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The illuminators

bright hazy stage light beam shines up

By Mike Lawler

The actors might wear their own clothes and put on a show in an existing space with no modification. They might shout at the top of their lungs without reinforcement or music to set the mood. But before they begin someone must turn on the lights. In such a pared down production, the person manning the light switch on the wall would be considered the light board operator; the person who screwed the light bulb in is the master electrician; and the one who told him where to put the lamp is the designer. Those are the basic elements of any lighting team working in theatre. (Of course, with such a low-budget production, the same person is probably doing triple duty.) In the world of professional theatre, there are many talented and skilled men and women turning this oversimplified production into a feast of illuminated art. If you are putting on any kind of performance—dance, play, opera, concert—there is one thing you simply cannot do without: illumination.

two people sit at a table. one wears a headset and points to a page.
Lighting designer John Ambrosone confers with Arena Stage lighting fellow Xavier Pierce during a tech rehearsal for the theatre’s production of Damn Yankees. (Photo by Scott Suchman)

Illumination is only the beginning of theatrical lighting. “Lighting is the ‘visual glue’ that holds up and enhances all the other visual elements,” explains lighting designer (often known as the LD) John Ambrosone. As a freelancer and former resident lighting designer for American Repertory Theatre (ART) in Boston for thirteen years, Ambrosone has been creating stunning and complicated light designs for theatre, dance, opera, and other forms for almost twenty years. “Light is as accessible and expressive as an actor, but never should upstage or pull focus from the unified contributions of the whole,” he says.

Shaping a visual environment

“My role is to shape a visual environment for the play to take place in,” explains Steve Woods, a freelance lighting designer and associate professor of theatre and design at Southern Methodist University. Woods works extensively with many types of performing arts organizations, including the renowned Jose Limon Dance Company, an ensemble he’s collaborated with for seventeen years. “My responsibility is to the director’s vision, the playwright, and my artistry,” he says.

an actor costumed in purple emerges from a pit in the stage. Green and yellow lights illuminate the surrounding actors
The 2003 Arena production of Camelot, with lighting by Ambrosone. (Photo by Scott Suchman)

Like a sound designer, the artistry of manipulating light is one that walks the line between keeping up with cutting edge technology and retaining the ability to think like a painter. It’s a line that must be walked carefully while concentrating on supporting the vision of the production (see the sidebar “Lighting the sky”). Russell Champa, a freelance designer based in both San Francisco and New York City, does his best to experiment as an artist at every opportunity. “I think that part of the job is to challenge oneself on every project to try something new—a new color, a new type of fixture, new technology, or a whole new process,” he explains.

Champa makes sure to keep in mind, however, that his primary responsibility as a designer is finding a way to help tell the story. He explains his role this way: “To help the audience focus on what we want them to focus on. To not get in the way of the actors and their work. To make the space and the world visually exciting and make everyone else look good until you want or need them to look bad.”

two men wearing bowler hats sit on a branch on stage. They are lit in blue.
The American Conservatory Theatre’s 2003 production of Waiting for Godot, with lighting by Russell Champa.

Coordinating with the other designers and the director is the essential beginning for any designer, and LDs are no different. The first thing is to understand why the particular work is being done,” says Woods, explaining his initial approach to design. “Being a designer is a lot like being a detective. You connect the dots to find the answer to the question posed by the work.” In order to connect the dots, the lighting designer will meet with the director or choreographer, the other designers, and sometimes even the playwright or composer to hammer out a visual understanding of the production.

“I always start with the script and then a big piece of paper and a pencil,” says Champa. This is often a tough period for a lighting designer struggling to transform the production concept into a functional light plot. “Translating a bunch of great ideas into a practical solution can be very difficult, especially with lighting,” he admits. “Often times nobody knows what you’re talking about until you’re actually in the theatre and turn off the work lights and turn on some of your lights. This is when the real work begins.”

