5 Quick Stage Lighting Teaching Ideas

In teaching the Elements of Production I have shared with you some of the ways I have introduced the topic and also taught Costume and Set Design. I thought I would also share with you some of the things I do when teaching lighting.

The biggest constraint I have is that I don’t have any sort of lighting rig set up in my classroom. The same goes with my sound set up. In liaising with the music department I could arrange to have all the sound equipment set up. Likewise for the lighting rig that we use at Presentation Night. I do find, however, having these constraints forces you to be creative and still conveys the intended message of the lesson without having to go through lengthy set-ups and organisation. A few simple resources are needed and away you go.

Some things you might like to try in your classroom are:

1. What’s the Purpose?

Discuss with your students what they think the purpose of stage lighting is. There are generally speaking, four main purposes:

  • To help the audience see the actors clearly;
  • To concentrate attention on a particular part of the stage (focus);
  • To create a particular atmosphere (incorporate colour, lighting direction);
  • To create special effects (e.g. strobe, UV, gobos).

I break down some of the technical words here, like “gobo,” “strobe,” “specials,” “hanging plot,” “rig” etc. More often than not, students know what they are they just don’t know the technical term for it.

2. The Importance of Colour

I spend time looking at the symbolic meaning behind the use of certain colours. I ask the students to consider what mood or effect is created on stage when these colours are used. You may like to show clips to assist the students understanding of this. I have found, that teaching this in the senior school, many students have been learning about the meaning of colour in their visual literacy units in English when in junior school so their background knowledge is more often than not, more than substantial on this.

3. Experiment with Lighting Direction

One day I was rummaging through our resource room when I found a light on a tripod stand. I think it was meant to be used for photography classes. Suffice to say, I now use it for Drama lessons 😉 It works well because it is light and portable. If you don’t have something like this, torches (flashlights) are also an excellent way to explain the effect of lighting direction and its effect on meaning. Choose a student to be your actor and have them stand in the centre of the space. Make sure your light has a reasonable extension cord attached to it and move around the room to show lighting the actor and its effect on meaning from:

  • Above;
  • Below;
  • Behind;
  • Front;
  • Side;
  • Upstage/Downstage Angle.

If you have more than one light/torch also try lighting the actor from:

  • High angle, side backlight, front;
  • Two high, front lights.

I also bring in coloured cellophane as a cheaper alternative to actual lighting gels to show the effects of lighting from these angles and the effect using particular colours has on the scene with considerations made in terms of colours, angles and parts of the stage to be lit.

Lighting is a real artform in itself. I tend to shy away from a lot of the technical and rigging aspects because I feel that fundamentally the students only need a conceptual understanding with which to support their directorial concept. It can become confusing for both teacher and student if you start to delve into types of lights, how to rig, colour combinations on the face etc. It’s good that you as the teacher have an understanding of that but it is not always necessary to share that with your students. If one of your student’s is doing Lighting for the Individual Project in the HSC, that is a little different however and some more in depth knowledge will be needed.

4. Light a Scene

Select a script excerpt, read through it as a class and ask the students to pair up and design the lighting for the scene. They should consider the parts of the stage to be lit, the colours to be used, the angles and the intended atmosphere and mood. They should also consider how their choices reflect the intention of the scene.

5. Cue and Call

In continuing the exercise above, students can fill out a lighting cue sheet and have one of their pair call the cues, whilst the other operates the lights. Get other members of the class to act out the scene on stage. I often break down the cue sheet into parts beforehand  and use it as my scaffold to get the students to understand the purpose of the cue sheet so that they can very carefully and clearly fill it in.


I use the Lighting Cue Template in Matthew Clausen’s book Centre Stage.

This Lighting Guide has some good pictures of what the different lighting angles should look like. It looks like it could be printable.

This page is good for explaining the importance of colour.

And finally, this YouTube clip is quite good at explaining the process a lighting designer goes through in order to work out what lighting is needed.

Do you have any good strategies for teaching lighting? Let us know in the comments.

