How to be a Lighting Designer!!!

5 09 2009

Below are some suggestions and advice on how to go about being a lighting designer! Life is obviously not quite that simple, but hopefully it will give you some idea of the various options and choices you can make. This is a fairly personal view and obviously every lighting designer will have have their own view on the best way into the profession.

Firstly, you don’t really need a qualification to be a lighting designer, experience is what really counts and you may have already started gaining that from amateur or school productions. You can add to that by getting involved with local youth theatre groups or other amateur companies, it’s all about being able to show a commitment and enthusiasm.

There are a few ways into theatre. You can pester every theatre company you can find until they give you a job, it might be sweeping the stage or follow spot operator for panto but it’s a way in and then you can gradually work your way up. It’s slow and you only gain a limited amount of experience at a time, but it works for some people.

Or you can continue with your studies through A levels and onto university – studying whatever interests you, but also getting involved with any drama or musical or dance groups that are going on there. Many universities do drama courses, but they tend to be fairly general and I’m not aware of any that do a Lighting Design course. However, many universities have good resources and you will make a lot of contacts – plus you come out of it with a qualification, so if you do decide theatre, or lighting design specifically, is not for you have something to fall back on.

Another form of further education is training at drama school, they generally take on students from about 18 years, though they may consider someone younger. The courses cover all aspects of backstage theatre and most last three years, but you will come out of it with good contacts and a good chance of getting work. There are one or two colleges that offer a degree course in Lighting Design. Drama schools offer a good training in how to put on a production and you will get plenty of opportunities to put what you learn into practice in a working theatre environment.

Not many lighting designers have come into the business as lighting designers, generally they have moved on from theatre electricians where they gain the knowledge and understanding of the practical side of lighting design. It is also very difficult to earn a living solely as a lighting designer, there are probably only a handful in this country who can claim to do so, most of us supplement our income with other technical work. But, times are changing and it is now possible to train as a lighting designer which means that if you have the contacts and some experience you can make a career (and a living) as a lighting designer without working through the industry as we had to in the past.

Don’t forget there are other parts of the entertainment industry that use lighting designers – television, film, music, corporate presentations, industry launches, architecture, theme parks, museums, retail . . . . . . and what you need to do is find your niche and go for it.

However it is important to keep studying if you are still at school or college ( a few extra GCSE’s and A levels wont do any harm) and gain as much experience as you can. Please feel free to get in touch if you need any more help.

A Qualifications Overview

Many professionals in the theatre industry are frequently asked for advice by aspiring students as to what courses are currently available for training to enter the industry. Of course there is no single answer and much will depend upon the individual’s levels of skills and expertise. Many of the views expressed by Geoff Spain in his article How to be a Lighting Designer (see Resources section of ALD website) still hold true.

The debate about the precise nature of lighting design training in the 21st Century needs to be continually revisited but I would advocate that students who are capable should aim for A levels in a broad range of relevant subjects (e.g. Theatre Studies, Performing Arts, English Literature, Art & Design, Design & Technology, etc) whilst also gaining technical and practical experience in production work at a local theatre. Students who wish to develop their technical skills in a vocational qualification should consider the AVCE or one of the new specialist National Diplomas (see below). It is important to note that choices at this stage do not preclude entry to Higher Education and increasingly both Colleges and Universities are willing to accept students who have achieved well in qualifications equivalent to A levels.

Recently there have been major changes in the content, delivery and assessment of post 16 qualifications – so much so that even educationalists find it difficult to keep up! I aim here to provide an overview of the main post 16 qualifications, which as a result of Government initiatives such as Curriculum 2000 make up the National Qualifications Framework.

Qualifications in England above GCSE level are granted under licence from The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA). (Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland have equivalent bodies.) Qualifications are validated and awarded by three main examination groups, AQA, Edexcel, and OCR which as the result of mergers of a number of individual exam boards now incorporate traditional boards such as AEB as well as qualifications previously validated by City & Guilds, BTEC and RSA.
There are three main qualification types above GCSE, all of which involve external assessment and/or examinations to a National standard;

· Traditional ‘A’ Levels. (Higher Advanced in Scotland) These are now examined after one year as an AS level and allow a broader range of subjects to be studied. Students can then pursue a selection of these to A2 level in the 2nd year of study. A typical student may complete their two year period of study with three A2 levels and one or more AS levels alongside them.

· Advanced Vocational Levels (AVCEs) These have now replaced the GNVQ (not to be confused by the NVQ) and are either 6 unit (equivalent to one A level) or 12 unit (which is a double award) Students can therefore combine this vocational A level with one or more traditional A levels. The Performing Arts AVCEs include Compulsory Units which are industry focused, practical Skills and Production units and a variety of Optional units in Theatre Design, Operating Light and Sound, Stage Management, etc.

