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ALD chair Johanna Town: We need to support lighting programmers or we’ll have no shows

Photo: Valerii Ivashchenko/Shutterstock Photo: Valerii Ivashchenko/Shutterstock
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As technology develops, lighting programmers are a ever more vital part of a production’s creative team. Johanna Town, chair of the Association of Lighting Designers, says the growing workloads are pushing programmers to work long hours in poor conditions and putting their health at risk

Theatre production freelances are increasingly having to work excessively long hours, with a particular group of professionals being pushed to breaking point – lighting programmers. As chair of the Association of Lighting Designers, I’m concerned.

The role of the console programmer should not be underestimated. It is a difficult job, sometimes under immense pressure. With lighting plots in the theatre growing in complexity, over the last eight to 10 years, the role of the lighting programmer has evolved considerably. As shows have grown in size and ambition, lighting consoles are required to control a wider range of equipment data and the programmer is expected to be ever more technically adept.

But improvements in conditions have not matched the rise in expectation and ambition. Stuart Porter, programmer for high-profile West End shows, points out: “Budgets have increased by only a small amount. Schedules to deliver the high quality of work that audiences expect have not been adjusted at all.”

Few of the responsibilities of the role beyond the console have been removed, which adds to the workload. Programmers – rather than in-house technical teams – are still largely responsible for the upkeep of the lighting rig, performing rig checks and morning maintenance calls before programming starts.

‘This week I worked 96 hours in the theatre, which far exceeds the EU’s 48-hour limit’ PWLX’s Paul Walmsley

In some productions, the role of programmer is being squeezed to compensate costly or badly managed production periods. PWLX’s Paul Walmsley says: “This week I worked 96 hours in the theatre, which far exceeds the EU’s maximum 48-hour-per-week limit.” For perspective, that’s the equivalent of 12 standard, eight-hour working days in one week.

Compounding the hours are the conditions lighting programmers are working in. Alongside lighting designers, programmers spend a considerable amount of their working life in the highly stressful process of ‘tech’ whereby the show’s lighting and production is put together from scratch.

They are expected to get results in show lighting plots quickly and accurately, yet those plots are now more complicated than ever. Programming is a highly specialist role but as the ‘bridge’ between the technical and design departments, programmers get caught between the two. Already squeezed break times are seen as a chance to fit in more work.

While programmers work at a screen – just as other computer operators do – they do not benefit from the same standards of health and safety ensured by office-based companies. “The nature of my job means each week you will find me precariously perched either on an off-cut of the previous show’s floor, or on the arm of a theatre chair, or standing,” says programmer Victoria Brennan. “Having proper, direct access to my desk and a decent chair to sit on helps to prevent additional physical impacts to an already less-than-textbook working environment.”

Backstage theatre workers ‘pushed to breaking point due to lack of work-life balance’

The expectation to work under intense pressure for periods of 15 to 18 hours per day, six out of seven days per week, with lunch and coffee breaks squeezed to put extra work in on the console, is standard. Yet the stress of excessive working hours due to tight production scheduling, combined with thoughtless working conditions, means life and a career as a lighting programmer is not sustainable for some. The physical demands of working at that level are simply not being respected. The intensity of the work is causing burnout and serious mental health issues. Programmers are finding themselves physically unable to function after weeks of tech.

Walmsley tells us about a show that booked him to programme for a week. “At 4pm on the first day we were simply told lighting would be working until midnight, totalling a 16-hour call. This happened again the next day. At no point was I asked if this was okay with me. I’d happily forego the additional money in exchange for reasonable working hours.” Others have called the long days exhausting, saying how hard it is not to be overwhelmed.

This has a big impact on programmers, who end up working more in their own time to be quicker around the desk. It’s clear talking to my peers and colleagues that a real solution does not yet exist. If programmers refused to do the hours, what would happen? Most assume they wouldn’t get the job. “We are expendable freelances and there is always somebody willing to undercut the fee or work themselves into an early grave,” Walmsley says.

Suggestions to improve working conditions for programmers have included taking an hour’s lunch break each day and leaving the theatre for some fresh air and space. The advice is to wind down properly after work and try to include breaks between shows, but not everyone is convinced, saying there isn’t time during the day to do the work and stay healthy.

The heartfelt pleas I see on social media demonstrate that this problem is bigger than individuals. It’s time to discuss with producers and theatres how we can fundamentally restructure production periods.

Programmers all say that when production companies get it right and the work of the lighting team is properly planned into the schedule, the work is less stressful and working hours are manageable. Production companies need to improve their practices and a new agenda needs to be set across the board. More time needs to be factored in for technical issues to be dealt with – to ensure that everyone feels on top of their workload – and adequate breaks for downtime and essential sleep need to be incorporated.

Recently, Lucy Carter wrote in ALD’s Focus magazine: “We are not being difficult, but we do have expert knowledge in our discipline and therefore we could help the producers with the feasibility of the budgeting and process. We, lighting designers and our agents, also have experience of how other producers in the industry do things, about good working practices. We would be happy to discuss these issues openly. Why aren’t we being asked, and why are we treated like the enemy?”

This is a deeply ingrained issue and won’t be changed overnight but the conversations need to start now. We need to work in a more holistically beneficial environment to ensure the people, as well as the shows, go on.

Johanna Town is a freelance lighting designer and chair of the Association of Lighting Designers. Go to johannatown.co.uk for more information

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