5 Things Student Lighting Designers Should Know

By Mike Wood
Nov 3, 2014, updated Jul 20, 2016
 5 Things Student Lighting Designers Should Know

This week, Mike Wood joins us in the Lounge to give design students five pieces of wisdom they may not glean from their current curriculum.  An award winning designer himself, Mike has also spent years in the classroom teaching not only the technical aspects of lighting design, but also how to manage a career in the profession.  Without further ado, here's Mike!

When I was approached to write about “5 things that young designers need to know,” I was at first trying to think of technical or design things that are important to people starting their careers. Then, I realized that students are being bombarded with this information left and right every day in school - why would they need to hear it again from someone on the Internet?

Instead, I tried to think of five things that you probably are not going to be taught in school. Without these vital things, your career is sure to be short-lived.

Mike's Students at Howard W. Blake running a production of RENT

1) Take care of your body and your mind

The hours are long, the demands are overwhelming, and as a student, you probably often find yourself in the theatre at midnight trying to work out that complicated scene change or trying to finish up tweaking those light cues that just weren’t right. You probably had pizza and cookies for “dinner” around 3pm and your breakfast tomorrow will probably consist of whatever you can find in the vending machine backstage (or maybe leftover pizza). Sounds like the ideal college lifestyle, right? Wrong. Even though you probably do not believe your mom when she says it, it is important to take care of yourself. This means eating right, sleeping, and exercising. 

One of the nice parts about working in professional theatre (and working with unions) is that when the rehearsal is over at 10pm, it’s OVER at 10pm. It’s not time for work notes, it’s not time to finish painting or sewing, it’s time to go home. It is time to rest your body and give your mind time to recharge for the next day. When the production team is going on little sleep and junk food, the 4th or 5th day of tech is no fun for anyone. People get irritable and angry, tensions flare up, and the art suffers because of it. 

I always try to have healthy snacks at my tech table. Fruits, veggies, nuts, and the like. Of course, there are cookies and chips too. It is all about moderation. When you go on break, actually get up and go outside. Breathe in some fresh air and stretch your legs. It not only helps you physically, but helps you mentally. On dark days, exercise. Do yoga, go to the gym, play a sport. Keep your body healthy and strong.

Most importantly, stay home when you are sick. No production is worth your health. You are useless when you are ill, and the more you try to work through it, the longer you stay ill and useless. On top of that, you risk spreading sickness to your fellow company members. While it might seem that the show cannot go on without you, something can always be done to accommodate you getting better. This past summer, I injured myself pretty badly while knee boarding behind a jet ski (a sentence that makes me sound way cooler than I actually am.) It was 4 days before tech on God of Carnage at a theatre company in St. Petersburg, FL and two weeks out from the premiere of a new musical that I was lighting at the New York Musical Theatre Festival. The morning of focus for Carnage, I was in the hospital. Before that, I had contacted my assistant and the production staff at the theatre, and we worked out a revised schedule to allow me to recover and still get the work accomplished.          

The important thing to remember is that everyone gets sick. Everyone gets hurt. People will not get mad and blame you for it. Only you know your limits as to what you can and cannot do, but if you are too exhausted to perform your work, you will surely fail. 

2) Have a life outside of the theatre

Theatre people tend to live and breathe theatre. Theatre is who we are, it is what we do, and it is our life and our passion. These qualities are very important to have to be successful in this business. As with any good thing in life, it is important to have moderation. Burnout is real. I admit that I am not the best at giving myself “time off” - I book shows back to back and try to be working as much as I can because I truly love what I do - but I try to always set aside a week or two here and there that I force myself to have “off.” This means no paperwork, no meetings, nothing. I am doing other things unrelated to my work. It allows me time to decompress and to recharge both my body and my mind for my next project.

That’s bigger picture, though. What does it mean to have a “life” outside of the theatre? It means that you need to be interested in other things. You have to have other hobbies, other things that interest you. You have to have friends who have no connection to the theatre world. For me, it is playing ultimate Frisbee and having game nights with my friends – friends who are accountants and advertising professionals and would not know a gobo from a batten.

When I am looking to hire an assistant for a production, their technical knowledge is not the most important thing I look for. Knowing how to draft and how to program doesn’t make you special. Tons of people know how to do those things and they are a dime a dozen. What matters to me is simple. I ask myself “would I go out for a beer after rehearsal with this person?” if the answer is no, then I do not want to work with them. It might seem like a shallow thing, but when you think about it, you spend hundreds of hours with this person when you are working with them. Why would you want to spend those hours with someone that you do not like?

The best designer is worthless if he or she cannot hold a conversation about things other than moving lights and control consoles. Be a student of the world around you and it will make you an even better designer.

3) It is never too early to start networking

Every single person that you meet can have a direct effect on your life and your career. It might not seem like it at first, but you never know when that one person you met after a show once will come into your life many years later. A short story:

A year after I graduated from high school, I designed a production of Seussical for my old school. We went all out, bringing in moving lights, scrollers, and more. For a young designer just starting out, it was awesome. I was able to “play” in an environment with virtually no consequences because it was a high school out in the country. 