· BTEC National Diplomas (awarded by Edexcel only). Despite the fact that these awards were popular both with the industry and with students they had been under threat for some time. Recently they have been relaunched and from September are placed within the National Qualifications Framework at Level 3. The full 18 unit Diplomas are now equivalent to three A levels. Smaller unit qualifications are awarded as a ND Certificate or ND Award. Whilst there is a generic Performing Arts ND a range of technical and design qualifications are aimed at providing specialist training. These include; Performing Arts (Design), Performing Arts (Production), and Performing Arts (Technical). There is also a BTEC National Award in Performing Arts (Theatre Technology)

Although the exam boards offer similar or identical qualification titles, the precise content will differ. In the case of Vocational A levels there are standard Compulsory Units, which are the same for all exam boards, but their optional units differ. (OCR uniquely offers an Optional Unit in Lighting Design for example). Schools and colleges may offer a selection of these qualifications and students should select courses on this basis. Whilst many institutions may offer Performing Arts qualifications, there are still relatively few that offer to teach the technical and creative aspects of our industry in depth at this level.

Further information and precise specifications for individual qualifications can be found at;

Performing Art Technical Training Handbook

Entertainment Technology Press 2007, in association with the ABTT

A ‘must’ for anyone considering a place on a technical theatre course, The Performing Arts Technical Training Handbook, is an incredible resource for the young person looking to see what lies between the present day and a future career in the theatre arts. We asked lighting designer and theatre consultant David I. Taylor what he thought, and here’s a summary…

Whilst many of those in the lower digits of ALD membership had little formal training to enter and develop in the profession, today there are a staggering number of courses, both academic and vocational, to better prepare the aspiring lighting designer, technician or stage manager for an entry position in the busy and competitive performance market. The book, running to 291 pages, sets out to provide an exhaustive listing of courses to train and educate young people entering the theatre industry.

This carefully researched directory describes training courses offered at colleges and universities in the UK with listings for courses in set design, theatre sound, costume, make-up, theatre digital and multi-media arts, stage management, props, scene panting, scenic construction, stage electrics and lighting design. Training that provides continued professional development, as well as courses which have theatre design (including lighting) in a wider Drama or Theatre/Performing Arts Degree, are also included.

ETBooks website

Top Tips for Aspiring Lighting Designers

  • It’s all about experience – what you’ve seen and what you’ve done. See as much performance as possible and be inspired.
  • Consider all aspects of lighting design, this article concentrates on theatrical lighting (which includes opera, musicals, dance etc), but there are also concerts, television, architecture, shops, product launches etc.
  • Learn what everyone else on the production team does and how they do it. The production will be at it’s best if everyone contributes rather than contradicts, the lighting design should complement and enhance the production.
  • The traditional way to a career as a lighting designer is to work your way up through the electrical department of a theatre and then take on the occasional design, all the while gaining more experience. There is no reason why this experience shouldn’t start at school, college or your local amateur company.
  • Lighting design now forms a part of most drama schools technical/backstage theatre courses. These courses cover all aspects of backstage work and you can then specialise in the final year of the course. Check the college curriculum for more details and it can be helpful to ask the college to put you in touch with current and past students so you can get a students perspective on what the course has to offer.
  • It is now possible to train as a lighting designer on a specific course, at a drama college or university. These are often degree courses and last 2 or 3 years. However, don’t expect to walk out of the course and straight into the next big West End musical, you will still need to gain professional experience.
  • Discover, and attach yourself to, the next generation of set designers and directors. This can be easier if you are at college with them. Many directors and designers prefer to work with people they know and if they make it to the top they can take you with them.
  • The theatre and performance industry is about reputation. Everyone talks about and remembers a good production (small or large scale) and many successful lighting designers have made their name by being part of just one or two outstanding productions. It can work the other way too though!
  • Only those at the top of the profession can earn a living just from lighting design. Be prepared to supplement your income with other freelance work within the industry, for example fit-ups, followspot work, lighting desk operator. But you can use this as an opportunity to see other lighting designers at work.
  • Finally, try and meet other lighting designers and consider joining an association (ALD – Association of Lighting Designers or ABTT – Association of British Theatre Technicians). They can offer you valuable advice and help and then point you in the right direction.

Useful web sites
Association of Lighting Designers
Society of Television Lighting Directors
International Association of Lighting Designers
Society of British Theatre Designers
Association of British Theatre Technicians
Conference of Drama Schools
National Council for Drama Training

From: Association of Lighting Designers




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