Your Stage Lighting

Stage Lighting People and Problems – Interactive

In the first of Your Stage Lighting Interactive articles, we look at 3 challenges in the stage lighting world and ask for your opinions about the kind of person that works in stage lighting.

Your Stage Lighting Interactive

Daylight actually turns lampies to stone. Image by calm a llama down

This series of Your Stage Lighting Interactive articles take the form of a short idea, a few questions and the chance for you to get in touch and let us know what you think.

Your opinion counts so don’t be shy, put your thoughts on this article in the comments box at the bottom of the page.

I have recently been consulting on a potential new moving light product (No – I can’t tell you what it was, if you were wondering). The producers of the product don’t have a background in stage lighting or “show business” so, as part of some broader market research, I was asked to describe three problems that face everyone in stage lighting. Although geared towards lighting products, the questions got me thinking about the nature of the theatre and events industry – and the people who work in it.

Here are brief versions of some the answers and how they relate to our people:

  • Time – “The Show” deadline does not go away or get pushed further into the future (unlike some examples in the building trade – penalty payments…). Lighting systems are based around the need to get a lot done in a short time frame (venue time, schedules etc.). It takes a certain kind of person to be able to work towards that goal, even if it means changing your plans to get it done in time.
  • Budget – The entertainment industry is sensitive to costs and show budgets. There is never an endless pot of money to throw at any one show, so compromises are always made, cheaper solutions found etc. It’s kind of a make do and mend attitude – if a solution will last for the show, then that’s what we do. People in the lighting business can’t be perfectionists, “good enough” is the motto.
  • Change – Due the transient nature of shows and the time and money limitations, despite all the planning, there are often changes made to plans. Things cut (omitted from the show), moved, made bigger smaller etc. Things change right up until the doors open. All of our people are problem solvers. Problems that arise on a show build are usually solved within a matter of minutes, with a decision being taken (because of the “show” deadline).

What do you think?

I like working in the stage lighting business because it is filled with “my kind of people”. Creative, pragmatic with a grasp of priorities are traits that everyone backstage has. This bunch of intelligent weirdos and individuals are family. But that’s enough from me.

Heres some thoughts to get you started (you don’t necessarily have to answers these, just let us know what you think).

What do you think is special about our industry and the people who work on shows?
What challenges do you think make “show business” unique?
Why do you find stage lighting and working backstage so fascinating and attractive?

Put your ideas in the comments box – I really look forward to hearing your views.

  1. Rob

    Hi Tim,

    You are right in some ways. However, I try to remind over zealous Production Managers that it is “only a job” when they make unreasonable demands on my time.

    The days when we were grateful for the “lifestyle” are fading. Today, lighting and backstage professionals expect to be treated less as workhorses with a never ending dedication to duty.

    Of course, my standpoint is from the UK, which is more of an “open” market (less unions, rules and generally worse conditions) than in the US.

  2. Simon Rickenbach

    Hey, great idea rob.

    What do you think is special about our industry and the people who work on shows?

    I think the industry is so unique, there is nothing really like it, the fun, the creativity and occasionally the stress! Because the industry is unique so are the people. Everyone i have met who is to do with stage lighting is different. I do my stuff in school, and everyone is willing to help you out

    What challenges do you think make “show business” unique?

    it’s got to be the changes in what the director wants. sure we can set the scaf tower up and go change 4 lights in the 20 minutes before the matinee…

    Why do you find stage lighting and working backstage so fascinating and attractive?

    It’s just such a laugh, you can be creative without spending hours drawing, you get to use your imagination and create innovative solutions to problems. i wouldn’t swap it for anything

  3. Jimmy

    Hmm this is an intresting one,

    What i think is special about the people who work on shows, is how everyone pulls together to get it right. It’s almost millitary style when we run a show, sound and lighting on intercom linked to backstage and the wings with millitary precise cues. All the planning/time we put in for that couple of hours in the evening.

    Challenges that make it unique.
    Last minute problem solving for me is the main. There’s always something that was fine in rehersal and then goes wrong just before the show. Fussy unrealistic directors who take tech rehersal time to finish up there act. Then whine because somethings not right, keeping pacience with them is one of my challenging aspects, expecialy if you’ve just worked your balls of for the past 2 days and there complaining an hour before kick off.

    I find working in backstage facinating because i’ve always had intrest in it, theatre, music, electrics. I’m not sure why, Its just something thats facinatied me since i can remember.

