Let’s train our lighting designers for the world of work

A scene from Old Times at the Harold Pinter Theatre with lighting by Peter Mumford. Photo: Tristram Kenton
by -

The evolution of lighting design over the past 60 years is becoming more and more noticeable at a popular and global level of perception.

The designed illumination of town centres, architecture, concerts and theatre is now a recognised art form, appreciated by all. The current exhibition, Light Show, at London’s Hayward Gallery reflects penetration of the fine art world as a creative medium alongside paint, stone and other materials.

Within theatre, the lighting designer is a significant part of the creative team so it’s hardly surprising that courses have sprung up all over the country, offering training in the art of light. Many are part of a technical theatre degree course but there are a number specifically dedicated to the study of light as a medium of expression.This is wonderful, especially if you are involved in this area like myself. There are, however, certain issues that need to be addressed. If we are producing quite a considerable number of young people from lighting design courses, we need to look carefully at the relationship between numbers emerging from colleges and the available work within the profession.

In the US, there is a slightly different structure and a training system that seems to have a more direct relationship to the industry.

The role of both assistant and associate lighting designer are recognised and used. Even outside New York – on and Off-Broadway – one is offered an assistant as a matter of course.

[pullquote]We need our educational courses to be training their students to be skilled assistants ready to work alongside a more established designer and be of real use.[/pullquote]

The first time I was in this situation I was surprised and impressed – impressed because the assistant I was given knew just what to do to help me. This was my first NY show and, in the UK, assistants were a very occasional luxury and only brought in on massive shows. The culture in the US is different in that people are being trained to be great assistants and associates on all scales of show, and the theatre industry embraces this and pays for it.

Currently in the UK, courses are tending to suggest to their students that they will emerge as lighting designers and go directly into lighting shows around the country. This may be true for a few, but it’s more likely to be a hard and long road towards getting established.

We need two things to happen. Firstly, we need our educational courses to be training their students to be skilled assistants ready to work alongside a more established designer and be of real use. Technological advances within the lighting world create additional complications that an adept assistant can be most useful in dealing with, especially now that documenting work has become a major ingredient of the process.

Secondly, we need theatrical managements – commercial and subsidised – to embrace the idea of engaging lighting design assistants on productions large and small. I would like to see managements taking this on board more, because it not only relieves the pressure on the lighting designer – it is also an investment in the future and will result in an emerging generation of competent and creative designers.

Within the Association of Lighting Design we are developing ideas to create an apprentice scheme to help develop the next generation of designers to work alongside the current professionals and give them real and practical experience of the working life of a freelance artist, as well as creating a much needed job description for associate and assistant lighting designers. Together, these will help to create a structured career path for emerging designers.

However, to make these apprenticeships work in a meaningful way we will need the support of managements and subsidising bodies. Currently, many established designers are happy to have students on brief work placements or shadowing for a week or so but, to become a mutually useful experience for both designer and student, we need to establish longer secondments and more secure financial support.

Peter Mumford is a lighting designer and the current chairman of the Association of Lighting Designers