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Rob Halliday: It’s important to be social in this solitary career

It’s perhaps because lighting is such a solitary profession – there’s rarely more than one lighting designer on a gig, visits during tech are uncommon (and, when they do happen, nerve-racking) – that lighting designers enjoy a good gossip when they finally get to escape from their darkened auditoria. And when we finally escape from the last theatre of the year, panto lit, there’s nothing quite like a good lunch: the Lighting Lunch.

This annual event, now in its 23rd year, has grown dramatically from its origins as a gathering of lighting designers hosted by Mark Jonathan, then the head of lighting at the National Theatre. It is now arguably the social epicentre of theatre lighting. The current guest list includes not just designers, but those who work with and around them – electricians, programmers, suppliers – plus the students who are the next generation of all those roles. It did once flirt with a move to dinner time, but returned quickly to its lunchtime slot so those who still had a show in the evening could get there, and those that didn’t could start the Christmas revelry earlier and continue it longer. It’s a great chance to catch up and to celebrate another year survived.

It’s also, as far as I know, an event unique to lighting. Of course, maybe I just don’t get invited, but I have heard nothing of a Stage Managers’ Lunch or a Prop Makers’ Dinner. I notice the Association of Sound Designers now has New Year Drinks (in a case of history repeating itself, at the National: watch out, soundies, before you know it you’ll be laying on lunch for 150), but that’s about it.

Is the point of talking about this to make the rest of you jealous? No. Rather, it’s to suggest that talking to everyone else who does what you do is a great thing. Surprising, in some ways: in other industries, we’d be considered competitors, fighting for the same jobs. But instead, that the lighting world is happy to talk to each other is part of the reason the design fees logged by the Association of Lighting Designers are generally higher than the Equity minimums (also suggesting those minimums are too low). It’s part of the reason production electricians and programmers enjoy good daily rates on big commercial shows. If you don’t know what the others who do your job are getting, how do you know to ask for at least the same? If you don’t talk to those others, how will you ever find out?

A lovely Christmas lunch isn’t the place to have those conversations. But the spirit of shared experience it creates certainly encourages and supports those kind of discussions – about work, money, life, the challenges and solutions, about all helping each other to be the best that we can be. Whatever area of the production process you count yourself part of, maybe your new year’s resolution should be to start with a lunch of your own – or, better, start a lunch across departments – and see where it leads.