  4. mike

    Hi Rob
    I am only into lighting in a small way
    But I can relate to all of above comments. Time scales that cannot fail. Stress and Faulting under extream pressure etc
    I have just taken early retirement from BT having Completed 40 Years as a Transmission and Electronics engineer
    For many years I worked providing Outside Board Land Lines for major Radio and TV Shows
    I always found the work stressful.But very good fun on a good day You just never new when all hell would break loose
    Sometimes we were treated like stars drinks food etc.with the stars after a show
    One job that always comes to mind was a night we were doing A live BBC show from a village hall way out in the sticks on the Herefordshire Welsh borders
    All was going well when suddenly the hole lot went Dead
    sound and lights
    All enginners on site rushed to the fuse boards by torch light all seemed OK ish. May be a power cut? Rushed outside all houses nearby had lights on
    Maybe we have over loaded the single phase incoming and blown the main board fuse. Oh Hell
    A little old lady came in and asked had we put any more money in the Meter in the broom cubard WHAT?
    You could not see that one coming
    Could let stories all day
    Once saw a cup of coffee get knocked over and disappeared into the mixing desk around the sliders like a drain
    Not my problem not our kit 5 mins to air time
    My main concern is now the fun has all gone Just targets stats and quick fix no time to find faults etc this is become the norm in all engineering
    Engineering experience counts for nothing in the UK now
    IT seems now Yupies and Statows are all that is required to run an engineering business They run round like headless chickens sending hundreds of junk E mails that no one understand a word of .BUT are Mandatory and disciplinary procedures put in place for non compliance What a state to get in
    As someone said it was not a job I think more like a hobby
    We were our own bosses. Electrics, electronics, test gear and as much cable and wire as you could ever wish for
    Can you lighting lads relate to this

  5. Taylor Hyslop

    I work mostly with mid-level rock bands, and the biggest problem I encounter is encouraging folks to spend any money.

  6. Rob

    @ Simon and Jimmy – Yup, can definitely relate to your points. The combination of creativity and cold logic takes a certain kind of person.

    @ Mike – Yes, I think we can all agree that the world is poorer for people with clipboards and Blackberries. There is still a lot of fun to be had in stage lighting, it just might not come in the form of truss walking at 8m with no harness on or stabbing in 125A 3 phase tails live with no training. It just requires adjusting how you get your kicks.

    @ Taylor – Every part of the business is all about people not wanting to spend money but the band scene is awash with hobbyist PA “businesses” that make the whole sector cheap. Can’t say I would fancy my chances as a promoter, though.

    Thanks for all the comments so far, guys.

  7. Craig Finch

    Having just trained a new lighting operator who had NO prior experience, I have a new perspective on what it takes to be successful in lighting. I’ll focus on the role of the programmer/operator. This person needs the following three basic abilities (at a minimum). He/she has to have an “eye for design,” to recognize what looks right and what doesn’t. I think this skill starts with an underlying artistic talent that can’t be taught–some people have the gift and some don’t. The programmer/operator also has to have the technical and logical skills to understand the operation of the control console (desk) and the flow of power and control throughout the rig. A good programmer sets up the console in an organized and logical way, and troubleshoots problems efficiently as they arise. The third critical skill is the ability to think and solve problems quickly. This skill is needed during a show when executing cues at just the right time, and adapting to other peoples’ changes and mistakes so that the audience never realizes that something wrong. A fourth ability, which not all techies have, is the ability to work easily with all kinds of people in tense situations. I think this might be my greatest strength as a lighting guy, and it may be the aspect that is most appreciated by directors and producers. It takes a level of self-control to respond in a calm, reassuring way when a director is freaking out and demanding that I fix three things at once, possibly in a demeaning way. I don’t let myself become somebody’s punching bag, but sometimes I have to choose to respond like an adult and rise above someone else’s behavior.


  8. Rob

    Hi again Craig – thanks for taking the time to gives us your thoughts. Must be interesting training an op from the very beginning with absolutely no history.

    All the abilities you listed are required for a good lighting operator and most people in lighting posses some level of “artist’s eye” – even production electricians. It’s the blend of artist and geek in all of us.

    Responding to bad situations calmly is a character trait that all good backstage workers need. The worse things get, the calmer they are. In the corporate event world, I find that this can work against you. A client mistakes calmness in the face of adversity as a lack of concern or activity in their hour of need.

    I have tried to “ham it up” a bit to reassure them that I share their worries, but it’s just not me. We have to remember that this is their one show of the year. They don’t know that you’ve dealt with the same problem hundreds of times already.

    Good to hear from you again. Hope to get some MagicQ tutorials together – I know that you were interested in the desk. Best Wishes.

  9. Christiaan Visser

    My point of view about your questions;

    What do you think is special about our industry and the people who work on shows?
    The way we work, it’s not an ordinary job which can be done by anyone, you just have it or not. Everyone can push a button or slide a fader, but only a small group of people can create a stage design, program it an control it in a way which completly makes sense with the show on stage. It’s not something you can learn, you have to got it in you. That’s what makes our industry special.

