Behind the Theater Curtain With Lighting Design Expert Sean Mallary

Sean Mallary

Playwriters, directors, producers, actors, set designers, sounds designers, lighting designers, and many more people in a wide variety of roles are required to transform a theater stage into an extraordinary production and experience. Each role is vital for the curtains to go up opening night, especially lighting.

Lighting for a theater production isn’t as simple as flicking a light switch. Geometry, specialized software, and climbing 20 to 40 feet above ground to hang or move lights are often a big part of the job. Who would have guessed! You can’t have a fear of heights if you want to become a lighting designer.

Lighting design expert Sean Mallary has over 16 years of experience in the industry. Come along as he takes us behind the scenes of a recent production he worked on for the Community College of Aurora (CCA) and sheds light on this exciting career field.

“Last spring, I designed the lighting for CCA’s spring theater production, ‘Living Echoes.’ The first thing I do with any production is find the inspiration for the lighting. For ‘Living Echoes,’ the inspiration was the script that was created from CCA students’ essays and artwork. It gave the production team a true visual roadmap to create the show’s lighting, set, and sound designs from.

“After several production meetings to discuss the look and feel of the production, I went to the drawing board to create the light plot. This is the real work of a lighting designer and the part that requires a lot of math. This is where a great deal of time and thought is put into how I want to use light in the storytelling process.

“Using two different types of design software, I have technical drawings of the theater and set to determine what types of lights to use, what colors work best, and what angles and direction of light convey my ideas. It is here I have to consider many details, such as the paint treatments, colors found in the set or costumes, and even how the light would affect the various skin tones of our diverse cast of actors. I usually spend several weeks on this part as I work with digital 3D models of the set and layout to determine where each light will hang.

“The math part is extremely important here as I have to calculate weights of fixtures, power consumption, and how each light will be controlled. Most people don’t think about it but there can easily be thousands of pounds of equipment above people’s heads on stage.

“For ‘Living Echoes,’ the light plot had over 200 fixtures, including specialty theater lights, robotic moving lights, color-changing LEDs, special lights for shadow work, practical lamps, holiday light strings, and Chinese paper lanterns.

“And those lights don’t hang themselves! So, it was up to me and CCA’s Theatre and Event Technology students to hang the lights and make sure the lights were pointing the right direction.

“Once the lights were in place and working, I went back to the script and noted on each page the light cues I wanted to use to tell the story. This is the more creative part of the design where I get to think about the art of the storytelling, versus all the technical work.

“And after all that, it is technical rehearsals to make sure everything is working correctly for opening night.”

Students performing during Living Echoes

Once the theater curtains close closing night, the lights are taken down and Mallary is off to his next project. Some years, Mallary will work on more than a dozen projects. It makes for a crazy lifestyle but Mallary says, “It’s an indescribable amount of fun and excitement and I’m always looking forward to the next show.”

And how did Mallary find his passion for lighting design? He was involved in theater in high school and helped out with sets. At first, he thought about becoming a theater teacher but decided that was not for him, so instead he enrolled in a generalized tech theater degree program and discovered his love for lighting.

And theater shows aren’t the only project Mallary works on. He has worked on musicals, dances, TV commercials, operas, corporate production works, cruise ships, sporting events, art gallery installations, weddings, and special events. There are countless paths one can take with a background in theater lighting and tech.

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