Designer Education

One of the things I enjoy about working in live entertainment is how useful it is to have other skills and interests.  I work a lot in music, musical theater and movement (dance and aerial) and at least two of the reasons are I was a musician from age four and was a TERRIBLE dancer from late teens.  (Side note- I don’t think being terrible helped me, it’s just what I was. I’m now even worse thanks to not having taken a class in 25 years.)  What do these interests bring to my work life? Communication and timing.

In my experience, people are willing to accept not understanding how lights and designers work, but they really enjoy feeling they are understood by their lighting designer.  I think the easiest way to illustrate these points is with music.  If you are lighting a ballet or an opera, musical terms are the primary way to communicate when and where everything will happen.  Beats, measures, stanzas, etc are the subdivisions of each song or section.  Knowing these terms and what they mean allow you to be able to communicate to your stage manager (for instance) where you want the cues to be called, or to request a certain place to start from (if the maestro agrees) to check the timing of a cue during tech.  Fairly obvious, I imagine.  Less obvious is having a deeper understanding of timing and the delay between when something is called, the button is pressed and the action completes.  If you want a cue to land on the downbeat (first note of a measure), the stage manager might need to call the cue on the “and” of four (second half of the fourth beat of the previous measure) to account for the slight delay between saying “go” and the operator pressing the button.  Last example- if you know that the tempo of a section is 120 BPM, and you want a cue to start on the downbeat but end two measures later right before the vocal, you would want to make the cue four seconds long, since a measure of 4/4 will take two seconds each.  Is this knowledge mandatory? Not really.  But is it useful and does it allow you to work faster and with more precision? Absolutely. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that most of the lighting designers I know played in bands in their younger years, and many still do for fun.

Now for movement and dance.  With all respect firmly at the front of my mind, choreographers sometimes are not as eloquent with words as they are with visuals.  Having a basic understanding of dance language (most obviously the French terms of ballet, but less obviously liberal use of the word “thingy” and random noises with little finger gestures) helps the choreographer feel understood and helps you light their shows better and faster.

Knowing movement terms like “fouetté turns” and “tour jetè” make it far easier for you to notate the choreography for your lighting. But even more than terms, getting used to watching how a dancer preps for a big move gives you warning when something (perhaps a cue trigger) is about to happen.  

Where to start? Maybe a class or two at your local community college.  Fundamentals of music is a great place to start for music in order to be able to start reading music.  Maybe take a piano class or a drum class.  For movement, try a basic ballet class, or if you find that super weird (don’t knock it till you try it) maybe do a dance appreciation class instead.  See some performances to get used to watching and listening in an active manner, and with time and experience, both of these languages will become natural to you. And hopefully lead to more and better work!

I’ll be taking two weeks off for the holidays, so I hope you have a great two weeks and I’ll have more content in the new year. Thanks for reading!

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