Is Your University Making Good Lighting Design Program Choices?


It’s been one hell of a two week period. I have missed my blog; learning and studying light is my therapy. It is my voice. has become something that is less about me and more about the world and its people BY the world and its people who work with light.

Something that has been on my mind lately is lighting education. It’s really an age-old question, at least as far as our industry is concerned: are our educational institutions across the world effectively teaching lighting design as the industry evolves?  I mean, if it really comes down to it, the job of Lighting Designer is not that old of a gig.  In the entertainment industry, perhaps arguably only as old as the last 50-75 years.  Architecture and engineering aside of course, as well as research and development of light and lighting design, entertainment lighting design is something that a whole lot of places across the world are teaching.  Whether you see this as fortunate or unfortunate, the reality is that there are myriad programs across the United States alone who are providing degree programs out there for lighting and lighting design.  That’s the reality.  Something else that should probably be touched on in this article – is there a standard for lighting design degree programs across the country that differs from the paid accreditation organizations for schools of theatre?  Should there be?

My hope is that this article makes the screens of not only people who love light, but educational instructors, professors, administrators, and people who make decisions from their comfortable office chairs far away from the theatres and laboratories/studios on which they make their decisions.  In my research into the subject of accreditation and the methods and practices that are commonplace in the Business of University Learning, I’ve come across a few things that are concerning to me.  Hopefully they will be concerning to you too.

Now before you get your underwear in a bunch over this, and before you start saying “oh, well, my school does all of the things you say and we’re recruiting students at an unprecedented level for our University,” let me ask you these questions:

  • If you’re making decisions about recruiting and program growth, are you at all knowledgeable about the subject matter with which you’re involved?
  • Do you have people that you consult with about decisions regarding program growth and teaching content that are involved with the industry of light on a professional level?
  • Are those people reputable and knowledgeable?
  • Do your production budgets and classroom learning budgets include extra money and funding for the kind of equipment and training that could really make the difference in your students’ lives and careers?

If you’ve answered NO to any of these questions, it might be time to reassess your lighting design degree program. 

The story is almost identical all over the United States when it comes to educational theatre and lighting design degree programs.  (Side Note:  If your program is different, then good for you – I am about an inch taller than the national average for people of my height and weight, too.  That and a buck-fiddy will get me a latte.  Let me save you an email – I don’t care how good you think your school is.)  The first few semesters of a lighting degree program are used to acclimatize students to things like properly working with electricity, lighting equipment, plugging and unplugging, coiling cable, fixture types, Physics and Science of Light, color media, accessories, and how not to get themselves dead or hurt on the jobsite.  perhaps the next few semesters are used to teach on some basic lighting design and practical training, like working in the theatre and in other entertainment venues, McCandless AND OTHER METHODS of using light in design, and color theory to name only a few things.  You should also be throwing some lighting design ancient history and modern/contemporary design history in there too, as it is pertinent to know where we came from and where we’re going.  Perhaps a student gets a design or two, perhaps they have an internship over a summer.

The big question after all of this is said and done is what do we teach now?  How do we make sure our students are ready to go out and work in venues by themselves?  Are they ready to grab ahold of a Hog or a GrandMA and patch some moving heads?  Do they know which end of the DMX line is the right line to start with when they have 250 feet of FOH snake to run?  Do they understand signal path?  Do they know what a Fresnel is, what the industry has done to improve that fixture, and what we’re using now that has improved upon that initial fixture design?  Do they know the difference between an MSR series lamp and a tungsten lamp?  Can your students tell which color 445nm is without looking it up?  How about the difference between a Mac 700 and a Studio Spot 575?  Can your kids find out which color is R82 in a handful of other blues and congos?

Let me ask these:

  • when was the last time you were at a major market show that was running a handful of old Kliegl 6X8s, rusty Altman 360s, and Colortran 1KLs as their primary illumination?
  • When was the last time that you saw a concert on TV or in a venue that didn’t have some kind of video or projection element or LED emitting surface?
  • When your lighting design students leave your University, are they “theatre people” or are they trained lighting production electricians?
  • Is your University putting enough resources for your students to be able to go right out, drop a resume off at PRG4WallChristieBanditILCTMSTLS, or any one of the major market companies supplying the WOW to audiences across the world and be a viable candidate for a job in lighting?

It’s a Catch-22 situation that people have been calling a Catch-22 situation for many many decades – you have theatres, you have lighting, you have some dimming, and you have some cable.  Great, right?  Well of course it is!  But what happens when you have all of these things, but they’re so old and outdated/mismanaged/poorly maintained/unrepaired that it’s kinda like having nothing at all.  There are so many degree programs out there in which this is the mainstay commonplace.  Please don’t misunderstand – it’s vital to learn troubleshooting duties and how to fix lighting equipment problems when they arise – that’s a job creation skill right there.  But when you spend ALL your time teaching your students how to make stupid and dangerous little fixes in order to keep your equipment running enough to put on your mediocre show, it might be time to look into some capital expenditure monies to upgrade your rig – especially if it’s been paying for itself since the mid-1960s.  Don’t teach bad habits.

There are two types of production personnel – trained personnel and untrained personnel.  As educators in the field, our job is not to do what is expected of us and only what is necessary to get by.  Sorry folks, if you’re teaching lighting, you’re involved in training the next group of production designers and personnel that are going to take the industry and run with it at full speed.  Lighting education isn’t one of those gigs like so many of my Arts and Sciences colleagues who have their TAs, their weekly meetings, teach from 10-11, office hours from 11-12, and home for TV by 1.  Or whatever.  You know what I mean.  There are also those who work in the industry regularly AND teach.  Besides the horrific toll on family and health that takes, do your teachers have industry connections and have the ability to bring to the students the kinds of toys and equipment that they’ll have their hands on the week after they set foot outside of your program?  Is your University helping this happen and providing the kinds of resources needed to help your working professors bring in the kinds of equipment they’ll see out there while beating the pavement?  If your answer is NO to these last two questions, it might be time to re-evaluate your lighting design degree program.

There is one thing that we cannot deny here, and that is that lighting and lighting education is probably one of the most (if not THE most) expensive degree program you will fund.  Sorry everybody –  lighting equipment, lamps, copper, connectors and plugs, and personnel to make it all safe and not a lawsuit waiting to happen is an expensive proposition.  Unfortunately, and in my humble and sometimes overbearing opinion, you cannot effectively teach a lighting design degree program without exposing your students to things like automated lighting and control, touring dimming and distribution gear, LED fixtures, automated accessories (scrollers, faders, rotators, etc) and all of the other stuff your lighting design students are going to run into out in the field on a regular basis.  One of my rock and roll mentors, Benny Kirkham, told a story once about being out with a show in the early 90’s where the production manager came up to him and said “you know, just because you have moving lights doesn’t mean they have to be moving all the damned time.”  It’s not fair to your students and frankly to the industry to not be able to use your University education time to teach that a moving light isn’t a toy, but an invaluable design tool.

I’m interested in your thoughts on this, as there are many of us out there teaching and working ourselves.  This is just part one of a long thought process for me – stay tuned.  I get so many emails from students saying “please help, we want to know more about X and Y but our school doesn’t have it.”  You’re paying for your schooling, it’s about time you get the training you need.

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  1. Very well put. Yet, one thing that I am still wondering is what you believe the correct way is to assess lighting design students? Should it be based on technical skills, paperwork, designs that they realize in University?

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