After the show, a guy came up to me and introduced himself. His name was Justyn and he was the artistic director of a small theatre company out in Tampa. He said he loved my work and we exchanged cards and became Facebook friends and that was it. Other than the yearly “happy birthday” Facebook post, we never really spoke again. Fast forward several years. Justyn is now living and working as an Equity Stage Manager in NYC and he posts about a exciting new show that he is working on with some big Broadway names attached to it. On a whim, I sent him a message asking if they had an LD. They had literally just lost theirs that morning. Within two weeks, I was in NYC teching this show. Justyn and I are now the best of friends and he has gotten me many more shows in NYC. All because of that one contact that was made many years prior. 

Be kind to everyone you meet. Make good impressions. Do not burn bridges. It seems so simple, but I see it forgotten all the time. The theatre industry is SMALL. Everyone knows everyone. If you are an asshole, that reputation will precede you wherever you go. 

As much of a brain drain as it might be, social media is a vital tool for networking. Become Facebook friends with people, connect with them on LinkedIn, like their photos on Instagram. You never know when it might lead to a job - and trust me, it can and it will. 

On a similar note, make sure that you are representing yourself and your work well on all forms of social media and on your portfolio. Edit, proofread, and fine-tune everything you post. Do not post unflattering images of your work. Get a decent camera and learn how to use it - if you are taking photos on automatic mode with a DSLR, you are doing it wrong. (There is an entire post on how to photograph your work coming soon.) Use hashtags. Use them properly. I’ve gotten offers to design shows because an artistic director was on Instagram and looked through posts that had been tagged with #ShrekTheMusical and was impressed with my work. 

There are people I know who are the same age as me who I consider remarkably more talented than I am, but they are not working right now because they did not take the time to start networking right away.

Simply put, don’t be a jerk.

Mike's Students working on a production of PARADE

4) You do not know everything.

You don’t. No one does. People who think they do are wrong. Many years ago, I came across a brilliant quote in PLSN magazine. I wish I had saved a clipping of it so that I could properly attribute it to the writer, but here it is nonetheless:

“Surround yourself with people who know more than you. You can learn from these people. Surround yourself with people who know less than you do. These are the people you can teach.”

The most successful people in any field are those who are lifelong students. This does not mean that they stay in school forever; rather it means that they are always looking for ways to grow their knowledge and to improve their minds. Surround yourself with people who inspire you - you will learn from them and your skills will benefit. Surround yourself with people who do not know as much as you, because they might draw that same inspiration from you. I’ve learned things from stagehands who have been working for 60 years just as often as I’ve learned things from high school students. The lessons may be different, but they are there. Look for the lesson in every situation you encounter – especially the difficult ones.

5) Do not be afraid to try things that don’t work.

“It’s always okay to explore a bad idea, but it’s never okay to implement one.”  

- Jules Fisher

There is no one right way to do anything in this industry. The only wrong way to do something is if it is unsafe to the performers, crew, or audience members. This might seem at odds with everything you have probably been taught in your educational careers so far. It’s important to be able to adapt to different ways of doing things.

In your design classes, you probably have spent countless hours discussing colors and angles and you have done several projects where you had to analyze and defend your choices. I get messages from some of my former students who are now off at big arts schools asking me what color I would choose for ______ application and I just scratch my head. It is an impossible question to answer. Looking for an objectively “correct” answer is futile, because there isn’t one. What is “right” to me might not be right to your design professor or to your director or to the usher’s cousin who came to see the show. 

Don’t get me wrong though; the assignments that your professors are giving you are absolutely vital to your development as a designer. It is just important that you see why. You might not see it right away. I certainly didn’t when I was in school. The point of an assignment like choosing the “best” color for a particular application isn’t to make you actually figure out what the best color is, but to prepare you for the process of choosing color and to open your eyes to the vast array of options (and opinions) that there are. When you are asked to defend your choices, you are not being expected to prove that you are right, you are expected to realize that your choices are completely subjective. This is a lesson that might not sink in right away, but it will eventually. 

There are times where I’ve made a design choice blindly, thinking, “This will either work or it will fail miserably.” 99% of the time, it works. Sometimes it even works better than you might have imagined it. If it fails, chances are you can repurpose it for something else. Trust your instincts. If your instincts are all bad, you probably are in the wrong profession.

Of course, there are things that are wrong. Don’t hang a far cyc unit in the FOH bays as your main front light source because you “did the math and the beam spread was perfect.” (I wish I was making that quote up.) That’s wrong.

Unless it’s not. 



Mike Wood is a theatrical lighting designer and educator who is currently based in Tampa, FL. His award winning work has been seen on stages throughout the country. He teaches design and technology at Hillsborough Community College and spent several years on the design faculty at Howard W. Blake School of the Arts in Tampa. You can see Mike’s work and blog at mikewoodld.com and facebook.com/mikewoodlightingdesign.


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