Photo Credit: DanBrady via Compfight cc


Writing a Director’s Concept

I’ve taught the Theatre of the Absurd and I’ve blogged suggestions on some teaching strategies for a unit of work before. I have Year 11 again this year (the first time since 2011) and I really wanted to work on refining my teaching and learning program. I reflect on my programs each and every year and in the time since I last taught Year 11 I have come to a greater understanding of what is key in getting student’s to succeed in the HSC.

In particular, I have stopped calling my student’s “students” and I have started calling them “directors.” I refer to everything they do in class as their “directorial choices”.

This is something that I needed to shift in my own head before I could do the same with my student’s.

Teachers are leaders in the classroom, just as a Director is on a production. In this vein, I needed to stop thinking of myself as a teacher who was teaching content but rather as a Director, teaching other director’s how to create their own original works.

This, for me, has been a significant moment in my development as a drama teacher. In wanting to ensure I was teaching the appropriate content to my student’s I lost sight of the need to remember that Drama and theatre is a creative, fluid process that needs a lot of discussion and thought. The pressures of the syllabus and the term time frame makes this difficult. In shifting my thinking in this way I have felt a renewed energy towards my teaching that encapsulates more of my passion and appreciation for theatre as an artform.

Much of this came about through my undertaking of a Directing for the Stage course at NIDA. An eight week program, it worked through two elements of direction: preparing a vision or concept and working with actors. I was most interested in the preparing of a concept or vision as that is something that my students are required to do as part of their HSC.

My students had been writing these concepts and visions but I don’t think they had quite the amount of depth that they needed to give the student’s a clear and focused direction with which to work on their project. I wanted to structure and refine the development of the student’s thinking so they would be better able to run meaningful rehearsals and communicate articulately with the audience about their piece.

In the HSC the Director’s Concept or Rationale is 300 words and explains the intention of the work. In structuring my student’s writing I was able to structure my student’s thinking. Well, that’s how I approached it anyway. So the scaffold below is for writing a rationale/concept. This lesson took about two 75 minute periods. I wedged it between finishing my mini unit on DADA and placed it just before starting on the Theatre of the Absurd.

The reason for this was because I wanted something tangible with which they could write their practice concept and then use that to help them develop their concept for their Absurdist assessment task.

1. Evoke a Moment from the Piece to Create a Sense of Atmosphere

This is written in a similar fashion to the opening of a theatre review or a descriptive paragraph in a narrative. It visually communicates a moment from the piece. I got my student’s to focus on the opening of their DADA Performances.

2. Form an opinion about the intention of theatre as influenced by your particular theatrical style. Write a statement expressing that.

I asked my student’s: What is it about DADA that has influenced theatre? Why is theatre the way it is because of DADA?

3. Summarise the theatrical style that you have been influenced by. What are the key aspects of that style that you have focused on in your piece?

This could be pulled from a worksheet or textbook you have given your students on the topic you have been studying. In my case I gave them notes about what DADA is, what Theatre of the Absurd is all about (think existentialism) and, for some of them, had them regurgitate exactly what was written in the notes. The stronger student’s will be able to identify which aspect of that philosophy they are wanting to focus on. Maybe even why as well.

4. Discuss how the style influenced your concept.

I encouraged the use of “I” and “we” here. This is where the students start to think about their own thinking process. They are making connections between what they know about the style and they are starting to apply it to their own performance piece. What inital discussions and ideas were had by the students? Why is this of interest to them?

5. Outline the structure of your piece. What happens? What is the key theme, dramatic question that you wish to explore? Why is this piece relevant to your audience now? What do you want your audience to think, feel, do?

These are such key questions when devising any sort of drama. Stronger students should be able to clearly articulate their dramatic question in no more than one or two sentences. A good way to see if this has been achieved is to see if an audience member can articulate another groups concept in their own words. If they too can do it in no more than one or two sentences, the performance has clearly communicated to its audience.

6. How have you attempted to use the elements to convey your message?

Here there should be specific reference made to the elements of drama and why they have been used. I don’t think it is necessary to discuss all of them (because they should all be there) but I do think students should be able to address three to four clearly. If they can’t, they haven’t given their concept enough thought.

