For 20 years, I have been involved in education in lighting. Before that, I had to be educated and trained myself. It was a different time, our industry was much smaller, and information did not flow at the speed of light and the click of a mouse. I was fortunate to grow up in New York City, so my training was a combination of professional exposure and academic experience.
So what's the difference between “real-world training” and “academic experience?” Sometimes it's significant, but at other times, there are more similarities than disparities.
Working with light is a passion for many of us; any chance to work with it is always welcome. But how one works with it can come in many forms: as designer, assistant, programmer, technician, operator, stagehand/electrician, even salesperson. Making theatrical art, and being involved in that process, is special. I learned this early on.
I was offered a position at a major New York lighting company, one with a great reputation in the Northeast. I wanted to work with some of the best people, and this is where they worked. During my interview, I was told that working there was like working in a factory, but I was naïve and excited. I wanted to work with light and get to know the best people, and I needed the steady paycheck. I took the job. I learned a ton, but I did not get to make theatrical art. I did everything from coiling cable to taking rental orders, and I still use that knowledge today, but it did not fulfill my artistic soul. I also interviewed at a world-class theatrical consulting firm, where I was told, “You may work on a project for 10 years before it's completed. We build theatres,” they informed me, but I wanted to make theatrical art, not theatres. I did not take the job.
I am grateful for those interviewers' honesty; their clarity helped me make informed career decisions. The point is that one needs to be clear about what one wants to do when choosing training and education, because in our highly applied profession the training must be hands-on, so the question to explore is: Exactly what do you want to get your hands dirty doing? Spend a good amount of time thinking about this. It's important.
In today's complex entertainment business, the need to fill positions with well-qualified and trained people is enormous. It's quaint now to think back to the time when many wondered if automated lighting would reduce the number of people needed by our industry; it seems there is more work than ever. No one back then had ever heard of a “projection designer.” That's just one indication of how much more specialized training programs have become. So let's take a look at the characteristics of two broad types of training.
To reveal my own bias, I should say that I work full-time as a professor of lighting design, freelance professionally (a couple of shows a year), and am a part-time theatre consultant. I will do my best to be objective.
Everyone wants to use and learn on the cool equipment, and most serious programs can provide that. The environment is somewhat nurturing and more experimental; timelines are more forgiving; and the performers, designers, and technicians are mostly students, all of them learning. Mistakes are allowed. You work with a diverse group of people, and developing “people skills” is a significant part of the experience. Most likely, you will have a mentor who is dedicated to your success, or perhaps several mentors.
But, to me, there is one special thing about academic training: Theatrical art is being made, whether it's in a conservatory with a fine reputation or a public or private university with professional graduate training. Curtains rise, lights dim, and audiences (hopefully) laugh and cry. This lets one know whether the art has achieved its highest purpose: to touch the human heart and move the soul. A live audience's reaction is the true indicator of success. We should acknowledge that sweat, time, money, labor, practice, and technical expertise are required to achieve this all too elusive goal. Nothing could be more real than the learning and growth that happen in the academy. Fundamental concepts are taught and applied, lifelong learning skills are acquired, and, as technology progresses, you will be equipped to adapt to those changes.
A good academic program should offer the best of highly applied artistic and technical experience and knowledge with the higher purpose of seeing that an audience is entertained, moved, and affected by the theatrical experience. Without that link, the experience and training are incomplete. How else, but by seeing an audience's reaction, can you know if your team has achieved its goal? This may not be for everyone, but if this description is appealing, academic training might be for you.
Trade Schools/Manufacturer Training
In recent years, trade schools for the entertainment industry have been established. Manufacturers have set up sophisticated training programs, and independent schools have opened their doors to meet the increasing needs of our profession. Some of this can surely be attributed to the explosion of technical advancements and the growth of America's second-largest export, American culture and entertainment.
When I was younger, there was only one company in the world that provided very specialized automated lighting technology. It was a dream of mine to work with this technology; you might say I was even a bit obsessed. The only way to get close to those devices was to be trained by the manufacturer. I did all I could to get myself into their training school, but was not accepted, as it was elite and tightly controlled. Those days are gone, and one can now more easily acquire truly outstanding technical training in what I call trade school programs. Learning a trade and becoming an excellent technician are extremely valuable, well-compensated, and very honorable professional choices. The goal is to be an expert in a craft and advance the art form. Those who do this well are artists in their own right. If you enjoy making things work, are a good team player, and are perhaps less concerned with personal artistic expression, then the entertainment trade school route might be for you.
Here is an analogy for this dichotomy. For many years, my father worked as a photo technician every Monday through Friday. What he could do with someone else's photograph — with exposure time, retouching pens, chemicals, and other pre-Photoshop crafts — was amazing. On the weekends, however, he indulged his passion and took his own photographs. I think he would have loved to make photography his life's work, but his life circumstances did not allow for that. Being a photographer is capturing the shot that stirs the soul; it is the creative art. The drive is to find that special thing that will affect the viewer, the audience. If that's what attracts you, you'll need to go beyond craft; a trade school will give you everything you need for a career, but it may not satisfy your soul.
If you love making the machines work and get a charge out of execution and enhancing the product through craft, manufacturer training is an excellent path to take. If you want to be at the heart of the creative process and have a strong need for self-expression, you will need a program that nurtures that part of you. A more liberal-arts approach or a conservatory might be the right fit. If you are like me and enjoy both, then look for a program that will indulge your appetite for craft as well as your need to be part of creating the theatrical art. There are fine programs all over the nation that can meet your expectations.
Most importantly, ask yourself the hard questions so you know what you're really looking for. Be sure not to neglect the “people factor.” Look for people you respect and feel you can work with. Once you know your own desires, finding the right place will be much easier. Happy hunting!
Stan Kaye is a professor of lighting design at the University of Florida's School of Theatre and Dance in Gainesville, where he runs the graduate program in lighting design.