Stanley McCandless and his Stage Lighting Theory

Considered by many to be the grandfather of modern day theatrical lighting, Stanley McCandless is one of those people whose influence theater goers witness everyday without knowing it. For although he developed his method of stage lighting way back in the 1930s with relatively primitive equipment, his techniques are still used today. His groundbreaking book “A Method of Lighting the Stage (1932)” laid out these techniques which are today known as the McCandless Theory or Method. Lighting professionals and stage directors who have access to much more sophisticated technologies than those that were available to McCandless – such as wireless dimmer packs – owe him a debt of thanks for the work they do.


McCandless was interested in both the art and the science of stage lighting such as it existed in the mid-20th century. He was born in Chicago Illinois in 1897 to Charles and Mary McCandless. While in his twenties, he received his degree in architecture from Harvard College. His studies there eventually lead to him becoming a theatrical lighting associate. As his interest in theater grew, he became an educator, innovator and author who took the problem of stage lighting head on. He basically categorized the functions of how light worked on the stage into visibility, locale, composition, and mood. Working as a theater consultant in his early years, McCandless designed house lights for the Center Theatre in New York’s Radio City. The fixtures he utilized used shutters and gobos or templates. McCandless continued to expand the burgeoning field of theater lighting and to educate new generations of lighting professionals until he retired in 1964.

The McCandless Method

The McCandless Method is a special approach to stage lighting that McCandless developed in the 1930s. Part of this method is that actors are primarily to be fully lit from the front but secondary light is used to sculpture the actor’s features. Full lighting is provided from two lights on opposite sides which are positioned above the actors at approximately 45 degree angles 90 degrees apart. (These two lights are positioned at opposite directions.) Moreover, his method pairs a cool light (relative to the other) against a warm light. The result is that placement and contrast of these lights create a more natural looking light. McCandless devised his system while at Harvard College. He refined it when he moved to Yale to be near the heart of the American theater. His method demonstrates that today’s technologies are useful, but that human ingenuity and intelligence are equally important.