The stronger students will write too much and the weaker students will struggle to write much at all, particularly when explaining the use of elements and even even when discussing the intenion of theatre, style and influence on concept. In a follow up lesson, it would be good to look at editing the piece down to fit the intended 300 words.

What do you do to teach Directorial Concept? Share your ideas in the comments.

Actors and The Space: Some Teaching Suggestions

I have a Yr 9 class this year and our first unit is always an introduction to Drama. We look at the toolkit that an actor needs to be successful on stage in preparation for looking at what a director needs in his/her toolkit. It’s difficult to separate the two but in the end it comes down to what you want to focus more on. I’ve really been working on getting my students to explain what they are seeing on stage using all the drama terminology of the elements. I’ve also been focusing on how to make performances more dynamic and engaging. I’ve posted before on some of the activities that I do with the elements of drama. Here are a couple more that I have been trying out this term, particularly to do with character/role and spatial relationships (in particular, proximity and distance) that I have found really make the improvised scenes much more interesting to watch:

Give the student’s a single line of dialogue. For example, “I have something to tell you.” Pair student’s up and have them face each other. One person will deliver the line but they must deliver it with the following constraints on their space:

  • At opposite ends of the room. Take one step towards each other until toe to toe. At each step deliver the line again.
  • Both seated.
  • One seated and one standing.
  • One facing away from the other.
  • One behind the other.
  • Back to back.
  • One lying on the floor.

Discuss the effect of these staging positions on the audience. Consider the following questions:

  • How does the audience’s sense of the character change depending on where they were when they delivered the line?
  • Did the meaning of the line change depending on the spatial relationship?
  • Which position was most/least powerful?
  • What relationships are suggested by the use of these levels and proximity?

At the conclusion of this exercise, try the following exercises:

  • Break into groups of three. Call out an action (e.g. painting, repairing, rehearsing, admiring, rejecting, greeting, opening). Each member of the group has to pose doing that action. Each person in the group must, however, be on a different level. Present them to the class and discuss the effect on the audience. Compare it with the same poses but all on one level.
  • Improvise scenes with dialogue and have pairs of characters meeting with others pairs of characters (e.g. grandparent and child on a bus meet a businessman and his wife).

During the improvisations encourage students to become aware of how they adapt their tone of voice, facial expressions, gestures, posture when saying lines in different spatial positions. Discuss who has the greater status in the scenes and how all these things together can determine for an audience which relationships between characters are more formal than others.

Photo Credit: loungerie via Compfight cc

8 New Improvisation Games You Need to Try

I had the pleasure of meeting @ivanwschew at an Improv Night a little while ago now. It was being hosted by some friends of a friend who have taken advantage of a council grant and created a puppetry workshop (amongst other things) in an old shop.

I hadn’t been along to see any adult improvisation for a long time so it was refreshing to see some energetic, quick thinking actors on stage. Several of the games they played I hadn’t heard of before.

I had the opportunity to speak with Ivan at the end of the evening and I asked him if it would be OK to share these games. Ivan’s life was changed by improv and drama. His story is a fascinating, uplifting one of someone unlocking something that was hidden inside themselves by taking a chance with drama and improv. Now he’s not looking back.

The thing I loved about the whole night was seeing people who are passionate about their craft sharing it with others. I felt very inspired and uplifted by it. Below are the eight games I learnt from Ivan and his team of improvisers. You could use them in an improvisation unit or perhaps as a way of developing character or storyline in a unit of work.

Ivan hosts workshops for those new to Improv. You can find out more at his website.

Also, be sure to listen in to his radio show on Tuesdays 3-5pm, Community Radio 2RDJ.

1. Accent Rollercoaster – Audience members provide suggestions (“ask for’s”) for accents and a location. Actors are given a situation and throughout the scene the host will call out the accent that they need to use and they must accept and progress the action.

2. Spoon River – Two actors are on stage. Both are dead. They must recount how they came to die. A country/location, an unusual food dish, catastrophic event and dark descriptive words must be used and these are suggested by the audience.

