Book Marks: Towards Good Lighting For The Stage: Aesthetic Theory for Theatrical Lighting Design

Before I even opened the cover of Towards Good Lighting for the Stage: Aesthetic Theory for Theatrical Lighting Design, I was hoping to enjoy it. While I have never met the author, Marcus Doshi, his name is unforgettable to me. That is because the first Broadway show I saw after the COVID 19 pandemic, in fact the first Broadway show to open after the pandemic, was Pass Over by Antoinette Chinonye Nwandu. I remember the entire design team. And since we’re reviewing a book about lighting, who was the lighting designer of this play? Marcus Doshi, of course!

Knowing what I knew about Doshi’s stunningly clean lighting for Pass Over, I dove into the book excited to learn more. Within the first page, I had another reason to enjoy the book. Doshi’s acknowledgments were to those people who helped him in his career. One of those people was a teacher from Wabash College who taught and inspired him: Lonna Wilke. This name might not be familiar to you, dear reader. But to me, this name is unforgettable.

Photo by Joan Marcus
Pass Over, lighting by Marcus Doshi (Photo by Joan Marcus)

Back in the spring of 2001, Lonna Wilke was the theater manager at the St. Charles Community College in St. Charles, Missouri. One night, after a tech rehearsal for Peter Pan by the youth theatre program, a group of parents and children circled up downstage right. It was there that a certain Lonna Wilke taught them how to change a Source Four lamp. This is the exact moment that a thirteen year old boy, who would go on to become a lighting designer, learned that the oils from our fingers will cause a lamp to blow. 

How did I know the specifics of this? Because I was that thirteen year old boy. Here it is that Marcus Doshi, who I’ve never met, and who I have admired for his gorgeous lighting, and whose book I have been asked to review, that Marcus Doshi and I have both been taught and inspired by the same person? It hardly seemed believable to me as I read through the acknowledgments. And yet you, dear reader, have an objective view of my experience and rightfully are reminded that this is merely one example of how small the world of theatre is.

Now that we’ve established how excited I was to read this book, let’s get to the review. But please give yourself some time, as this review mirrors the meandering style Doshi has laid out over 189 pages. No idea goes un-thought or unexplored. It wouldn’t do the book justice to merely say it is a must read for every stage designer. 

Towards Good Lighting for the Stage: Aesthetic Theory for Theatrical Lighting Design is an intellectual exploration of stage lighting design. The ideas Doshi puts forth are thoughts that countless lighting designers have found floating around in their head. What is the balance of beauty and practicality in lighting design? What makes lighting design an art? Where does my aesthetic come from and do fellow designers have the same influences?

The book is broken into eight chapters. The first three chapters provide a scholarly framework for understanding lighting. That is followed by thoughts on how these concepts apply specifically to theatre. The latter chapters hone in on stage lighting. This is where Doshi shares thoughts on design ideas that many designers would find relatable.

1 Beauty

2 Artist / Artwork

3 The Spectator

4 Theatre

5 Theatrical Abstraction

6 On Design

7 The Box

8 Praxis

I will give brief summaries of each section. If you don’t want any spoiler alerts, or don’t want to take the time to read the summaries, skip over the next thirteen paragraphs. 

1 Beauty - Doshi claims this is the most crucial aspect of an artwork because it demands active engagement from the spectator. He supports his point by providing a beautiful image that is simultaneously a tragic event. The beauty isn’t necessarily just the image, but the knowledge that we the spectator bring to it. 

As expected for a book on aesthetic visuals, Doshi uses a lot of images to accompany his ideas. Some are expected, such as Edward Hopper, Adolphe Appia, and various production photos. Others are unexpected and provide a glimpse into the author’s mind. These are images from Reuters, the Associated press, and industrial designer Dieter Rams.

2 Artist / Artwork - Doshi rejects the idea of separating the artwork from the artist. He compares the artist to a mystic who possesses a unique vision of the world and feels compelled to express it. Doshi suggests that the artist's role involves navigating the unknown and conveying their insights through their work, often without completely understanding themselves.

This resonated with me because I have countless times been sitting at a tech table and creating light cues. All while losing sight of the big picture. I don’t know what the show will look like when we layer in scenery, costumes, video, and performers. But I do know that I keep designing the lights because that’s what I have to communicate with and eventually the whole show will come together.

3 The Spectator - Here Doshi encourages designers to understand they are the first audience of their own work. Designers partake in an interplay between thoughts and emotions, just as all spectators will do. Doshi draws a connection between the spectator and an audience noting the root of "spectator" and "spectacle" is the Latin word "spectare," meaning to look at, see, or watch. As designers we create the spectacle but we also are a spectator of that spectacle. 

