ positions. Ultimately though, it takes a bit of fine-tuning to get them exactly right. A good rule of thumb is, the features of an actor’s face will be highlighted intensity and beam diameter for given throw distances of many different types of lighting instruments (See the reference list on page 9 for other useful texts.)

In our sample lighting design, you’ll notice that just two kinds of ellipsoidal spotlights are used—6x9s to go from each tower to the center and near off-stage acting areas, and 6x12s to throw the longer distance to the far off-stage acting areas from each tower.

A word or two about instrument wattage: ERS instruments can vary widely in how much power they require. Recent advances in lighting technology have produced instruments that put out more light with less power. A few years ago, the average 6-inch ERS contained a 1000-watt bulb. Today ERSs put out the same amount of light with only 750 or even 575 watts. This can be quite important, because reducing the total wattage of the instruments allows you to use more lights with a limited amount of power and therefore do a better job lighting your stage and your actors.

If you’re working with a reliable rental company, selecting instruments is pretty straightforward. They’ll have a limited selection and the tech data on each. Their familiarity with the instruments will make it easy for the rental technicians to match the instrument beam size, wattage, and light intensity to the throw distances in your gym design.

Step four: contact an electrician and establish your power needs

Once you start considering electrical needs, it’s time to involve the school administrator (who will ultimately need to approve and authorize any modifications to the building) and bring in a certified electrician to determine if adequate power is available in the room. You should also contact a representative of the lighting rental company. He or she will understand what kind of existing power sources will work to meet your lighting needs and, if none can be found, what kind of new power sources can be installed that will work with rental lighting equipment (see the power options sidebar on page 7). If your electrician finds, at minimum, four 20-amp wall outlets on isolated breakers, or a couple of nearby 30- to 50-amp 220-volt outlets, you probably have sufficient power to run a twelve-light system like the one outlined here. If not, an electrician will have to install a separately breakered distribution box to be used solely for temporary stage lighting. Though the cost for this kind of electrical work can be considerable, you’ll only have to do it once. Plus you’re likely to have capability of powering more than just twelve lights for future setups. This is certainly not work you’re going to be doing yourself, but as mentioned earlier, you need to be an informed consumer. smaller, focal distances produce light beams that widen out quickly as they exit the lens. Longer, or larger, focal distances are characteristic of instruments with narrower beams that stay more concentrated as they travel greater distances. So from the same location, a 6×9 would throw a bigger, less intense circle of light on an actor than a 6×12.

The placement of the towers will determine the throw distance from the light to the center of each acting area. Throw distance affects what size lens is needed to create the desired diameter of light beam on the stage. In the section view of our plan, to create a 10-foot diameter beam for a throw distance of 20 feet, a 6×9 ERS light would be required. The manufacturers’ technical data sheets on specific lighting instruments include diagrams that show the beam diameter and intensity at given throw distances. A good general reference is Robert C. Mumm’s Photometrics Handbook (second edition, Broadway Books, 1997), which lists the light.

Otherwise, when an electrician starts fiddling around with your gym’s wiring, how are you going to know if he knows what he is doing?


Power Options

How you provide power to your temporary lighting system is one of the first issues you’re going to have to resolve. Your school electrician, along with a rep from the rental company, should be able to figure out what needs to be done. Basically, they’ll either find enough power in existing outlets or the electrician will have to install a new power source specifically tailored to temporary lighting needs. Below is a summary of what you need to know about each option.

Option one: using existing outlets

It is possible to power the lights in a small twelveinstrument setup from 110-volt outlets around the gymnasium. Four separate 20-amp wall outlets can power a basic twelve-instrument setup (see Package A in the cost list sidebar on page 3). To use existing power, you need to find outlets that each have their own 20-amp breaker in the breaker panel because you will need all 80 amps (4 times 20 amps) to power the twelve-light system. With each 20-amp 110-volt circuit, you can power three 750- watt instruments (18.5 amps), four 575-watt instruments (18.8 amps) or just two 1000-watt instruments (16.66 amps). As the rental package indicates, using the more efficient 575-watt Source 4-type instruments keeps the power requirements within the range of power that the wall outlets can supply. Separate extension cords will be needed to run from each wall outlet to the four dimmer packs necessary for the twelve-instrument setup.