3. Marshmallow Mania – Actors are given a situation. Each time an actor says something funny and the audience laughs they are given a marshmallow that they have to put in their mouth, not eat and continue the scene. Please be aware this may cause choking. The game has been banned in some circles so practice with care.

4. Character Swap – A location and situation is given. When called, the actors need to switch characters and continue the scene.

5. Lining the Bucket – A series of one liners are written out and placed in a bucket. Actors pick a line from the bucket before they enter the space. As they enter they must say the line. They can also pick out lines during the scene. This game is great for less experienced improvisers.

6. Playbook – Situation is given. One of the actors is restricted to the lines of dialogue from a script.

7. Pop Culture – Situation is given. Actors play the scene but they can only use lines from pop culture such as songs and movies etc.

8. Crime Endowments – Audience suggest a crime, location and famous actor. The actor being interrogated is in another room at this time. They enter the space and are questioned by another player. Audience react as the actor gets closer to guessing the crime, location and actor. There is also the variation “Teenage Endowments” (see comments below).

Costume and Set Design Teaching Ideas

This is my second post in my elements of production series. Today I’d like to look at some ideas to get student’s looking at the process of set and costume design in a theatre production.

In my previous post we explored the idea that the main jobs of the creative production crew is to interpret a script so that it reflects the playwright’s intentions as well as the director’s creative vision. Primarily, the creative aspects intention is to capture and enhance the mood and atmosphere of the play. It’s important to instill in student’s that reading and understanding the play is a necessity as well as being able to effectively describe and analyse the character’s and their motivations.

Design is not the last part of a production process. It is not an afterthought. It should be integrated into the pre-production process with as much importance as any of the other areas in the production.

I theme my entire elements of production unit around musicals a) because I love them and b) they are really good at highlighting the elements of design and the way characters and ideas are exaggerated and brought to life.


In preparing student’s to look at the areas of costume and set design they first need to understand the seven basic principles used in design. I like to use the following anagram:

  • Drama (Direction)
  • Students (Shape)
  • Like (Line)
  • To (Tone)
  • Create (Colour)
  • Silly (Space)
  • Theatre (Texture)

To get student’s thinking about these have a selection of images that focus on or combine of number of the design principles. Discuss the effect of the image in capturing a sense of mood and atmosphere. Artworks or photographs would be great here.


There are a couple of fun “mini activities” that I like to do before knuckling down and really interpreting a script.

1. Toilet Paper Costumes – Have you ever been to a Kitchen Tea? One of those hideous pre-wedding rituals designed to make women squeal over kitchen appliances? If the answer is yes, then you’ve probably played the game where you’ve had to dress a guest in a wedding dress that is made out of toilet paper. I don’t get my student’s to make wedding dresses but I do get them to use the toilet paper to design and dress up a student as a priest, soldier, nurse, anything you like really. Without realising it the student’s are thinking about all the design principles as well as accessories, shoes, maybe even make-up. Give student’s a time limit too to keep the pressure on.

2. Crime Scene Cut Outs – Remember when you were a kid and you and your siblings would be given sidewalk chalk and you all lay down in your drive-ways and traced around your entire body as though you were marking a dead corpse at a crime scene? Try something similar with your students using large rolls of butcher’s paper. Each student gets a large piece of butcher’s paper, they pair up and one person traces the other and vice versa. You can then either have student’s use textas, crayons, paint (if you’re game) create a costume representation of their partner thinking about clothing, shoes, accessories, hair and make-up. Stick them up on the classroom wall as a celebration of their designs.

3. Select a Scene – Once kids are in the swing of thinking about costume design it is then that you can knuckle down and find a selection of scenes or stage directions from one or a variety of plays and get student’s to think about how they would design the costumes for those characters. I like to read scenes out because I think it gives away more clues as to character. I then give my student’s a template (here) and literally get them to pencil in the costume and colour it in.

4. Write About It – A writing activity that could be attached to this exercise is one where we get the student’s to explain which elements of design they have used and why. How does it link back to the character, the scene, the play as a whole?

