And After Graduation... The Route to becoming an LD

So you applied, got offered a place, accepted it, did the work, lit the college shows (and others beside probably) and did the odd placement along the way. Now you have graduated – what next?

Looking through listings in The Stage, and cross referencing the named LDs to their entry on the ALD web site or their own web site, you will quickly come to the correct conclusion that it will be a fair few years before your name is going to appear as LD in front of a theatre on Shaftesbury Avenue – even if that is what you have set your heart on. So what are you going to do in the mean time to help you get there?
In many ways, the most direct route starts with being an assistant lighting designer to someone who has “already made it”. The skills required to be a good assistant lighting designer vary for LD to LD. Its not a well defined role here in the UK, and some quite prominent LDs are still reluctant to take on an assistant. Where the role does exist – on a paid, subsistence or wholly voluntary basis – the duties can vary from:

“keeping quiet and fetching coffee and buns as required” (for which you might just get expenses – if you are lucky) through ...

“keeping plans and other paperwork up-to-date” or “calling and noting follow-spots” (for which you might expect some small fee if the production is large enough) to ...

“deputising for the LD in his or her absence” (by this time you would expect to be paid a reasonable fee or wage, and possibly to be called “associate LD” rather than assistant).

To be paid in the role of assistant lighting designer, you will need to be useful, to the LD and the production as a whole. Top of any list of sell-able skills for an assistant LD is the ability to accurately draft and update plans (typically in Vector Works & Lightwright for theatre, AutoCAD for events and WYSIWYG for live concerts). If you want to work in musicals (or with the LDs who light musicals) you'll need to learn how follow-spots get called, so get some experience while you are still training. (As a start, try sending your CV and a covering letter asking for cover work on follow spots to any theatre you know uses them regularly.)

Working your way up the ladder
If you work regularly for a professional LD, building up their trust and confidence in you, it is likely that you will get more responsibility. If you make the jump from assistant to associate on a show that tours or transfers, you may even be given the job of reproducing the original lighting on tour. This often leads to new opportunities as you end up working along side the associate directors and other associate designers, all of your own generation. These people frequently start making new work together, and if you have formed good relationships with them, you will be asked along too.

Gaining a reputation as efficient and pleasant to work with can open many doors, and help you build relationships with up-and-coming directors and designers. Most directors want to work with people worth listening to – so don't stop being interested in the wider cultural world, and build opinions based on your lived experience. Also, it is typically the set designers and production managers who suggests an LD to the producer – so its always worth getting on with them too.

Working your way up, version 2
Another well established route is to work your way up through the ranks in a good producing theatre, starting as a lighting technician. Again, this is likely to give you the opportunity to see established LDs working and producing great lighting. Along the way you get should aim to make opportunities to see and be part of how its done and talk to the LD, and other experts too.

Many producing houses tour their work, and make good use of their staff to reproduce the shows “on the road”. Again this can be a useful step on the route from “lighting technician” to “LD”. The issue with this route can be deciding when to “take the plunge”, leave the security of the theatre company, and try your luck as a freelance LD. There are no hard and fast rules here, but its worth saying that in your first few years as an LD you will probably be earning less, and have a more unplanned life, than you had in full-time employment. Perhaps not a good idea to “jump” at the same time that you are planning to start a family for example.

Make every experience count
With a full time job comes regular paid holiday and sometimes agreed (unpaid) time off. This can provide you with time to do lighting design on your own account – for college mates, for new contacts, for a bit of beer money, or sometimes for an actual fee. As with most learnt skills, the more you do it the better you will get at it, so aim to spend holidays at the Edinburgh Festival or Brighton Fringe, or touring Europe with a few specials and a company of dancers – or puppeteers – or a one man show where you do lighting video projection and sound...

If you really want to be an LD – just keep doing it, and taking every opportunity that comes along. Be prepared to sell yourself and your abilities. Focus on the companies and individuals doing work you admire and want to contribute to. Find out who makes the decisions about which LD to work with, and meet those people. These are your future clients. Make sure you get good pictures of all the (good) work you do, and make those pictures as available to your potential clients, by what ever means works best for each client. (Note: while the web is great for many people, be prepared to use other means of putting your work out there when its appropriate).

At the same time – make friends not enemies. Bad word spreads much faster than good, and you never know who else is listening while you are slagging off someone in a pub or restaurant. Its not a good idea to get a reputation as someone who “steals” work from their boss either – so be respectful of those who have given you opportunities when following up on contacts made through placements or while working as an assistant.
You will probably have to turn down potentially lucrative crewing or other technical opportunities sometimes, to stay focussed on being an LD, especially in theatre and dance, but with dedication and few few breaks you can make it. 
So ... go for it!

Nick Moran is a professional member of the Association of Lighting Designers, and has taught at the Central School of Speech & Drama since 2003. A longer version of this article appeared in the ALD's magazine Focus. 
Nick's text book Performance Lighting Design can be purchased at http://www.bloomsbury.com/uk/performance-lighting-design-9780713677577/