Production Analysis
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Production Analysis

Production Analysis

First Impressions

Get an overall feeling for the play.

For me, the first impression of a play is very important. Before seeing how the actors portray different sections of the production, I like to see what strikes me as the pivotal points just from the words.

Once you get into the deep woods and meaning of a play, you no longer have the innocence that a first-time audience member has when he or she sees a show for the first time. Only upon the first reading of the script do you truly have the same first impression that the audience will have.
Decorative Book

Take notes during or immediately following your first reading. Include scene locations, mood and time of day for each scene. Also ask, "What is the most important thought, action, or moment?" in each scene.

Always keep a notepad available for each production. It is extremely handy to have all of your notes in one place or binder so that you can quickly refer to previous ideas or thoughts throughout the process.
Notes app
Talking concept.

Around the time of your first reading of the script, you normally should speak to the director about their production concept.

Although a large part is personal preference, it may be very useful to speak with the director or other designers before you begin thinking about the play at all.
Production meeting for "The Messenger"

If the concept of the production is an extreme tangent to the script (like placing Shakespeare in the year 2020 / post atomic disaster), it can put major idea shifts into the "world of the play" as early as the first reading.

For example, perhaps the set has changed from a typical living room to the inside of a zoo - as if the characters are on display - all in one room.

It may also be useful to get a sketch of what the set designer is planning before you read the play through for the first time as well.

Maybe the overall concept is to make the characters all fish in a fish tank on stage. Another possibility would make the set black and white with the actors in brilliantly colored costumes.

Having a major concept forming in your head right from the beginning of the process may help you keep on that train of thought throughout the entire process, though always be open to negotiating a new path to accommodate the rest of the production team.

Further Readings / Analysis

It is useful for the designer to read the script multiple times so that he/she becomes intimately involved with the world of the play.

Note answers to questions (which may change by scene) like:
  • Time period changes
  • Which character does the director think is most pivotal?
  • What is the main idea behind the script?
  • What does the director feel is the overall mood?
  • Are there specific moments or relationships that the director wants highlighted?
Become an integral part of the production process by attending design meetings with the director and other designers. Find out what the others on the team are thinking, so that you may aid in supporting this overall idea or concept.

Just as decisions by other designers affect you, your ideas affect others.

Character Analysis

How does the play progress?
What changes happen to the characters throughout the play?

Throughout plays, you normally have points of high tension between characters, comedic breaks and lulls, and the building of an underlying theme. The lighting should support and help heighten these changes.

In a strong and well-put-together script there is not much "extra" dialogue or many “extra” characters. So even if it's not obvious at first, ask yourself why each character exists and what he/she is helping the play accomplish.
The Mystery of Edwin Drood publicity photo
"The Mystery of Edwin Drood" publicity photo

Establishing Given Circumstances

Don't forget the basics: time of day, time of year (season), interior, exterior. All of these should obviously affect the lighting designer. Sometimes, only the lighting designer can show the audience these important elements of the setting.

Clues for establishing given circumstances may be in the playwright's notes, referenced in the characters' dialogues, and implied by the script.

Most fixtures on stage (called “practicals” or “actuals”) don’t throw much light – their intensity would detract too much attention from the actors or would appear “harsh” to the audience.

Typically, those fixtures have lamps with very low intensity in them (a standard 60-watt incandescent bulb dimmed to the appropriate level would appear far too amber due to “amber drift” / warming of the filament).

We then analyize the light throw that would be expected from the fixture and usually simulate that with a traditional theatrical unit from an appropriate angle to cast the light where we want it to go. Although the angle is usually imperfect, we can usually achieve an effect that is more appropriate for the setting overall (and under our control).

Similarly, light switches on stage very rarely work. Instead opt for light board control of all light on stage and close communication between the actors and the stage manager or board operator (to take a “visual cue”) to activate light shifts while the actor activates a “dummy” switch.


One of the main questions you should ask is where the focus should be for any given scene.

The characters who are talking are not always the ones who should have primary focus. Perhaps the main character, the protagonist, is standing by listening to someone else's conversation.

In this case, it may be more important for the audience to watch how the protagonist is reacting to what he/she is hearing; it is of less value to watch the characters actually speaking.
The director has many tools available to use to help manipulate the audience's focus, so the lighting designer isn't solely responsible for manipulating focus. In addition, the lighting does not always have to be highly out of balance to direct attention. But the lighting designer should always be aware of what is most important and be standing by to aid in drawing attention in the appropriate direction.