Finally, here are some videos you might like to use in your classroom (all musical inspired of course!):


Here are some ideas that I like to use in my classroom when teaching set:

1. Look through the Director’s Kaleidescope – Similar to the introductory exercise above about the elements of design, this time I find pictures of actual sets (just Google your favourite shows) and print them out onto large A4, A3 pieces of paper in colour. I break student’s into groups and together they go to a “set design station” which has one of the pictures, a sheet with the elements of drama on it and a sheet with the elements of design on it. Underneath the picture I leave a bit of space for the student’s to add their thoughts about mood, atmosphere, any other elements of drama or elements of design.

2. Looking from the Bird’s Eye – I then do another exercise similar to “Select a Scene” but instead of drawing the cosutmes we look at drawing the set from both a Bird’s Eye View as well as a front on view. You might also like to explore the variou stage spaces around your school and discuss how setting this same scene would be different depending on where it is being performed.

3. Dress the Set – If you have the resources and/or a bit of ingenuity and creativity use what is available to you to get you and your student’s to actually create a real life set. Present a scene for a guest audience. You might even like to incorporate your costume designs from the “Select a Scene” exercise here.

Finally here are some videos on set design that I think could be great for the classroom:

mannequins / Kris Sikes / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Elements of Production Teaching Suggestions

Over the next couple of posts I am going to look at the elements of production. The series will look at teaching:

  • The Elements, The Production Process, Roles and Responsibilities
  • Design – Set, Costume, Poster/Promotion
  • Design – Lighting and Sound
  • Direction
  • Theatre Criticism

I have just started this unit with my class and thought it would be a good idea to share my classroom experiences in real time rather than quite a while later as I have done with some of my other posts.

So here’s a suggestion for introducing the elements, the production process and roles and responsibilities to your students.


  • To establish the idea that theatre is not just about the actor’s but a whole team of people;
  • That it is a lengthy process requiring considerable planning with people from various areas of responsibility;
  • That the team’s primary role is to interpret a text and bring it to life on stage.

Remember: Try to re-inforce the idea that this is a “directing” course, not a theory course.

There’s No “I” in Team:

  • Form student’s into small groups.
  • Give each group a photograph.
  • Assign each group member with a role: director, actor, costume designer, set/props and any other role you like.
  • Allow each group 5 minutes to recreate a scene from the photograph but they must change it in some way to make it original.
  • Whilst groups are working out what they are doing, walk around and whisper “commands” into certain people’s ears, e.g. “Refuse to do anything,” “Let the actor do whatever he/she wants.”
  • Have each group present their photograph performance.
  • Afterwards ask groups to talk about how well or perhaps how well they did not work together and what they felt would have made the team work even better. The pressurised time situation is bound to bring out some interesting responses. You could also link in a discussion about the workplace and any similiarities or connections seen from the exercise.
  • Use this as a lead in to discuss the concept of a production team and the various roles in that team. Have handouts at the ready here with lists of responsibilities for each role.
  • Get student’s to complete a “heirarchy chart” of the various production roles that looks at the areas of responsibility and who is “in charge” of who.
  • Lead into a discussion about the three parts of the production process: pre-production (70%), production (10%) and post-production (30%). Yes, that does equal 110%. As well as, of course, how could we forget, Murphy’s Law and the need to be prepared for anything that may go wrong.

Paint By Number:

  • Create a workstation for each student with newspaper, paint brushes, water and a selection of colours (I use the primary colours).
  • Give each student 4 sheets of A3 paper. Have them number them 1-4 and put their name on the back of each.
  • Select four differing pieces of music. You could base these on the Laban movements. So, something soft, flowing and melancholic, something short, sharp and up-tempo, something constant and rhythmic, something brimming with tension.
  • As each piece of music plays, have the student’s paint what comes into their minds using the various colours, mixing colours, using shapes, line and pattern.
  • You can leave the exercise here at this point or as an extension to this exercise you could have the student’s write about what they created and which elements of drama they were drawing upon.
  • Finish the lesson by reinforcing that what the student’s did was to interpret and utilise their imaginations to create an original work that could then become a set or a costume design.

