Followspotter working
Photo: Liza Kollau

Behind the scenes: followspot operator in the spotlight

4 July 2023

Text: Meren Rutten 

High up in the roof of the theatre, in the dark, is where the lights are located that track the dancers and singers and make them shine on stage. These lights are operated by followspotters. Panos Mitsopoulos has worked as a followspotter in DNO&B’s Lighting Department for 23 years. Rather than him highlighting performers, we are putting his job in the spotlight for a change

After having graduated from the Gerrit Rietveld Academie art college in Amsterdam, Panos Mitsopoulos wanted to become a painter. He had never expected to be working with light instead of earning his living with a paintbrush. ‘My girlfriend worked in a theatre. She told me that I’d be perfect as a followspot operator, because as an artist I have a keen eye for detail. I thought I’d give it a try.’ Which is what he did. And that is how Panos started working as a followspot operator at DNO&B in the year 2000. 

Script of their own 

Followspot operators work from two locations in the theatre. Both are high up: one is above the stage and the other is above the seating area. ‘We work in a small team, with one coordinator. Together with the senior lighting manager, we make adjustments to the lighting script.’ Yes, you heard right. Followspot operators have a script, just like opera singers do. But instead of stage directions or a libretto, their script describes the movements of the performers on stage. ‘The script tells us when a performer is meant to make a large movement or a jump, and from what side they’ll be entering the stage. In ballet, performers move around a lot more than in opera. The script helps us familiarise ourselves with the dancers’ movements and patterns before the actual performance. And we sit down as a team beforehand to watch a video of the performance. That’s also really helpful for new followspot operators because it teaches them about body language, positions and focus.’



Followspot operators may not be visible to the audience, but they are critical to the success of a performance. ‘We make the dancers and singers shine by highlighting a solo performer or creating a dramatic effect.’ Besides an eye for detail, the work of a followspot operators also demands concentration and coordination. Their work has to be invisible, quick and precise. ‘Changes and movements need to be smooth. We’re looking for perfection. In ballet, for instance, the audience should be able to see the dancers’ fingertips. If there’s no lighting on their fingertips, the dance will look quite different. Ballet dancers use their entire body as a form of expression and that includes their fingers.’


Visibly invisible

The motto of the followspot operators is that they are ‘visibly invisible’: the lighting should not detract from the performers. This is where the work of a followspot operators in ballet and opera is a lot different than that of a lighting operator for musicals or concerts. When an actor in a musical bursts into song during an emotional scene, you can almost hear the lights come on and the actor will be standing in a pool of light. This is not done in opera and ballet, where the lighting has to be virtually invisible. ‘The idea is that the lighting is subtle and soft, it should move with the performers. We create the illusion that the dancers and singers illuminate the stage from within.’



Finest look

To create the best possible effect, the followspot operators sometimes change the brightness or use colour washes. ‘We’re familiar with the skin tones and features of the performers, and we usually know what costumes they’ll be wearing. Some will have on a pale tutu and others will be in a darker tunic. If necessary, we adjust the lighting to make sure that every costume looks its finest.’ Followspot operators operate sophisticated equipment. Much has changed in that regard over the past 20 years or so. ‘We used to have to do everything by hand. We’d insert colours manually during a performance. That was nerve-racking because the changes had to be invisible to the audience.’ While colour changes are now automatic, the lights still have to be operated by hand, particularly in ballet. ‘In opera, we sometimes use digital tracking because these performances tend to be more static and have fewer movements. Automatic tracking in ballet is still a bridge too far at this point. Dancers do things the equipment can’t keep up with or predict.’



Panos has worked on some productions for more than 30 times. That means he has seen them a lot. ‘That’s what’s so special about the job. When you work on productions so many times, you get to know them in intricate detail. My colleagues and I can truly appreciate when everything comes together. That’s a source of great enjoyment for us. We empathise with the story and the performers. We’re part of the performance and that’s a wonderful feeling. We’re literally right there with the singers and dancers. It definitely is teamwork.’

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