Over time, Woods has grown to see the art of light design a bit differently. “Of course the move from paper to reality always brings surprises,” he says. Rather than wait until the system is in the theatre and hung, Woods believes that designers must make an active effort to conceive a system of lighting that limits what he calls “the unpleasant surprises.” As a result, his design approach has evolved to more fully account for the realities of each instrument he puts on a plot. By perfecting his initial plot and design tactics, Woods has been able to make his time spent in tech rehearsals much more flexible. “I was no longer seeing the show in bits and pieces,” he comments. “My research became better as did my understanding of the script and the arch of the play.” Woods now tries to storyboard productions with the director as well. “We need to be open to approaching our work not in a tried and true way but in a way that challenges.”

The electricians

Much the same way that a scene shop’s carpenters and technical director are responsible for building a set to the specifications set forth by a scenic designer, an electrics crew is responsible for preparing the lighting for each production, as planned by the lighting designer. The crew, which may range in size from two to twenty, is generally led by a master electrician (other titles include production or chief electrician, and lighting supervisor, or, for short, the ME), who acts as the crew supervisor and is the contact point for the designer. “We always joke that we are the people that make the magic happen,” says Joe Hartnett, the master electrician for Pittsburgh Public Theatre. “As an ME, I enable the lighting design to come to life.”

For Hartnett and his counterparts around the country, bringing a design to life entails the proper reading and interpretation of the designer’s light plot, ensuring that the entire lighting system is operational and set up as the LD has designed it, and keeping the labor and equipment costs in line with the budget. “The biggest challenge is being on top of your game and getting the job done,” says Hartnett.

Most designers understand that the collaboration between the designer and the technicians who hang, patch, focus, and run the production is of utmost importance. “There is no ‘going it alone’ in theatre,” notes Ambrosone. “A lot of what designers accomplish is due to technicians. It’s a common misconception that they too are not artists. They happen to be some of the most gifted artists I know.”

Ambrosone makes a point of contacting the lead electrician as early in the process as possible, so that they are up to speed on the production, and understand the design concept more thoroughly. “Often times they are better at problem solving and have more successful budgeting solutions than I do,” he explains.

“They do the heavy lifting,” says Champa, detailing the tasks of the ME. “They figure out the circuiting and dimming, place the shop orders, schedule the crews and often figure out how to achieve whatever crazy idea the designers come up with.”

Master electricians are forever adjusting to a constantly changing range of lighting designers. It can be a bit like having a new boss every month or two, and because the working relationship between an LD and an ME is very close and frequently strained under intense deadline and artistic pressure, the ME must learn how to get the work done regardless of how well he or she gets along with a designer.

There are two types of designers, according to Natalie George, the production electrician for the State Theater Company in Austin, Texas. “There are the designers who ask about the budget, and those that don’t,” she says. “You really have to learn how to handle the designers who don’t, because they will push you and push you as far as they can to get everything they can—even things that they may never use.”

a person stands backstage; they are smiling
Natalie George, production electrician for the State Theatre Company in Austin, Texas.

“If you do your job,” Hartnett says, “you will have very few problems—besides a conflict of personalities.” When differences in personality crop up between a designer and ME, he emphasizes, the work must still get done properly. “There is nothing you can do but have your job done to the best of your abilities.”

Woods agrees that the master electrician and the electrics crew are a critical element for realizing a great design. He also believes that a crew with a vested interest in the design will naturally be more inclined to do their best work. “I want them to take ownership of the work and contribute,” he says. However, for Kim Palma, a freelance designer based in California, the notion of working with electrics crews sometimes takes on a slightly different spin. “Being a woman in the profession, it’s been a different kind of challenge,” she says. “Many—not all—men in the business are not used to taking direction from a young woman.” But, Palma has found ways to deal with such problems. “I’ve learned that it’s always better to be sweet than demanding—you get your own way with sugar much more easily than with spice.”

A road to the lighting life

Many ME’s are either aspiring or working lighting designers themselves. George uses her steady gig as a staff electrician to keep her design work financially feasible. Her position as both the master electrician of a mid-size regional theatre and as a freelance designer give her an holistic perspective on the industry, as well as the opportunity to network with designers from around the country.

