Expectations of students starting a university lighting course

If you are thinking about going to university or drama school to study lighting, its useful know what tutors are looking for. There are are several dedicated theatre and performance lighting design degree courses, and a number of other courses where aspects of stage lighting practice are a major part of the course. Each one has a different focus, and therefore each values slightly different things in its candidates. Do some research, into the courses and what they offer, but also into the kinds of jobs graduates go on to do. The web sites of the Association of Lighting Designers (www.ald.org.uk) and the Association of British Theatre Technicians (www.abtt.org.uk) are a good starting point.

It is often said that lighting – especially theatre and concert lighting – is not so much a job as a way of life. If you decide to do it for a living, you will often be working when everyone else is either playing or asleep, and most people will have no idea what it is you actually do! If you like that idea then go for it, but if you don't, perhaps you need to think again.

Pre-Entry Qualifacations
There is no A-level in stage lighting, and Btecs vary a lot in how much lighting they include, so most Higher Education course in lighting will not ask for anything specific, or rule out any subject. If you are taking multiple qualifications, such as A-Levels or Scottish Highers, my advice is to study subjects you enjoy, and at which you are most likely to get good grades.

It is almost certain that BSc courses will ask for specific pre-entry qualifications in maths and science. Most higher education course in lighting areas value good GCSE maths and science or equivalent too, though BA's are typically less specific about what they want in terms of post 16 qualifications. You should be able to find out if the courses you want to do require any particular qualification from the institution's web site or from UCAS. If in any doubt – get in touch with the institution.
So, you might start your university study of lighting with Maths Physics and Chemistry, with English Literature Drama and Art, or with a Btec. All of these qualifications, and many others, cover topics and teach skills that are useful to lighting students. So there will be useful things you have learnt that others have not, and gaps that you will need to fill that others do not – just like every other student on your course.

A Lighting Portfolio
Many courses, especially those focussing on lighting design, ask candidates to bring a portfolio to interview. This can be quite intimidating. First thing to do is to read through everything the course has sent you by way of instruction or advice on what to bring. Next, here's some tips:
• Quality scores much higher than quantity. Make sure it is possible to see everything you have in your portfolio in 5 minutes - maximum!
• Pick the best examples of everything: 6 to 12 pages of high quality at A3 or even A4 is much better than big folders stuffed with tatty scripts and posters. 
• Print all your images on good quality paper using a decent printer, or, make an e-portfolio (see below). Don't include anything you're not proud of.
• Test the effectiveness of your portfolio out on someone who will be honest with their feedback (so probably not Mum & Dad – sorry folks)
• Do your research – and show you have more than a passing interest in Lighting
• Name the LDs that inspire you, include pictures of their work (search the web if you have to)
• If you have realised work, include the lighting plan – but, make it look good.
• Include notes or images about what inspires your own work 
Your research shows the depth of your interest, and helps to convince a tutor you will stick with the course for the full 2, 3 or 4 years.

If you don't have access to good quality printing (or can't afford it, it can be quite expensive) ask if you can bring your portfolio digitally. (If its on a disc or USB stick, make sure that what ever you bring with you can be read by someone else’s computer! Try it out to be sure.) Power-point and Prezi both offer relatively simple ways to display pictures, scans of documents, and PDFs of plans, and annotations. Many photographs of stage lighting look at their best on a screen – but remember to include a caption to tell the viewer what they are looking at, and be clear about your role in creating the work – and if relevant, the images too. 
If you include a “show-reel” or video extracts from work you have done – again, pick highlights and make sure the whole thing won't run too long (or it won't get watched all the way through!)
(Note: make sure there and no confidential or embarrassing files also on the disc or USB stick!)

If you are aplying after some time away from school or college
First of all – don't rule yourself out if you don't have great qualifications from school or college. UCAS points scores are usually of less importance than experience, but do make sure you ask if this is the case for the courses you wish to apply for. Try to get a professional reference that shows you know what paid work is all about – in theatre, concerts or events – and that you are able to stick to a task. Your potential tutors will want to know that you are able to turn up every day and be enthusiastic.

In summary:
• Do your research – about the course, but also about the jobs you expect the course to prepare you for. Find out what its like to do what you want to do for a living.
• Demonstrate that you know what you are getting yourself into – you are applying to study for: “a way of life, rather than just a job” and most lighting courses demand a substantial time commitment. 
• If at all possible – go to an open day, and talk to current students (and if possible graduates and people working in the industry already).
• Try to be clear in your own mind about whether you get your kicks from how or why, and chose courses that will let you focus on which ever one you chose.
• At school or college, study subjects you enjoy and will get good grades for, lighting needs all kinds of knowledges. Its a good idea to have reasonable maths, and if you have set your heart on one particular course, check to see if they demand anything in particular.
• If you are not applying directly from school or college, experience is likely to count for more than your post 16 qualifications – but check with the course. 
• If you are asked for a portfolio – quality counts. Include only your best work, and try to get advice from the course about what they like to see.

Good Luck!

Nick Moran is one of the Eduction Representatives for the ALD and has worked in theatre and performance lighting for over 25 years. He now teaches at the Central School of Speech & Drama. His book Performance Lighting Design is available from A&C Black at http://www.bloomsbury.com/uk/performance-lighting-design-9780713677577/