20 Years of Seismic Change in Theater Lighting


Lion in Winter , Guthrie Theatre 2017, Lighting Design by Clifton Taylor

Lion in Winter, Guthrie Theatre 2017, Lighting Design by Clifton Taylor

I have known Andrew Sullivan since the early 90s when he worked at the Fitzgerald Theater and I was designing Penumbra’s production of Black Nativity which performed there, and I have always had a great deal of respect for his work ethic and attention to detail.  As the longtime master electrician at the Guthrie. He has seen may technological changes in the lighting world and writes about many of them here. One aspect of these changes which he discusses, and which I think about a lot, is the idea that with the increasing complexity of lighting design and equipment, the entire lighting team should be viewed as active and valued collaborators in the process, not just cogs in the machine. - Mike Wangen


From 1978 to 1998, there were maybe 3 or 4 seismic changes in lighting – DMX 512 as a standard protocol, moving lights, and scrollers are three that come to mind.

But from 1998 to 2018, we’ve easily had 14 or more seismic changes -- major leaps forward in terms of the flexibility, power and creative potential of the tools of our trade.

To narrow this revolution down to a few of the most important ones, I reflected on the most interesting, challenging, and eye-opening projects we’ve undertaken at the Guthrie Theatre, where I’ve had the pleasure and honor of serving as the master electrician since 1998.

The lighting department at the Guthrie, I’m proud to say, is recognized as one of the top teams of its kind. Designers such as Jennifer Tipton, Jane Cox, and Bradley King regularly tell us we’re the kind of team that helps them take their vision and turn it into reality. They come to us with an intention, and we apply our experience and skills to make it happen.

Before going further, I need to recognize the team with such creativity, professionalism and intelligence: Tom Mays, Ryan Connealy, master programmers Steph Richards and Angelina Vyushkova, video master/rigging specialist Owen Moldow, and two senior overhires, Andy Kedle and Paul “The Master” Epton. I also want to mention past staffers Marcus Dillard, Bill Devins, and Mitch Baird – I still use every day things I learned from all of them.

But enough about us: Let’s talk tech.

My picks for the biggest three changes in theater lighting of the past 20 years are:

  1. Light boards

  2. Networking capabilities

  3. LEDs (light emitting diodes)


Light boards

“Back in MY day,” I might say in my annoying grandpa voice, “light boards were little more than glorified word processors.”

Some of you might not even know what that means, but before computers did, well, everything, you could get a separate machine that was sort of like a typewriter with a screen attached, which could handle basic word processing. And this was considered a Big Deal.

The light boards of the early 1990s are to today’s boards what word processors are to your Macbook Air. Yes, you can use them to complete many of the same tasks, but there’s really no comparison.

Some of the ways today’s light boards have redefined how we work include:

  • Scale and capacity: Today’s boards can handle far more lights than before. We used to need two boards to handle big shows – one for conventional and one for moving lights – and now we can do everything we need on a single board.
  • Software upgrades: The ability to update the system without buying new equipment is new and gives us greater flexibility than before. With boards of previous generations, we were stuck with a single operating system until and unless we purchased a new board; today we get regular updates (which we can choose to implement or ignore if we don’t particularly want that upgrade).
  • Flexibility and power: Boards have increased capacity not just in the number of lights they control but the number of universes they can manage. Once upon a time, a universe of 512 circuits was big. Today we can control 42 universes on each of our three boards.

With faster systems updates, greater capacity and increased flexibility on our boards, we have so much more precision in how we manage the equipment. For moving lights, for example, we can take each of the different attributes, such as color, speed and level, and manage them on 50 different addresses. But all of those addresses only need one channel.

The move from hardware-based systems to software-based systems also keeps us ahead of the game. When vendors make incremental improvements, those are available to us right away. We don’t have to wait for (and invest in) major upgrades every few years.

Networking capabilities

In 2003, the Guthrie Theatre broke ground on its state-of-the-art facility overlooking the Mississippi River in downtown Minneapolis. The chance to help plan and implement lighting systems from scratch has been a highlight of my career. By the time the building opened in 2006, we had all learned a lot about the latest technology (at the time), and the complexity of making decisions we knew were going to influence how the department operated for a long time to come.

One of the decisions that was challenging and somewhat risky at the time was when the design engineers opted to put the whole facility on a POE (power over ethernet) network. The standard, proven option at the time was to install a system of DMX lines to handle all equipment wiring.

We took a risk at that time, and I have to say the results have been fantastic. Freed from physical wiring, we can now place and control a unit pretty much anywhere in the building with complete flexibility. If we have a node with two ports, we can address each of those nodes to any universe we want.

