“What do you do?” the woman seated next to me asked, watching while I pulled apart a set of blueprints, as the Pacific Ocean sped by 35,000 feet below. “Are you an architect or engineer?”
“Something like that,” was my usual reply. “Actually, I'm a lighting designer.” I continued to explain for a moment what that meant. “I never realized anyone did that for a living,” she said with a smile. “It sounds interesting. How did you get into that kind of work?”
I must hear that question a few times a year, and my customary “it's a long story” answer sometimes feels unfriendly or maybe too hasty. Notwithstanding nearly 20 years of playing with gel colors and gobos (and getting paid for it, at least most of the time), rarely have I ever stopped to reflect on this topic for more than a moment or two. I certainly cannot recall playing with any theatrical designer action figures as a child and we're not on the time-honored list containing firefighters, astronauts, and the like, so I guess the question is reasonable.
I remember a rainy late afternoon in early fall: Almost everyone at school had left for the day, except me. I had just received a stern lecture from my guidance counselor to participate in at least one more extracurricular activity before starting on college applications, or else. But I was only applying to engineering schools, I protested to no avail, and working 20 hours a week!
As I wandered out of the building studying the floor in abject self-pity, I happened to walk across a flyer seeking volunteers for the drama club's first musical production. A few weeks later, I donned a tape-bandaged headset for the first time and stood nervously facing a gigantic dimmer panel the size of a VW bus.
I was hooked. I still graduated from an engineering school, but never again was I far from the theatre. As a college student, I voraciously read each issue of Theatre Crafts (now Entertainment Design) and Lighting Dimensions and wondered whether I could find work in the lighting business. Most of my classmates and even my parents, perhaps, thought I'd grow out of it. Mom and Dad are just now coming around, I think.
A decade ago, while on the staff at UCLA's School of Theatre, Film, and Television, I talked with students of all ages struggling to decide what they wanted to do. Should they focus on technical theatre or take a broader survey of the arts and sciences? Is a person's choice of profession a product of fate, or accidental?
“I had 16 years of classical piano and eight years of ballet,” says one New York-based lighting designer with a love of opera. “But I decided in college that I wasn't meant to be a performer. Although I grew up in Silicon Valley and my father was trained as an EE, math and science were too dry for me. I also found architecture too formulaic and driven. During my sophomore year, a friend of mine asked for help building scenery for Don Giovanni. I got bit, joined the running crew, and it was love at first sight.”
Speaking of love, a colleague of mine in Los Angeles whose work includes theatre and architectural design tells a tale about following his girlfriend into the high school drama club. “I tried acting,” he explains, “and as a senior, I received a scholarship in a drama competition. After six months of acting classes in college, I discovered that the technical theatre department was having a lot more fun. That was the end of my acting career.”
“I tried acting, but no one would cast me,” grumbles (with a grin) another successful designer who lives and works in the Northeast. “I was in junior high and always had to do what my older brother did — he was my idol. When he joined the school play, I ended up backstage, pushing and pulling enormous levers on the dimmer board. He eventually gave up his theatrical aspirations and became a lawyer. I never did.”
“I got into lighting early,” explains one East Coast associate designer and veteran of numerous Broadway productions, “back in junior high. It was a practical matter, really. I was the tallest guy in the drama club and could reach the lights from only halfway up the ladder,” he says with a laugh. “Later I found out I was good at it, too.”
With the benefit of hindsight and after listening to these stories, I would encourage anyone seeking a career in this business to keep an open mind and try lots of new things. You never know what might catch your fancy.
On a last note, my enthusiasm for writing also began with junior high school. Our tiny school newspaper wanted a front page feature about the national cheerleading competition which the school was hosting, so I volunteered. But that's really another story.
The author would like to thank Stephen Rosen, Karl Haas, Ted Mather, and Dawn Chiang for their contributions and his parents for their patience.