Your 5 First Steps to Stage Lighting Success

Thanks to you, my readers, I get a lot of really helpful emails in my inbox sharing your current struggles with lighting, and how to grow.  One area I frequently get questions in is, “How Do I Get Started In Stage Lighting as a Career?” Today, I want to tackle this, and give you 5 first steps to moving into and up in the stage lighting industry.  Here we go! —>

Your First 5 Steps to Lighting Career Success

Step 1. Get all of the work you can.

The first step in moving up in the lighting industry is just to simply stay busy all the time.  Many people in this industry are freelancers, so they have control over their schedule, and I’d say pack it full! When you’re first starting in this business, take every bit of work you can.

Call companies asking for entry level work, even if you’ve never met anyone who works there. Most of the time, you’ll get a reply saying they “might” have work “coming up”, and in my book, that gives you free license to call them back every month or 2 and ask if that work is available.

Soon enough, they’ll find some labor to give you, and you’ve got your foot in the door from there if you are diligent and a good worker!  Keep working hard, and never turn down work you need, even if it feels “below your pay grade”. Right now, you really want to be a LD, and I get it, I’ve been there.

But, looking back, I am so thankful for all of the time I spent working for nearly minimum wage as a stagehand at our local arena. I was able to help bring in and put up big lighting rigs, but more than just laboring, I got to observe how successful lighting people put up huge lighting rigs.

Every call as a stagehand has tons of room for observation that can really help you grow, and I credit my success as a L2(lighting tech) to these stagehand calls where I learned how to run out cable quickly and efficiently with stagehands. Beyond working as a stagehand, I also worked as a lighting tech for 4 or 5 companies when I freelanced and kept as busy as can be.

I even took a tour once as an audio engineer, and had many valuable experiences that still help me today. You just never know what you’re going to learn, so learn all you can everyday you go to work!

Step 2. Use every job, company and show to grow yourself

One of the biggest growing opportunities I’ve ever had took me from a lighting tech to a full time lighting designer(LD).  I was freelancing around, but the bulk of my work was with one company. At that company, my boss offered to allow me to come in, unpaid, to sit on whatever console I wanted with moving lights to learn.  He even gave me tips, help and pointers and this experience got me the basic knowledge in hand to become a real LD.

Before that, I was stuck when I got to moving lights – I couldn’t program a moving light console for beans! If you’re serious about your career, it shows to others.

Most good companies, even if you’re not a full time employee, will let you come in to learn a piece of gear you don’t know well.  If you’ve been there for awhile, just ask if you’d be able to come in during a slow time and learn.

And then find that slow time ASAP! They know that helping you helps them by giving them a more qualified LD.  And it certainly helps you too! The other way to really learn is to program unnecessary cues. For example, say you are on a corporate show where the client has simply asked for one or 2 simple looks.  When they’re not in the room, you can use your spare time to learn how to use the console you’re on better, and program cues that you know you won’t use. This is something I still do when I’m on a new console.

It really helps you develop your muscle memory as to where buttons are, and you can grow in the technicalities of programming.  When it comes to moving light programming, there is always something you can learn on a given console.  Always.

Step 3. Move up, but never burn bridges unless absolutely necessary

Tour Bus

If you keep growing in your skills, you will move up in this industry. Starting a stagehand, and ending up as a LD or lighting tech, you’ll work your way out of a job with particular companies.

Whether that’s not needing stagehand work anymore, or growing past the needs and budget of small lighting companies.  You’ll see every need to move on, but when you do, do it in an understanding way.

Explain to the company your need to grow and move on, and offer to occasionally freelance with them.

Use your best judgement and don’t ever burn bridges and lose a friend over leaving unless the person you’re dialoging with is manipulative.  Sometimes, it’s them, not you!

I use that asterisk because I did have that experience once :). You just never know when you’re going to be slow on work and need that client back.  You never know when they’ll grow and need you to help their growing company again!

Step 4. Never feel like you’re too high for a particular job

Right in line with step 3, never, ever feel “too big” for a particular job.  Whether that’s running feeder, changing gel or cleaning cow manure off cables, you must keep your humility in check if you want to grow in this business. I know countless great technicians, who can’t stay busy enough with work because of their attitude and pride.

I also know countless great technicians, and some mediocre ones, who stay busier than they need because of their great attitude and humility. Attitude is a big deal in a industry where you work with other people, especially clients.  Saying the wrong thing once can lose you a client in an instant, so be careful, put a good foot forward, and use your attitude to propel you forward, not hold you back!

Step 5. Watch other people’s lighting, and try new things!

Even if you don’t get out to concerts and to see other people light shows, you need to watch other people’s lighting.  It’ll keep you out of creative ruts and keep your gears oiled.  You’ll leave a show going “I wonder how he programmed that cool fanned ballyhoo”, and go figure it out, learning a new dimension to a console.

Just yesterday I watch Coldplay live online, and got some really fresh ideas for a music festival I’m doing this spring.  This particular festival always is trying to innovate, so I’ve got to stay fresh with inspiration to make it awesome every year.

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