The best example I can offer for the importance of this capability is how we’ve applied it to lighting a cyc. Say we’ve got a cyc light that has 15 addresses for each light. Twenty of these lights will take up 350 addresses, which is almost a whole universe. So, we switch one node to a particular universe – we always use universe 7 – easy organization, easy management.

Networking has also enabled us to develop much more quickly in advanced use of video in our productions, which, frankly, we weren’t even thinking much about back in 2005.

As with any maturing technology, networking presented us with a few bumps along the way. In 2010, we experienced what’s known as a cascade failure in our proscenium space. Basically, this was a “network storm” which caused us to lose all communication between the board, the dimmers and all nodes. During a performance. Let’s say it made a headline in the performance report the next day.

It turned out that the flaw was partially due to the use of high-end consumer network switches in the network system, which proved to be inadequate to the task. We upgraded to commercial-grade switches, and the problem hasn’t been repeated.


So far, I’ve talked about the behind-the-scenes stuff that gets insiders excited. Now let’s talk about a major change that dazzles the audience: LEDs.

In 2008, we mounted a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, in which Titania rode onstage in a human-sized Faberge egg. When it opened, the entire interior twinkled with lights.

In 2016, the skies over South Pacific sparkled through a light-up canopy.

In 2017, our production of Lion in Winter featured a two-level set with a total of about 250 candles divided across the levels, each controlled individually.

In 2018, for West Side Story, we built a 12-foot diameter moon box, incorporating 85 meters of white LED tape. We also used over 850 feet of RGBW LED tape to achieve set effects.

Twenty years ago, these effects would have been impossible to achieve. Today I don’t have to worry about heat or wattage, and with the right equipment I have a broad range of colors to work with. Advancement in LEDs is what has made the difference.

In 1998, we were using scrollers for many of these types of effects. In fact, we still have 100 scrollers in our inventory, and we still use them as conventional lights.

Our inventory of LED units includes:

  • 32 Lustr Series 2
  • 5 Solaframe Theatres
  • 8 Solawash 2000.

They are bright, high quality, and offer hundreds of colors you can access instantaneously. In fact, we’ve run into some problems because they are brighter than our 12-year-old follow spots - we might have to replace those to keep up.

One of the things I find interesting about the emergence and maturity of LED technology is that I’m learning from sources beyond the theater world. For Lion in Winter, we were presented with this challenge:

  • 250 candles
  • They have to be controlled individually
  • The set rotates .

Interesting, right? And probably impossible, even just 10 years ago.

I started doing some research on YouTube. After catching up with Dr. Pimple Popper, I found videos uploaded by home lighting enthusiasts -- these folks are amazing, and boy do they have some free time and disposable income!

Home lighting enthusiasts set up elaborate light shows, often synched to video or music, and they’re very serious about their equipment. In addition to sharing videos of the finished product, they often post “how I did it” videos. They comment on each other’s work and swap ideas.

I found a few examples where they used pixelated LED strings. On these strings, each pixel can be mapped to RGB or a single color option that can chase, blink, flash or… make a candle flicker.

After a bit of research, I found a company in California called Environmental Lighting, which manufactures these lights. The biggest issue we had was that our environment was a little different than a home setup. We needed equipment that could accommodate a 2-foot gap from one source to another, but the standard (for home use) is up to 9 inches.

We purchased the equipment and then spent a solid week cutting and soldering the strings together to adapt them to our needs. That meant 2,000 solder points (not that we were counting or anything). We then placed the strings on two levels of the set and controlled each level with a separate universe. It was powered with three cables -- 2 DMX and one 20-amp circuit.

Gorgeous. Really. Check out the video with the lighting designer, Clifton Taylor, which includes clips about how we did the candles and the final effect: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Au32RVR-51I

Sometimes electricians from smaller theaters think, “Yeah, the Guthrie, that’s fine for them; they have they budget and the manpower for this kind of thing.” But the beauty of today’s technology is that this stuff is really accessible - you could create the same effect for about $150.

Say your production needed an altar with 25 or 30 candles on it. You could purchase the materials to craft them to be individually controlled for less than $150, plus maybe a week of labor. Joe Blow in Anoka, Minnesota is busy creating amazing light shows at home, controlled by his laptop. You can do the same.

What’s next?

I’ve been in this business all my life, and there’s always something new coming, another way of creating amazing lighting for theater. There’s a lot more I could have talked about, starting with video, which has transformed our work at the Guthrie.

At the same time, there are lots of things that don’t change. We still do cardboards. I still plan out all my prep and circuiting on 5x7 legal pads. As the kids tell me, at heart I’m an analog guy.