Lighting Your Special Holiday Event
By: David Martin Jacques
For: Church Production Magazine
September 12, 2005

Copyright 2005 by David Martin Jacques

The opportunity to create the lighting for your church’s holiday events can be exciting, challenging, and frightening! Where do you start? How much equipment do you need? Do you need a specialist? These questions must go though most church administrators’ minds as the holidays approach.

As there are all sizes of houses of worship, there are also many scales of production for holiday events. From the simple home-town church pageant to the mega-church operatic spectacles, all houses of worship must have a plan to light and produce these important celebrations.

Large scale productions such as the First Baptist Church of Ft. Lauderdale’s Christmas Pageant and the Crystal Cathedral’s Holiday Pageant certainly require a large amount of specialized lighting equipment to create the striking effects that these productions are famous for. This is why many of these churches employ professional lighting designers to create these large-scale productions.

This is how I made my way into the worship lighting world. Kim Noblett (then the Music Minister of the First Baptist Church of Ft. Lauderdale) called me in 1996 to ask if I was available to design the lighting for their annual Christmas Pageant. The church desired a major improvement in their lighting production and decided to hire me to assist them in their vision. Although this required a substantial increase in their lighting budget, the overall improvement in the lighting design was quite evident.

The budgets for these productions can be frightening! I recently worked on a Christmas production whose lighting budget was well over $200,000! Although some may consider this extraordinary, many churches believe that the expense is worth it due to the overall effect that the production will have on the large number of people who will eventually see it.

Even though a large budget does allow the use of state-of-the-art lighting tools such as moving lights, projectors, and sophisticated lighting controllers, it is important to realize that money is not the complete answer. The true power of lighting is in the art of lighting, and not in the technical tools that you may have at your disposal.

The fact is that you do not need hundreds of thousands of dollars of equipment to create powerful lighting moments. Considering that I am presently writing this article while designing in a large, well-equipped opera house in Florence, Italy, I must confess that many times I believe in the concept that “simpler is better”. One perfectly placed lamp is worth more than hundreds of poorly used moving lights.

Whatever the funding is for your house of worship, I always suggest that the best way to light your event is to think simple and directly. It is crucial to understand that lighting such an event is not much different from lighting your weekly service. The exact same concepts apply to both. The lighting needs to support the message of the event, the mood of the moment, and supply the people on stage with sufficient visibility and modeling. These are the basic functions of lighting design. If you think that all you have to do is hang some lights, turn them on and point them at the stage, you are missing the true power of design.

I always tell my students that the best way to start a design is to truly understand what the story is about. I believe that the designer must be committed to the message in order to serve the performance. Singers, dancers, and actors create powerful performances because they believe in what they are doing. The same goes for everyone involved in a worship event--including the lighting designer.

It is then when the most important aspect of being an artist comes into play: How do you, the lighting artist, interpret this message? What is your point of view for this production? Transferring this point of view into light can be very challenging. However, it is in this expression of your point of view that makes you an artist.

From here the lighting designer studies the structure of the production and makes a list of its relevant moments. For instance, I always list the scenes and songs in chronological order on a piece of paper. From this I can see exactly how the production is structured. Like a well composed symphony, the composition of the event varies in dynamics and mood.

I subdivide this into what I call dramatic moments (epiphanies of the characters and/or the audience). Next to these moments I jot down comments on the mood. Is it Happy, Exciting, Sad, Somber? What is the moment about? What is the message? Is it illuminating? Is it penetrating, powerful, or subtle? Is the tempo fast or slow. What are the dynamics? Are they loud or soft?

Once all this is complete, I move on to the practical requirements of the lighting design. How much visibility is required? How much of the stage must be illuminated? Are there any special scenic items that must be lit? What do the costumes look like? What are the colors used in the scenery and costumes? Are there any special effects required? From all this information I come up with a plan to execute a lighting design that will truly serve the production.

So you may be asking… “All this is well and good, but my church only owns twenty Lekos and a few ParCans… How do I accomplish this when it is a challenge even to adequately illuminate the stage?” Well, like I said before, it is not the amount of equipment that determines a good lighting design, but the creativity of the designer to produce the desired lighting support for the moment.

A good example comes from my lighting design for the Ft. Lauderdale Christmas Pageant. Although this is a very large design with hundreds of thousands of dollars of lighting equipment incorporated, there are several moments where the lighting is created using only a very few common lighting instruments.

For the resurrection scene I was trying to come up with an idea that would communicate this miraculous event to the audience. Using my process above, I examined really what this moment was about. Everyone knows the story and what happens to Christ, but the moment lives individually in everyone’s heart and minds--so I felt that making this moment as simple as possible was the answer.

To me, Christ walks into the light of heaven and salvation. So as the actor who plays Jesus sits up, turns upstage, and walks out of the tomb, I have a stagehand holding a simple ParCan pointed at the Jesus directly upstage of him. The audience only sees a blinding beam of light that Jesus walks into. But the light also hits the audience--making it their own special moment too. The point being, instead of using a $12,000 moving light, I used a $75 ParCan held by a stagehand. This was the simple answer to one of the most powerful moments of the production.

Let’s not forget that the most powerful tool to use is the audiences’ imaginations. Many theatre artists do not give enough credit to the audience, thinking that they must re-create every “realistic” moment. As many artists have proven over the years, the idea is to inspire the audiences’ imagination. This creates powerful effects that no lighting design can ever match. Remember, the audience knows that it is in a church watching a pageant. Your job is to create such ideas in the audiences’ imaginations. This is easily accomplished with lighting.

For instance, let’s say that you need to recreate Jesus’ ascension to Heaven. Well, there is nothing more fake looking than to have some poor actor hanging from cables “fly” up into the church’s ceiling. So once again, study the moment, what it really means to you, and find a way to light it so that it inspires the same for the audience.

Instead of following Jesus up to the ceiling with a tacky follow-spot, light him from above and change the color of the stage as he ascends. In my design this is what the moment was all about, as the color of the stage turned from blue to a “Heavenly Gold”. Not only did it highlight Jesus’ ascension, it created the idea of how the followers of Jesus were changed when this event occurred. I am sure that the effect on the audience was just as powerful.

Along with color, the angle of light is a very powerful quality to inspire the audience’s imaginations. In the production of I Lombardi that I am presently designing in Italy, there is a moment when the nuns from the cloisters are singing angelically offstage left, contrasting with the evil mood of revenge and murder. For this moment I have a single warm diagonal cross-light piercing through the cool, rainy atmosphere. This is a simple, but very effective lighting moment that emphasizes the mood, and at the same time highlights the contrast of evil and good.

You can do the same with your holiday event lighting. Remember, keep it simple! Understand and communicate to the audience the message of the event and the dramatic moments. If you follow my process, you too can inspire your audiences’ imaginations, and create ideas that will compete with even the most sophisticated and expensive lighting designs.

David Martin Jacques is a professional lighting designer and consultant who designs productions throughout the United States and Europe. He also serves as Head of Stage Design at California State University, Long Beach, and can be contacted at: