There's no getting around it: designing for a living is not an easy way to make a career. There's a lot of personal sacrifice involved, and unless you're in the very top tier, chances are you're not making a very comfortable living doing it either. There are those who would willingly sacrifice anything for the art, and to you, I admirably tip my hat. You have a stamina and vision that go above and beyond what the average student of design is willing to do. That said, there are still plenty of us who love the performing arts and have a true appreciation for being a part of something beyond the artistic scope of your average theatregoer, but we don't want to constantly be on the move or behind a console in a dark theatre for an entire summer. How do we stay in the game?
There is, in fact, a wealth of possibilities for people like us, that, without a little digging on our parts, we may miss altogether. Truth be told, there exists an entire industry of people behind the people behind the scenes. Where would lighting designers be without ETC's Source Four, the High End Systems Wholehog, and the Strand C21 dimmer — hell, without the theatre in which they're sitting? Here are career paths chock full of opportunities for potential product designers, engineers, system designers (including consultants and integrators), and salespeople who have just as much a passion for the performing arts as the designers using the products. In my experience, the people who excel the most in these positions are those who come from backgrounds similar to the designers themselves.
As a designer of systems, I can tell you firsthand that seeing productions come to life using something I have had a hand in creating is an incredibly rewarding feeling. Along those same lines, part of the reason I can find it so rewarding is that I understand the theatrical process. It goes both ways. I have sat — and still sit — in the designer's chair from time to time, and I know the exhilaration of seeing a production come to life before my eyes. I know all too well that the success of a design can hinge on the inventory of a space, how the hanging positions are laid out, and how everything communicates. If someone put together a dimming and control system without understanding the mind of a designer, future designers in that space will undoubtedly be able to tell.
In my line of work, I often come across electrical engineers and architects who think that if they've seen a show or know the principals of electricity and electrical design for buildings, they can design a theatrical system. I think we've all worked in those spaces, and I think we all know how that usually turns out: at best, frustrating and inefficient; at worst, it can ruin a show. In my experience as a lighting designer, the best systems are put together by people who not only understand electricity and networking but, more importantly, really get how a lighting designer thinks in terms of space, angle, use, artistic interpretation, etc.
Of course, those of us who put the systems together would be absolutely nowhere without the products that make up the system, and that's where product designers, manufacturer representatives, and product salespeople come into play. So often these roles are filled by people who genuinely understand theatrical needs, including the fact that, yes, it is important for you to be able to take that exact shutter cut, and when you say you need those gobos by 5am tomorrow because you just burned through three in your last performance, well, they understand why.
They get it. Theatre imposes deadlines with a gravity that only a few industries truly understand, and it's a huge asset to have someone who understands these kinds of deadlines. Believe it or not, most of these people do it because they love the theatre, and they love perpetuating the performing arts in their own ways; just ask them. Doug Fleenor of Doug Fleenor Design, Inc. designs custom products to solve specific artistic problems. Thomas Ladd, a manufacturer representative at Boston Illumination Group, Inc., sees his work as the “palettes a design team uses for its work.” These guys enjoy being part of the artistic process and know that, while they aren't sitting behind the tech table, they are empowering art and production through invaluable services.
That's why it's important to understand that, even if you decide to pursue an alternative career in the arts, you don't have to disconnect yourself from production work. Since starting my current position last year in the systems division of Barbizon Light of New England, I've designed three productions with two more going up before the end of November, and I've become the technical advisor to a local theatre company trying to improve its production values. For Fleenor, custom product design may be his bread and butter, yet he still designs local events. Most of the people I know who started in production work and have left it on a full-time basis stay involved at least part-time. Ladd sums up probably one of the most attractive reason for doing so: tamer hours.
I love what I do and have the best of both worlds: I work on the edge of theatrical technology and still have my fair share of production work. It's not the number of hours sitting behind a tech table that determines your success as an artist, nor does working in systems design completely cut you off from the artistic process. It's about how you define yourself as a professional. I am a designer. I am an artist. And there's no one who can tell me otherwise.