4 Theatre - Doshi notes the transactional aspect of spectating varies based on the type of artwork. For static forms like books or paintings, meaning flows primarily from the artist to the spectator. In live theatre, meaning-making involves a dynamic exchange between performers and audience members, creating a feedback loop essential to its effectiveness. Theatre gets defined as stories performed by one group for another in a specific time and place.

5 Theatrical Abstraction - This is where the reading gets good as a lighting designer. It highlights the importance of understanding art movements and their complexity. Doshi provides an example of a rivalry between playwrights Ibsen and Strindberg. Knowing about this rivalry will inform lighting choices in productions of their plays. Additionally, knowing key precedents set by early stage designers Adolphe Appia, Edward Gordon Craig, and Robert Edmond Jones where they expressed intent in lighting design, rather than mere visibility. 

What makes this section good is Doshi’s explanations of naturalism, realism, and expressionism. These are well thought out explanations that I will keep bookmarked for future reference.

6 On Design - Here is explored the relationship between design, craft, and artwork. Lighting design is an applied art, serving the overall production as a component of the artwork. It must balance both functional and aesthetic considerations to contribute effectively to the production's beauty. This section is relatable to all designers as we have to learn our own style and where we land on the beauty versus pragmatic in our designs. Doshi identifies his own aesthetic as contemporary abstract essentialism.

7 The Box - This is the author’s approach to pre-production. He compares it to a Japanese tea ceremony, with ritualized steps that free up mental energy for creative thinking. Discipline and routine are important in fostering creativity. 

“The box," itself is a conceptual construct of a container of ideas that make up a lighting design. The boundaries are structure, needs, space, resources, and time. It serves as a map for organizing the ideas of a design, ultimately manifested in the light plot.

8 Praxis - Meaning “put into practice,” this part breaks away from lighting theory. As such, it is my favorite chapter of the book. It takes Doshi’s ideas and connects them to lighting in the real world. These topics are rarely, if ever, discussed in design books. 

Doshi discusses the importance of deadlines and then birthing actual cues from the countless hours of pre-production. He touches on the very important trait of situational awareness. Another topic is taking action on creative ideas without getting bogged down in one’s own mind. And finally, Doshi also embraces imperfection by acknowledging that the unexpected is a constant in the production process. 

That’s all he wrote, folx.

If you stuck with me this far into the review, congratulations, you’ve made it through the  book report section of the review. You now have an idea of what to expect when you read the book. These summaries have barely grazed the surface of how in-depth Doshi goes. Like the expanse of outer space, the expanse of an artist's thoughts can be explored for many lifetimes. What Doshi artfully does is put these ideas on paper so we can clarify the thoughts that are so often ethereal or fleeting. 

I very much liked this book. As a lighting designer, it makes me feel less lonely. I’m not the only one that can happily overanalyze a mundane thing and see beauty in it. I’m not the only one that can look at a tragedy, feel the tragedy, and yet see and remember the beauty within the tragedy. And I’m not the only one that reads a new script and imagines the story, pulling from my conscience and subconscious aesthetic experiences. Then taking those ideas to the rest of the creative team knowing that my vision won’t even come close to making it onstage. And yet, some of it will be via my lights and that is my contribution to the production.

All I can think is that this book is a modern version of The Dramatic Imagination. While Robert Edmund Jones provided a philosophical approach to all stage design, Doshi provides a philosophical approach for lighting design. He explains the "why" and underscores the "how" of stage lighting design as an art.

Doshi’s manifesto is a valuable read for all theatre practitioners whose purpose deals with the aesthetics of stage design. Beyond visual designers, this includes directors, choreographers, sound designers, and composers. It is especially valuable for lighting designers who know lighting is art and want to find words to explain it or to understand their own aesthetic.

Anyone who reads this book is in for an intellectual stroll through a garden of stage aesthetics and has positioned themselves towards good lighting for the stage.

Available through Amazon and Routledge:

  • Publisher: ‎ Routledge; 1st edition (December 27, 2022)
  • Language: ‎ English
  • Paperback: ‎ 198 pages
  • ISBN-10: ‎ 1032073314
  • ISBN-13: ‎ 978-1032073316

Ethan Steimel is a theatrical designer, producer, and podcaster (Artisitic Finance). In 2007, he co-founded Moonlighting Theatre in Saint Charles, Missouri with his artistic partner Vince Gordon. He moved to NYC in 2013 and has worked as a lighting designer for theatre and a lighting director for television. Ethan and his wife, Nicole, co-produced Broadway's A Christmas Carol and associate-produced Propaganda! The Podcast Musical. He now lives in Phoenix, Arizona.