Here are some photos of what my student’s did during their lesson this week.

Image Credit: karlao, Paint by Number Activity, 2011.

Lesson Lovenotes: Playbuilding in the Drama Classroom

Playbuilding is the core topic across Stage 4,5 and 6 Drama in the NSW Syllabus. However, teaching playbuilding in your classroom whichever syllabus you follow is very worthwhile. Here I’ve provided some background information and a unit structure on playbuilding. I will endeavour to discuss the logbook, specific strategies for each stage of the process and ways of reflecting on performance. Look for these posts in the coming days.

So, what is it exactly?

Essentially, playbuilding is the creation of a short performance from virtually nothing. Playbuilt pieces can be as short or as long as you would like. I generally tend to stick to around the 8-12 minute mark. Usually plays can be generated from ideas, issues, events, pictures, songs, plays, poems. What they start out as and what they become is part of the playbuilding process and it is the idea of process that makes playbuilding such a valid part of the drama classroom.

Valid, how?

Student’s in the drama classroom need to learn that the creation of drama is a process. There is a starting point and there is an end point and how you get there is what making, performing and appreciating drama is all about. It is during this process that student’s improvise, learn about new ways to generate ideas, write and reflect on thoughts and ideas they have had or gathered, fight with each other and problem solve with each other all because they must produce a piece of performance.

So, where do I begin?

As a starting point choose a play, series of photographs, a song or poem. The teacher acts very much like a facilitator in these lessons. You want as much of the material to come from the student’s so you don’t want to be directing them and choreographing where they’re supposed to stand or how they’re supposed to move. It needs to come from them. Try and structure your unit around the following steps:

  • Select a Starting Point – as I mentioned above, these things can get you started but what you really need to have happen here is a lot of discussion, brainstorming and even some improvisation. It is the initial phase in which you are establishing group dynamics and a potential direction for the piece.
  • Research & Investigation – with an initial idea and direction for the piece take student’s to the library and get them to research and investigate and find fiction, non-fiction, websites, videos/DVDs/YouTube clips, music, poems, photos, artworks, ANYTHING that will trigger further ideas and empower them with more information so as to generate ideas and make creative decisions. Ensure they are keeping a logbook of all the things they do in each lesson. This is the proof that there was a process.
  • Finding the Spine – collate the information as a group and look to find the dramatic question that you are asking the audience. What do you want them to see, think, feel, talk about after they watch the performance? Other things to consider here include: who is your audience? From your initial improvisations and ideas which one stood out the most? Can you locate the action of the scene/s? Are there any specific or important characters? What is their role in the story? Can you create a timeline for the piece?
  • Working on Scenes – With a dramatic question in mind, this is the point in the process where most of the improvisation happens. It is important that you instill in the student’s that it is necessary to not just talk about ideas but to get up and experiement with those ideas. Actually, physically act them out. You know the saying, “it’s good in theory but in practice…” This couldn’t be truer in drama. A great process to follow when trying to decide which scenes to keep and which not to includes the “experiment, refine, discuss, select” process.
  • Putting It Together/Rehearsing – This is the part where student’s should start to experiment with dramatic structure, different forms and conventions, different performance practitioner’s ideas, using theatrical traditions  and theatre sports as a springboard, dramatic devices and transitions, costume, set, lighting, sound and music. There are a range of things you can consider here and I will discuss these in a later post.
  • Performance – Student’s perform the scene several times for a range of different audiences.
  • Evaluation – Student’s reflect on their performance both individually and as a group. I will discuss this in a later post.

Some Final Tips

  • I always get my student’s to sign a group performance contract before beginning rehearsals. It is a nice way for them to set up the dynamics and expectations of the group, to feel in control of their learning and it is a great tool for you when you need back up after Miss Sally Bowles hasn’t turned up to three rehearsals in a row 🙂 Believe me, it happens. Diva storm-outs are a regular occurance at my school 😉

Image Credits: past the point of love, (made it to #2 explore !) [10,00streamviews!] / ashley rose, / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0