Sometimes, the focus should not be aimed at the characters. Perhaps the audience's attention should be directed toward a doorway, a telephone, or a portrait on the wall.
Touch production photo
"Touch" production photo. Lighting by Kade Mendelowitz.
Bay of Nice production photo
"Bay of Nice" production photo. Lighting by Rhi Johnson.
Miss Julie production photo
"Miss Julie" production photo. Lighting by Kade Mendelowitz.

Lighting must also take into account the other design elements.

Has the set designer planned any "practicals" (working light sources on stage) like TV's, lamps, fireplaces, windows, etc.?

As explained earlier: on-stage practicals typically don’t emit the appropriate light for stage – you’ll need to both provide power to them (so you can turn them off) and have light that appears to come from these sources.

You may also request the addition of practicals to the set. Some set designers plan these; some want to know if the lighting designer wants them before including them.
Singin in the Rain production photo
"Singin' in the Rain" production photo. Lighting by Kade Mendelowitz.
Flu Season production photo
"The Flu Season" production photo. Lighting by Deirdre Adams.

Check sketches for the set and costumes. Check color palettes of the other designers. Lighting rarely "makes" a production, but it can destroy one.

Lighting colors can overwhelm the colors of the set or costumes. Be sure all designers are working together.

Some costume fabrics need special angles from lighting. Back lighting may show through some fabrics, while some satins need low lighting angles to look their richest.

Certain set pieces may also need special lighting. Should the walls be lit? What about portraits or photographs? Should light be streaming through gratings? Should the walls be pulsing with energy?

Lighting is a very strong and important tool, especially as an aspect of the final design.
Costume translucency

Mechanical reading or run-through.

When possible, always watch a run-through as early in the process as you can. This way you may see exactly how the director is using the stage space.

During another reading and during the first run-through, create the beginnings of your "cue plot".

When possible, I like to bring an assistant to watch the first run-through with me. He/she may follow along with the script noting when cues happen while I watch the run-through looking for extra cue placements and ideas for specials.
Speech and Debate production photo

A cue plot is a listing of the lighting cues, when they occur (page number, line, action or movement), with a description of why the cues exist.

No matter how many times I read a script, I always find hidden cues when I watch a run-through based on actions, blocking, etc.

Whenever possible, see a run through before you work on the light plot. It will help determine cue placement and the angles needed for some of your specials which are dependent on blocking.

Watch the included rehearsal for “Foxhole” and try creating your own cue plot!
Placeholder image


Communication is a very important ingredient in the job of the lighting designer. Whether it be communicating with the director, other designers, electricians or stage managers, the lighting designer must develop a vocabulary for working with all of these different people.

There are different tools a lighting designer may use to communicate his/her ideas.

Communication is the key to any relationship - personal or professional.
Discussing the design for a production with the director.
Set and Lighting designer Kade Mendelowitz (left) discusses the design for an upcoming production of "Caligari: Alaska" with director / adaptation author Anatoly Antohin.
Words, whether they be through talking, faxing or e-mailing, may be used to describe how the lighting for a production will work. However, sometimes words will not work.

Words are not always effective - if I say the lighting will be like a sunset - we may each picture a different sunset. Some will think ambers, some pinks, some blue. The dangerous aspect is that we will all think we are communicating and understanding each other.
Sunset Sunset Sunset Sunset


Some designers find music to be a good way to describe the lighting.

Music can be a very strong emotional tool. Although again, music may be interpreted differently by different people, it can be a useful communication tool.
Production photo from "Three Penny Opera"
Production photo from "Three Penny Opera". Lighting designed by Kade Mendelowitz.
Production photo from "Vinegar Tom"
Production photo from "Vinegar Tom". Lighting designed by Adam Gillette.


Photographs, sketches, or paintings can often capture the feeling or "essence" of a lighting idea.

You have to be careful to be clear when using pictures. Are you showing the color palette you want to use, the angles, the intensity / distribution, or everything about the picture?

Is this an example of :
  • A good use for a gobo?
  • Contrast of using a dark background?
  • Naturalistic color pallet?
  • Directional light source?
The Island - production photo
Production photo from "The Island". Lighting designed by Kade Mendelowitz.
Communication tools.

There is not one correct answer for how to share your ideas with the others on the design or production team. You must find what works for you individually, and even then the method may vary from production to production.

A large vocabulary or knowledge of music and art history can be an invaluable resource for you to draw upon when working with others.

I have often heard other designers refer to painters of the past as the inspiration for their design for a show.
Caligari Alaska production model
Production model for "Caligari: Alaska". Set & Lighting designed by Kade Mendelowitz.