Champa, who also spent many years working as an electrician before being able to make the financial leap to full time design work, acknowledges that meeting and working with established designers is crucial for becoming one yourself. He finds the persistent need to network a struggle, however, and said that the ongoing need to develop new potential working relationships is difficult. “The biggest challenge though,” Champa admits, “was transitioning from the electrics and assisting work to be able to make a living and survive as a designer.”

Gaining experience and training in theatrical lighting shouldn’t be hard to come by for anybody truly interested in the craft. However, Woods believes that prospective undergraduate college students need to be careful about choosing where to study if they are serious about pursuing a career in lighting design. “I have to say that a lot of programs use their students as a cheap labor force, pretending that these same kids are being trained by this exploitation while the faculty designers design the shows,” he says, advising young theatre students to be more particular about where they decide to attend university and pursue their theatre futures. “The most important thing,” says Woods, “is to attend a great school where your education will permit you to be employable upon graduation.”

Ambrosone has similar advice, emphasizing the need for going to a school where you will get plenty of one-on-one attention from your professors.

At Southern Methodist University, Woods focuses on teaching graduate students the skills they need to succeed in the professional design world. “I think designers need to learn how to read a play with understanding, how to discuss the play with the director and playwright, and how to manage their career and life in the theatre as a business person and artist.” Woods believes that learning how to make it as a freelancer is perhaps the most critical skill. “For someone just starting in the business, the challenge is making enough money to survive each month. Graduate school gives [designers] a chance to fail without disaster,” he says, explaining why graduate study may be a good idea for many young designers. “They can’t do that at a commercial theatre and expect to move forward.”

“Intern, intern, intern!” says Palma. “There are millions of opportunities available,” she says. “Look for an artist whose work you admire and volunteer services while you can afford to do it!” Finding opportunities to get your hands dirty and work as an electrician in the theatre—even if you’d rather be a designer—comes highly recommended from designers and electricians alike.

“I find that students coming out of grad design programs may be great on paper, but they often don’t understand the basics of an electrician’s work,” says George. She encourages students to take time to learn the basics before attempting to step into the big leagues of design.

On-the-job training is also a major part of learning the craft of lighting. “I am proud of the fact that I’m still seeing and learning new things about what I do,” says Ambrosone. “Never think for one second that learning stops at the end of school, college, or your first Broadway show.”

an actor stands in front of a tudor townscape theatrical set
The outdoor production of The Merry Wives of Windsor at the Amercian Players Theatre in Spring Green, Wisconsin, with lighting by Michael Peterson.

For Champa, it has always been about learning by doing. “Not having a degree, or any grad school experience has meant that I came into design through the back door,” he comments. “I spent a long time assisting and doing electrics work to supplement and finance my design career.” Champa is now a successful theatrical designer who works regularly around the country—including at American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco, Trinity Rep in Providence, Rhode Island, and various theatre in New York City. He’s a good example of how one can overcome the inherent disadvantages of bypassing college in a business that relies heavily on creating and maintaining professional relationships. “The biggest challenge for me is marketing myself and my work,” he says. In college and graduate school, students of theatrical design are able to connect with many working and aspiring theatre professionals, a clear advantage when attempting to enter the workforce pool.

The bottom line: there is no single path to achieving success as a lighting designer or master electrician. One way or another though, you have to get the training, the experience, and learn the intangibles to master the technology and the artistry. And, as Ambrosone noted, the learning never stops, even for someone with twenty years of lighting experience. Whether you’re planning to serve as apprentice in a community or professional theatre, hang lights in your college program, or just begin the long road of freelancing, be prepared to work hard. But remember, without illumination, no one could see the show, no matter how wonderful the acting, sets, and sound are. Bear that in mind and all the work might seem a bit less daunting. Good luck.


Mike Lawler is a theatrical electrician, scenic carpenter, writer, and founding member of the Wisconsin Story Project. This article is part of a series on design and production careers he wrote for Dramatics between 2005 and 2008. For more on backstage jobs, check out Lawler’s book Careers in Technical Theatre, which grew out of his work for the magazine.


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