How do we Change the Face of Lighting Design Education?
I just finished teaching my first class at a university. It was a software class for both undergraduate and graduate design students in the theater department.
Perhaps by writing this I am jumping the gun, however working with the students and hearing their concerns and experiences has prompted me to think about how we as design professionals could adapt what we teach young designers about the marketplace of today in our theater design classes.
I have the perspective of a lighting designer who has gone through ALL of the theater school, both official and unofficial. I know my path isn’t for everyone, I certainly know successful lighting designers who have gone the opposite route and never finished high school, instead working their way up from the trenches. No matter which path you take being a professional lighting designer takes both luck and smarts, and still there’s no guarantee you will get there.
From my experience a working lighting designer must be an artist with a good grasp of physics, a salesperson, a negotiator, and an entrepreneur. The percentage of each of these attributes change daily based on the project and process. Also, having some skill in finance, marketing, photography, and web design go a long way. Can we simply teach students to design (and that’s a lot) and tell ourselves it is enough? Can we realistically address all of these issues, or at least let them know they are out there? These are not just theatrical design challenges. There are a lot of issues starting out and in a career field that changes so rapidly is it enough to wave a flag to let them know (at least at the beginning of a career) being a fantastic artist isn’t enough?
I know we can’t find every stumbling block for them, or give them all the answers, but I do think our job is to help them become competent enough in their field to deal with the challenges that arise in their own way.
When students graduate from our programs with a portfolio and a list of school productions what will they do? What is the path to being a successful lighting designer? I know one thing… there is no singular path, and a lot of people blaze their own way.
Looking around, I see a number of programmers and assistants/associates moving up, in an unofficial apprenticeship system. So perhaps students need to leave with at least the knowledge and ability to one of those jobs well, while they are finding their way to a design career? I have heard from design professionals looking for assistants that some students graduate without the skills or understanding to assist.
What about other lighting design options? We are teaching theatrical lighting design; I as well as many other designers have turned that education into lighting design for television, concerts, and special events. Theatrical lighting designers have also gone into lighting themed entertainment and architecture. The more tech savvy of us have taken yet another road to new product development and control. Some go into sales. NONE of these options are shameful, nor is being a technician for that matter. All these options are the hallmark of diversity in our chosen field of design.
I do not have answers; I have in fact a lot of questions because what works for one person may not work for another. A lot of this business is luck and THAT’S not quantifiable. To do our best for the next generation of designers leaving our programs we need to also help them adapt to the face of the marketplace now, rather than 20 years ago. It’s not just the technology that’s changing.