Big moving lights, haze in the air, a high-end console, and maybe even lasers it's every church lighting director's dream to have an arsenal of fixtures and tools that rivals a Trans-Siberian Orchestra show. But the reality is that most smaller churches don't have the money to create the looks they see on magazine covers.
Wood, corrugated plastic, and drapery can save the day when it comes to adding reasonably-priced, reflective surfaces to your space.
Lighting surfaces with LED fixtures can be an effective and inexpensive way to add a new dimension to your space without breaking the bank, especially since you can head straight to a local music store and buy a few inexpensive LED fixtures relatively easily. Even if you don't own a lighting console, most fixtures allow you to choose from a palette of color presets, meaning you can just plug in the fixture to power and you'll have instant color.
But if your space is like so many of ours, you may only have a bland beige wall or a black curtain behind your stage. Not much to write home about, when you light it with LED, right? Wood, corrugated plastic, and drapery can save the day when it comes to adding reasonably-priced, reflective surfaces to your space.
Wood is a fascinating reflector of light, because each piece is a different color and shape than the next. Even though cleaner, simpler lines and darker stains have replaced the mismatched look of light-colored palette board in church stage design, it's still worth working with wood. Rough-hewn cedar fence boards are an inexpensive way to achieve a surface with detailed texture, and simple pine one-by-fours, sanded and stained, look fantastic in rows of horizontals or diagonals.
Another benefit to wood is that it looks just as great lit in a warm, traditional, incandescent up-light as it does with the cooler color temperatures of an LED fixture, giving you two very distinct looks. Wood is heavy, so when working with wood, always stay safe: don't hang anything that's not absolutely structurally sound, and be sure nothing ground-supported can tip over.
Coroplast, the brand name for corrugated plastic, has been a church stage design favorite for years. The first time we used it at our church we knew it would reflect light, but we were blown away when we shut off the work lights and aimed one single LED fixture at the white Coroplast: not only did the plastic reflect light, it seemed to glow in the light.
The great thing about Coroplast, is that it's lightweight and relatively easy to cut. A box cutter is all you need to cut simple horizontal lines across the corrugated "grain" of the plastic; verticals and diagonals can be cut using a heavier duty knife and a solid carpenter's square to keep your knife from slipping. And Coroplast cutters help you speed a little faster through larger cutting projects. Be safe, and always wear gloves when you're cutting, as it's easy for your knife to slip.
Last year, my church decided on a design with Coroplast hexagons, and due to the quantity of hexagons we needed to cut and the number of diagonals, we had the shapes cut by a local plastic supply company using their CNC machine. It saved a lot of time, and we ended up with a consistent, even cut on every single piece.
Coroplast can be stapled, nailed, screwed, or glued to just about any surface, and it's extremely lightweight. In the case of our hexagons, we strung them up with fishing line that we fed right through the corrugated channels of the plastic. You probably won't find Coroplast at the home center, but a search for a local plastic supply company will yield a list of suppliers.
Fabric, drapery, and other soft goods have been a staple in theater for centuries. Creating a lavish upstage French curtain is likely cost-prohibitive, but draping fabric over simple frames, railing, or other set pieces is a simple way of creating accents that pop without covering an entire surface.
Numerous options are available at your local fabric store, but it's worth searching a little deeper and finding a theatrical supply company. With them, you'll find fabric that's flame retardant, often comes in more varied widths, and is created specifically for applications to catch and reflect light. Do a search for theatrical draperies and you'll be amazed at the colors, textures, and reflective surfaces available. Many companies will send fabric samples so you can make the right decision the first time.
With fabric, experimentation with light placement is key hitting it straight on with light can create a striking backdrop, and lighting from the bottom or the sides gives you deeper shadows in the folds. And if you're lighting fabric that's hanging, you may get the effect of motion as the fabric sways in the breeze (or vortex) of your building's HVAC system.
Again, practice safety with drapery: Flame retardant fabric in a public space is always the best fabric; if it's not flame retardant, you risk the very fast spread of fire if the fabric comes in contact with a heat source such as a candle or incandescent lighting.
If It Has Texture, Give It a Try
Wood, Coroplast, and fabric aren't the only materials that will catch and reflect light. A trip to the home center will provide you with plenty of inspiration: PVC pipe, corrugated aluminum or fiberglass roofing, and even yarn or salvaged window frames are all simple tools that can yield amazing results when hit with light.
Don't let your bland, beige walls or ugly upstage curtain get you down! Even without a lighting console, breathing new life into your space can be simple and inexpensive by experimenting with lighting some new surfaces.