Pit Lights

January 14, 2011


I was music directing Little Shop of Horrors from the piano. Small pit: Drums, Bass, Guitar, Me, and a reed. For some reason, we didn’t have enough conventional pit lights, so I was using a battery powered clip-on reading light. Midway through the first act, my batteries started to go, and by the end of the act, my light was out completely. The bass player and guitar player kept offering to switch lights, but I knew the show pretty well, and the ambient light from the stage gave me a little help here and there. I could fill in the gaps from memory; these guys had only played the tech week. It was a frightening memory test.


I buy a pit light every time I do a show. They’re between $20 and $40. By now I have a whole pit full myself, with my name on every one. When I do a show and there isn’t a box of lights sitting there, I go out to my trunk and bring in a bunch. It keeps me from having to bother the lighting crew, who are usually totally overwhelmed anyway. Run the lights off a central location with those cheap coffee maker extension cords. Keep a stash of bulbs with you at all times for when the lights blow. For some reason, stand lights never really clip onto a piano or keyboard stand correctly. Get a thin plywood sheet cut to just the right size and painted black to sit on the music rack that the lights can clip onto. I carry one with me for just that purpose.

Ask somebody in the audience about the lights as soon as they start running the show with the house lights off. A lot of times the lights are accidentally positioned in such a way that they blind somebody in the front row. Tilting them up or down can help that. Sometimes all the lights need to be gelled (covered with colored plastic film to avoid glare). This is not your job, the lighting people usually do this. If the lighting people say they want to put your lights on a dimmer, that’s fine. But make sure you clearly mark the power strip that’s on the dimmer. If your other electrical equipment is plugged into the dimmer, you can do some serious and expensive damage. Mark it with red tape or something to make sure you don’t make a big mistake. Sometimes, the lighting guys want to replace your bulbs with some very low-wattage ones. I prefer gelling a regular light; I can’t read the score in the dark with a 15 watt bulb.

Tell all your pit members to shut their lights off at the end of the first act. It’s a nice effect, to have a real blackout. Everybody has to do it, though, or the person who doesn’t looks like a doofus.


One comment

  1. As a pit musician, one thing I really appreciate from a musical director is willingness to stick up for the band in terms of providing good working conditions.

    I’ve had bad experiences where the show director or lighting designer wants to keep the band literally in the dark for much of the show. Since I’ve often seen the music for the first time during tech week (sometimes not even that early!) I need to take advantage of those moments when I’m not playing to look ahead at my part, mentally review cues, make sure the right reeds are wet, etc. The problem is compounded if, as usual, quarters are a little cramped, and I’m trying to make quick switches between fragile instruments in a tight space without enough light.

    Ideally, I like to have a sufficiently bright stand light, and to have complete control over it myself. It’s pretty scary when the crew have my stand light on a fader and can turn my light down at will (usually during a dance number or scene change, when I’m trying to do my job!).

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