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Theatrical Lighting 101

Theatrical Lighting 101

Today’s churches come in many shapes and sizes, from grand cathedrals to small strip-mall settings. And within those churches, the methods of illuminating sanctuaries or auditoriums vary greatly. Some have decorative chandeliers; others may have the original four-foot recessed fluorescent fixtures from when their space was a clothing store.

But as churches grow, most are doing away with outdated lighting methods and installing theatrical lighting systems. And there’s a good reason why.

“There’s a realization in the church that part of what they are doing is in fact theater—that there are people up on a stage or platform, and they need to be seen and heard,” explains Fredrick Taggart, president of Fredrick and Emily’s in Lancaster County, Pa., a firm that specializes in church renovation and audio-visual system design. “Pastors are trying to convince people to do specific things, and you can do that very powerfully through emotions—and the lighting in the church is part of that.”

“A good lighting system focuses your attention on the speaker and away from distractions,” states Greg Persinger, owner of Vivid Illumination, a lighting design and consulting company in Nashville, Tenn. “The eye naturally looks toward the brightest object in view. Keeping the speaker brighter than the objects around them focuses the viewers’ attention.”

Theatrical lighting isn’t just to light the room up; it’s to create an overall environment for worship. And according to Steve Arnold, director of systems design and development for church lighting at Candela Controls in Winter Garden, Fla., a company that provides lighting system engineering, integration, installation and service, “[Theatrical lighting] gives you the ability to set lighting levels, colors and textures that are most suitable for how [a given] church worships.”

Many churches have different services for various demographic groups that attend their services, Arnold continues, saying, “For a more traditional service, you can adjust the lighting to make it easier for older members to read their Bibles; for a youth service a darker seating area with lots of color and visual interest on the platform may be desired.”

In all situations, though, poor lighting can be a barrier to solid communication.

“If the light levels on the pastor are too low or too high, the viewers’ eyes become fatigued,” explains Persinger. “They will then look away to rest their eyes. Once they look away they tend to stop listening.”

Thus, the best communication will take place under the best lighting conditions.

Being able to add color into your lighting scheme also makes a big impact. “Churches use their theatrical lighting to change colors to match the liturgical season, or to set a mood at a wedding or funeral,” states Taggart. Washing a wall or stage with blue, for instance, can set a more subdued mood; warmer colors like reds and yellows can increase the energy in a room. The colors are chosen to tie in with what the service is all about.

Taggart describes how Dryland United Church of Christ in Nazareth, Pa., uses colors effectively. “Instead of a cross they have a carving of The Good Shepherd against a white background. We used LED lighting to spotlight it, and pulling in different colors really gets your attention. Their back wall is actually all glass, and with the low power needs of LED lighting, they leave the statue illuminated in color most of the night.”

As with anything, lighting is best accomplished with the right tools. Theatrical lighting is designed to put out significant light from a distance, and enables tight control of the amount of light used and where that light goes. Let’s take a look at what a theatrical system consists of.

The Components of a Lighting System

“Traditional theatrical lighting systems consist of three main parts—some lights, some dimmers and a control console,” describes Joe Bokelman, market manager at theatrical lighting equipment manufacturer ETC Inc. in Middleton, Wis. “Typically, the lights and dimmers are installed in the main sanctuary, and are set up for general uses, such as lighting the pulpit, the choir and maybe musicians.”

So you have a set of these wonderful fixtures, but now you need to be able to control them. There are two primary methods of controlling the dimmers that power the lights: an architectural control system, and a lighting control console. You can have either, or both, of these systems in place depending on your needs.

“Architectural lighting systems are the day-to-day lighting controls installed throughout a facility,” describes Bokelman. Many churches have an architectural controller installed in conjunction with their theatrical system.

“Companies like Strand and ETC make systems with wall stations,” adds Arnold. “When the wall stations see that the lighting console is active, they let the lighting console take over control of the lights. When the lighting console is shut down, then the wall stations become active again, allowing non-technical people to turn on any of several lighting looks from that wall station.”

For more sophisticated control, a lighting console is the way to go. “The control console is really the key to traditional lighting systems,” states Bokelman. “When run during a service, the operator uses the control console to change the lighting levels, creating or shifting focus from one area to another, or signaling a change in mood, based on what’s currently happening. A more complex control console may be used to harness the advanced features of the lights. This combination of equipment, in the hands of a trained lighting artist, can really have a dramatic impact on a service, focusing the congregations’ attention, without being a distracting rock-n-roll show. Of course, if rock-n-roll is the goal, modern theatrical lighting systems are capable of delivering that, too.”

Portable Lighting

Theatrical systems aren’t just for large-scale installations, however. Portable churches can also benefit from a small, portable theatrical system. “We offer what we call our ‘Lighting in a Box’ system,” states Chris Pease, sales and marketing manager for Virginia Beach, Va.‘s Lightronics, a theatrical lighting equipment manufacturer, “which includes your stands, lights, dimmer and control console.”

Systems like this are designed to be highly portable, enabling churches without a permanent facility to obtain the benefits of theatrical lighting, but also enabling a large church campus to put lighting wherever they need it at the moment.

To use a portable system, you need to make sure that there’s adequate power for the lighting load you’ll be putting on the dimmers. “A lot of times in a room all the outlets are actually on the same breaker,” describes Pease. “It’s important to know what outlets are on what circuits to avoid overloading the outlets and tripping the circuit breaker.”

Theatrical lighting can help even the most traditional churches deliver the Gospel message more effectively. Persinger sums it up: “Pastors tend to be good communicators and they are always looking for ways to improve their communication, which is what a theatrical lighting system does.”

Running Your Lighting System

If you want to use your theatrical lighting system to its fullest potential, someone is going to need to be at the controls each service making it happen. And for the vast majority of churches, this means building a team of volunteers to own this responsibility. So, what does it take to run a lighting system for a worship service?

Greg Persinger, owner of Nashville, Tenn.‘s Vivid Illumination, a lighting design and consulting company, states, “You have to remember that worship lighting is not theatrical lighting, or concert lighting, or video lighting. It uses the same equipment and basic techniques, but you have to light for the needs of the worship service.”

What does it take to light for worship, then? First of all, you don’t want your lighting to become the focus of people’s attention—you want instead to help focus their attention on God. “You need to be subtle with your lighting changes; many times, less is more in a worship setting,” says Persinger.

Lighting has both an artistic component and a technical component. As these are often two very different giftings, Persinger suggests teaming up people to take on the lighting role together.

“If you can pair these giftings together, they can be very successful,” he states. “Teams also take the pressure off by having each person back up the other.”

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