An existing set of 220-volt single phase outlets could also be used to power the lights. Gym facilities often have dryers (used for drying uniforms) that are run off 30- to 50-amp single-phase 220-volt outlets. Each 30- amp 220-volt circuit can be split up into two 30-amp 110-volt circuits, enough to handle twelve 575-watt instruments (4.8 amps each or 57.6 amps for twelve), eight 750-watt instruments (6.2 amps each or 56.25 amps for nine), or seven 1000-watt instruments (8.33 amps each or 58.3 amps for seven). This is enough power to light the six instruments hung on one lighting tower and more. The lighting rental company will have extension cords that they can plug into the 220-volt outlet to run to the dimmers.

You could also use a combination of 110-volt and 220-volt—two separate 20-amp 110-volt wall outlets to power dimmers for one tower, and one 30-amp 220-volt outlet to power a dimmer pack for the other tower.

In any case, when using existing outlets, it is not enough to determine that each outlet you are using is independently breakered at the required amperage. You (along with your maintenance person or electrician) also need to make sure that nothing other than your lights is drawing power through those breakers during the entire production schedule.

Option two: creating a dedicated source

The first thing to remember about creating a new power source is that it is work that can only be done by a certified electrician and with the approval of the school administration. The electrician must first determine if there is extra power available in the building. If an extra 50 to 100 amps is available, the electrician will establish a properly grounded power source to be used exclusively for the lighting. He’ll also install a temporary lighting disconnect box featuring a 50-or 100-amp breaker in a separate panel. A permanent set of short single wire cables with Camlok connectors, or “tails,” projecting out of the disconnect box will usually be included in the installation. The single-wire feeder cables running to the dimmers will plug into these connectors.

An important feature of any disconnect panel is a switch on the outside of the box that can lock the power in the off position with a padlock. That way, when connections are being made into the tails, or when the power from the box is not being used, you can be certain that the power will not be flipped on by accident. Only personnel from the lighting rental company or a professional electrician should make the connections to the tails or disconnect them. The amount of power made available, the exact connectors on the tails, and the safest location for the switch should be determined in consultation with the lighting rental company.

Step five: determine dimmer and control board needs

Dimmers control the amount of current going to the lighting instruments, which adjusts the intensity of the light coming out of the instruments. Dimmers are configured to operate loads between 1,200 and 6,000 watts and are usually set up for smaller rental purposes in packs of four to twelve. Ideally, the dimmer packs should be placed backstage in an area that allows for adequate ventilation space and where cooling fan noise will be minimal. However, if multiple dimmer packs are being used due to plugging into several existing outlets around the gym, locating the dimmer packs at the base of the lighting towers may prove to be the most convenient choice. The division of the stage space into individual areas allows separate area and color control. Therefore, each instrument ought to be assigned a dimmer and each dimmer, a control channel. This would, for instance, allow you to light the entire stage with just a blue wash or to individually emphasize a downstage or center area. In the Figure Three lighting design, assigning each light a dimmer would require twelve dimmers. A twelve-channel control board would allow independent control of each light.

Step six: establish cable needs and placement

The first thing to know about cable—and lights for that matter—is this: the power to the circuits should always be turned off when you’re setting them up. We can’t overstate this as a point of safety, even though it might seem obvious. (See the sidebar at left for safety tips on how to run cable.)

