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Getting Work

On Stage Lighting considers the process of securing work as a freelance Lighting Designer. We unravel the mysteries of “getting the gig” and find out that it isn’t all about portfolios, CV’s and qualifications.

In our Freelance Lighting Technician article, we looked at the guys that make their living going from gig to gig as freelancers. Many prominent LD’s are also freelance or running small design businesses, selling their skills as a Lighting Designer with a small team around them. From big event chaps like Durham Marenghi to well known theatre lighting designers like Richard Pilbrow, many LD’s plough their own furrow as small businesses.

Alex asked a question about how the decision “who gets the big gigs?” is reached. He said:

“I have heard things like: ‘the work will come’ but was wondering the exact process the production companies go through and what an LD/programmer has to do to get work (eg. a pitch, specify rigs etc..) “

The work will come?

That answer is perfect – the work will come. Thinking about the underlying process of how this mystical thing happens is valuable, especially for anyone just starting out. It’s something that we’ve chatted about backstage recently, probably brought on by more uncertainty in the job market. The answer isn’t specific to stage lighting or even the entertainment business in general. It’s more of a fact of life / human nature kind of thing.

How do you get work as a freelancer?

In all business, there is a certain amount of “pitching” to clients. You try to win the contract with ideas, presentations and proposals. While this certainly goes on in the entertainment business, pitching is often done to “outsiders” – Corporations, Sponsors, MoneyMen etc. People who don’t know a thing about lighting are going to agree to use your team for their show.

The Lighting Designer may be part of the pitching team, but their actual involvement in the project depends on others on “our side” – Producers, Technical Managers etc. The Lighting Designer might have to pitch design concepts but is unlikely that they would have to pitch their services. They’ve already got the gig and aside from high quality work, dedication and reputation yaddah yaddah yaddah, usually for one reason….

So, you’re a freelance LD. You get to some decent sized shows, get phone calls, take engagements, keep busy and all that. Why do you get asked to be part of all these?

Trust. Business is built on relationships and trust. If you need a truck taken to Glasgow, you book a truck driver because you trust them to get the truck there. On time, no accidents, no tickets, just get there. You might trust them because they work for a big name agency or you know them well personally.

If you use a lighting company, it’s because you trust them to deliver equipment that works. If you choose a Lighting Designer, it’s because you trust them to get the job done. A “safe pair of hands”.

How does this trust thing start?

Trust is often based on first hand evidence – “That truck driver has always been on time so far..”. When you’re starting out, it seems like proof comes on a few pieces of A4 paper and some photographs. – a CV and a portfolio. While these are great indicators of your interest and experience in stage lighting, they don’t create instant trust with an employer – more a “foot in the door” to build a career upon.

Working your way “up the ranks” is as much about building long term relationships as it is about learning the trade. Trust builds up over time (with proof) and you can use it to springboard yourself out of your current “position” on to the next level – Production Electrician, Associate LD, Medium-sized Cheese etc.

Getting new work?

“So if I can get work with people I already know, what about new contacts?”

Of course, it’s possible to get new work with no history or proof. That’s how we build up contact networks, particularly in the early stages of a career. Further down the ladder, people are willing to give you chance to prove yourself.

Further up (like an LD), it’s unlikely you will be “given a go” as a complete unknown. However, when you’re a big name LD past gigs can provide a certain amount of instant trust among new contacts. You might even become the next “big thing” and a must-have LD, but getting work can still be hard in such a small market.

Long Term Relationships

Here’s my experience as an ordinary jobbing LD/Programmer. I can’t think of one of my business relationships that doesn’t have ties going back 10 years or more. Maybe I haven’t worked with that client but I have known that production manager since before I went to college. Or I used to tour with someone who now does something else and they booked me to do this show and then I did that show … Hell, I still work with guys in my youth theatre when I was 10 years old.

A straw poll among other technical crew suggests that my own experience is not uncommon. Every show, every phone call, has a little Facebook-like network (cue: plug for the New OSL FB Group) of history behind it.

So, take a look around your own personal network and try to spot the next Harvey Goldsmith. You might still be working with them in 20 years time! In the meantime, it doesn’t hurt to meet as many people as possible.

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