    What challenges do you think make “show business” unique?
    The stress(which isn’t there! ;-)). I love my crew when somethings goes wrong, because we can fix things in a calm way and in such way that the crowd doesn’t realize that something went wrong. For example, if the power goes down on 20 mac’s, 10 minutes before the show starts, you see your crew walking like they have a day time to fix it. But in the mean time they think forward and fix it so fast, and no one ever noticed that something went wrong. In other words; The challenges to do your work good, fast, save and in a calm way together with you crew, is absolutly great in the ‘show business’.

    Why do you find stage lighting and working backstage so fascinating and attractive?
    For me it’s a own kind of way to express my thoughts and feelings. I’m not saying that i’m a great lighting designer or operator, but I always try to make my lightshow go as one with the music. If I see other LD’s doing their gigs, it’s like they have no creative mind. Always the same loops, chases, looks and drumsolo end with a strobe. When I talk with them, you get answers as; ‘The company pays bad, so I don’t do my best’, ‘It’s just another show, nothing special’, ‘It can’t be done better’. I realize that everyone has it’s own taste of how a lightshow should look like, but some people just don’t know what they are doing. I’ve done many (small & big) shows in the past, but what ever show there is, I allways do my best, because they hire you to do so. I think that for me the idea ‘get the job done in a good and efficent way’ is something that attracts me the most to this job.

    – Every day other problems, other people, other shows and other artists – it’s just great to be a part of it!


    Christiaan Visser

  10. Rob

    Hi Chistiaan

    Thanks your insightful thoughts. I think anyone who loves show business knows exactly what you are talking about.

  11. john

    The people in the lighting industry are usually pretty self centered, underdeveloped, egomaniacs. They are both narcissistic and megalomaniac capitalists. On top of this, they are usually judgmental hypocrites to boot. There are very few people in the lighting industry who don’t think they are cooler than everyone else. They all are cynical, sarcastic, and pride themselves on humor at others expense. So in general, they are uneducated bad people.

  12. the Real John


    That is a very sad and shortsighted assumption to make about the industry as a whole and I take offense at that.

    I have met a few bad apples, but by far and large if you don’t let your own ego get in the way, you can learn amazing things from those “egomaniacs.” It might just be time you reel in your own id for a moment.

    Most of the truly great lighting designers in this industry want you to learn their craft so that when they retire, the excellence doesn’t leave with them. They may have a big ego, but most of the time they have an even bigger heart and if you take the time to get to know them, you’d see that.

    And by the way, making generalized statements like that makes you look like nothing but a troll.

  13. Eric

    What makes the industry so special? I agree with Christian, anyone can push the go button, push a few faders and rig lights, its the fact that the theatre industry is such a close knit community of professionals, everyone has a common goal, to get the best product out on time, no ulterior motives or anything, all mixed in with a sense of humour and spirit. Everyone who gets anywhere has a genuine love and passion for their work with little pretence. The industry is made special by the amount of “special” (not in that way)people working in it.
    The reason it’s such a good industry to work in is it’s challenging, stressful and ultimately rewarding, even though the audience haven’t a clue what work you have put in, hearing applause after an opening night after a taxing production week will still put a smile on the most veteran practitioners face. Even through the late nights, hard work, stressful deadlines and lack of budget and quite often lack of appreciation for our efforts, that can epitomise our work, there is nothing more rewarding then seeing the final product looking great. Not sure where else you’d go for that!!

  14. ryan

    i am in secondry school and i do the lighting for shows i was in rehersals for a show not long ago and in our drama hall we have 2 dimmer racks and one dimmer rack controls the stage lights off stage and the other controls the lights on stage. so i was in rehersals and we was half way throught rehersal and the lights on stage started to flash on there own, so i broought all faders down and the grand master and i pressed the blackout button and it didn’t stop. i walked over to the dimmer and on the dimmer rack 2 which is the one for on stage lights that it was acting normally. so i walked over to the board and looked at the board to see that the wire where attached properly. well the wire which linked to board to the DMX plug which then whent to the dimmers the wire from the board to the DMX plug the outer rubber had actually worn away so the wires inside was showing well i thought we need a new wire my drama teacher who knows nothing about the lighting orderd a new wire when it arrived i unpluged the other one and pluged in the new one put a normal stage wash up….. nothing, nohting happened so i walked over to the dimmer racks and both said “NO DATA” so i reset the dimmers reset the patch on the dimmers and finally set the patch to channel 1 and DMX 1 well then i set the start address to DMX 1. 15mins later i brought up the lights and they started to work and there was no flashing while the board was using the new lead. well the new was a bit to short to be left pluged in becuase it was stretching so i pluged the old one back in finally i had finished a new wire is being orderd longer and i finally i left the board for a whole hour with the drama teacher and she told me that there where no flashing lights on stage and since i reset the dimmers and everything the time where i’ve had to do shows they havn’t ramdomly flashed so i thing that something was going on with the dimmers becuase after resetting them the flashing has stops. put i will be keeping a eye on the lights until the new lead has arrived.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.