You’ll probably need up to three different kinds of cables to power and control your system: single conductor feeder, stage cable, and low-voltage control cables. Which cables you’ll need depends upon where your power is coming from: 110-volt wall outlet, 220-volt outlet, or power distribution panel. Each light must be connected to a dimmer via a stage cable—either a single or within a multiconductor that includes several lines. The control cables are used exclusively to connect the lighting controls to the dimmers. If you’re using the 110-volt room outlets and/or the 220-volt plugs, appropriately rated heavy duty extension cords are required. Rent these from the rental company. They will have (or can easily make up) correctly rated cords with the appropriate connectors at each end. Feeder cables run from the disconnect panel to the dimmers. Depending upon how many phases are being used at the panel, up to five individual feeder cables may be needed.

Each lighting instrument is connected to a dimmer. While it is possible to connect more than one instrument to a dimmer, our sample setup designates only only one dimmer per instrument. Therefore, there will be only one cable running from each instrument to a dimmer, for a total of twelve individual cable runs, or six to each tower. Multiconductor stage cable such as Socapex is the simplest way to run many power lines in a single, bundled cord. Each Socapex multicable includes six individual circuits, so only one cable needs to be routed to each tower to power up all six instruments. This would be the ideal setup for dimmers located behind the stage.

The control cable connects the dimmers to the light board. Because the board needs to be positioned out in the house to allow the operator to see what’s happening on stage, the cable will need to be several hundred feet long to connect the backstage dimmers to the control board. If the dimmer packs are located in several locations (at the bottom of each tower, for instance), you’ll need a control cable to the board for each of them.

This probably sounds like a lot of cable, and it is. But it’s simple to figure out what you will need. Just go back to the plan view of the gym, locate all the important elements on it, draw in your cable runs, and measure them. Two things to keep in mind: cables run vertically up the towers (this won’t show on the plan view) and cables can’t run in a direct line (they need to go over audience exits, along walls, and across audience walkways perpendicularly).

One more thing to remember about lighting a temporary space: we’ve suggested a basic sequence of steps here, but in reality, it is a dynamic process that involves a lot of variables. If you change any single element of a lighting plan—the number of instruments, dimmer locations, power amount or source, stage size or location, and so on—you will change everything in the mix. What’s more, you can greatly alter the cost of your rental package or what you’re actually getting for your dollar by making minor changes in your design. Trust your rental company to help you work through all your options—what is possible and what is not, what you can afford and what you can’t. They can figure out, among other things, how long you can rent the equipment for. With excellent planning, it’s possible to get a rig like the one in our example up in a day and be rehearsing in the evening. On the conservative side, you should plan to have the rig up for a couple of days, so any problems can be resolved and the cues are set and running smoothly before the performance. Assuming you’re doing two or three days of shows, you will probably want to rent the setup for at least a week.

The installation of temporary lighting does not have to dominate your production time, nor do you have to make it a second-rate element of the show. Once you have established your power source, set up an arrangement with a reliable rental firm, and learned the basics of lighting open spaces, lighting will become as integral a part of your productions as blocking or costumes. Jennifer Womack is a freelance lighting designer who lives and works in Seattle. Steve Nelson is the technical theatre editor for the Educational Theatre Association publications.

teacher helps student adjust theatrical lighting fixture


If you can’t find a lighting rental company in your area, contact the Entertainment Services and Technology Association (ESTA) at 875 Sixth Avenue, Suite 2302, New York, NY 10002, or call (212) 244-1505, or visit their website at www. and check out the member directory listed by state. Under dealers you should find the lighting rental companies that are closest to you. Here are four books that offer useful information; the first three provide a good foundation in light design and technical knowledge.

  • Designing with Light: An Introduction to Stage Lighting, by J. Michael Gillette (fourth edition), Mayfield Publishing Company, 1999.
  • Scene Design and Stage Lighting, by W. Oren Parker and R. Craig Wolf (seventh edition), Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1996.
  • Stage Lighting Revealed: A Design and Execution Handbook, by Glen Cunningham, Betterway Books, 1993.
  • Concert Lighting Techniques, Art, and Business, by James Moody (second edition), Focal Press, 1997. This text covers temporary lighting on a large scale. The author reviews the basics of lighting design, specialized equipment, and the technical processes involved in touring a show in different kinds of venues.


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