Your English Teacher Taught You Lighting Design


Remember learning about dramatic structure in middle school English class? Exposition, rising action, climax, etc? There’s a good chance that this has never crossed your mind twenty minutes before service when you’re frantically pounding away at the lighting console, trying to re-program a dozen cues that just didn’t feel right at rehearsal.

A worship service is much like a story, and there are chapters within it.

Each chapter, or in our case each song or service element, should have a compelling dramatic structure. Similarly, the service as a whole should operate with a similar structure; maximizing the emotional ride and reducing monotony.

The service should maximize the emotional ride and reduce monotony. @robmerow Click To Tweet

The preshow look is your first opportunity as a designer to set the mood for what everyone is about to experience. You can introduce them to the base color scheme that the service will operate within. You can reveal glimpses of the scenic design without giving it all away. You want enough effect to draw people in and leave them intrigued for what is to come. This works for songs as well – start off subtle so you have somewhere to go.

Rising Action

Things are beginning to pick up – this happens in almost every song. We’ve heard the verse, we’ve heard the chorus. The bridge is where the tension begins to build – slowly take the house down lower, increase the saturation of the backlight, and let the intensity chases begin to roll. Something is coming.


This is the big chorus that everything has built toward. Let the design fully come into its own – the scenic design lit dynamically; movement and color fill the room. Most contemporary worship songs bottom out for a chorus or two after this – just drums and vocals. Let one element of your chorus cue pulse on through this with the rest falling dark – only to come back up with the full band.

Falling Action

The song fades down to a whisper: It’s just the voices or perhaps a reprise of the introduction. Let the lighting settle to a more intimate version of what the song’s opening cue was. Let it come full circle – the room should feel familiar.

Once each song tells a story, experiment with telling a broader story using the service as a whole. Scale each service element’s dramatic structure within the context of the entire service; the biggest song of the service having the most powerful climax, etc.

Next time you find yourself struggling with repetition in your design try thinking about it as a story. I like to literally draw a little graph on a scrap of paper before programming to help pace myself; a reminder not cram all my favorite looks and effects into the first 3 cues. Now if only gym class could’ve proven so applicable.

About the Author_02

Author Photo - Rob Merow

Lighting Designer
OneLux Studio | New York, NY

Rob discovered his love of theater and passion for creating dynamic environments early on as a volunteer at his home church in Pennsylvania. His degree in architecture and years of experience as a volunteer prepared him for his calling to full time ministry where he led teams in the areas of lighting & scenic design, audio production, graphic design, branding, and interior design. He and his wife Emily have recently moved to New York City, where he has come full circle into architectural lighting. Rob enjoys blurring the line between theatrical, experiential, and architectural design; keeping one foot in ministry as often as possible.