How to become a theatre lighting designer, sound designer or technician
Technical theatre jobs are vital to a successful show. It’s about far more than making sure that the actors are visible and playing in a few sound effects – sound and light are key creative elements that can create the world of the play and draw the audience into it.
What do lighting designers and sound designers do?
Lighting designers and sound designers are part of the creative team. They will work with the director and, in the case of lighting designers, with the set designer, to help bring their vision to life.
Lighting designers and sound designers need to consider both artistic and practical matters. Their work must help create the tone and atmosphere that the director wants, but also convey practical information to the audience. For example, a ‘natural’ lighting state can help indicate the time of day, time of year, weather conditions and geographical climate. Sound effects such as birdsong, rain or the sea can do the same thing. In contrast, flooding the stage with red light or mixing together a track of strange electronic sounds could highlight a particular dramatic moment.
On small-scale productions, lighting designers and sound designers may also need to take on some of the technicians’ responsibilities, outlined below.
What do lighting technicians and sound technicians do?
Lighting technicians and sound technicians are responsible for actually making the lighting and sound happen. They will set up the equipment ready for a show, for example rigging the lights and programming in the lighting cues, and operate the sound and lighting during the show. On large-scale productions these roles may be split up – for example, there may be a lighting programmer who sets up all the lighting cues before the first night and a lighting operator who operates the lights during performances.
Are there permanent jobs for theatre sound and lighting staff?
Lighting designers and sound designers usually work freelance – they don’t have a permanent job but instead are offered work on different shows by different theatres and theatre companies. It’s important to build up contacts and become known in the industry, as work tends to be offered to designers that directors or producers know about and are sure will be good.
There are permanent jobs available for technicians; there are also casual freelance shifts and short-term contracts, which can be useful when you are just starting out.
University degrees in sound, lighting and technical theatre
A typical path to a career as a lighting or sound designer is to take a relevant university degree, then work as a lighting or sound technician for a few years to gain experience and build up contacts. Alternatively, after university you could look for a lighting or sound designer who’s prepared to take you on as an assistant – though keep in mind that they will be working freelance, so might not be able to pay you.
There are some specific degree courses available, such as theatre lighting design and theatre sound. There are also broader technical theatre degrees that typically cover a range of areas such as lighting, sound, stage management and set design, and sometime also set construction, costume making, video design and production management. If you already know you want to work in sound or lighting, check how much flexibility the course offers to specialise in this.
If you want to become a sound or lighting technician, you’ll probably find that employers are more interested in your skills and experience than in whether you have a degree or not. However, a relevant degree could help you to gain these, and to meet people working in the industry.
You don’t usually need specific subjects in your A levels, Highers or equivalent to get onto a degree in theatre lighting, sound or technical theatre. However, you will need to prove that you’ve got a genuine interest in the subject, so it’s a very good idea to get involved in school, youth theatre or amateur drama productions before you apply. For some courses you’ll need to provide a portfolio with relevant examples of your work – for example photos of the set for a show lit by the lighting you’ve designed.
Practical alternatives to A levels or Highers for careers in sound and lighting
If you don’t fancy taking A levels or Highers, there are a few apprenticeships available – for example the creative venue technician apprenticeship, which covers sound and lighting along with other roles, such as stage crew. Or there’s a BTEC diploma in production arts, which gives a broad introduction to backstage roles in performing arts. With both, check carefully what individual employers or colleges offer – for example whether you’ll get to take the sound and lighting modules. If you want to be a lighting designer or sound designer you’ll probably still want to go to university afterwards.
Careers as a theatre technician without relevant qualifications
You don’t always have to go to university to become a sound or lighting technician. A relevant degree, BTEC diploma or apprenticeship will help, but if these don’t appeal or aren’t available in your area, consider doing one or more of the following. You may be able to gain enough knowledge and experience to land your first casual technician role.
- Get a job with a lighting or sound equipment hire company.
- Do as much sound or lighting work as possible for youth or amateur theatre productions.
- Get any backstage experience you can at local theatres or with an agency supplying stage crew to live events – you’ll do lots of lifting and carrying but you might get the opportunity to help with sound or lighting equipment under instruction.
- Take a short course in theatre sound and lighting (for example lasting one day or one week); these are sometimes run by drama schools or amateur theatre networks, such as the National Operatic and Dramatic Association (NODA).