Best lighting design programs
June 2, 2010 10:21 AM   Subscribe

What are the best colleges for lighting design? I am trying to transfer into an undergraduate theater design program. I have a thin portfolio so I also have to be reasonable about what shools I can get into.
posted by let444 to Education (13 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
A friend's husband went to Penn State. His mother took him to a play when he was young, and thereafter his ambition was to be an LD. He worked at the Folger and in television.
posted by jgirl at 10:23 AM on June 2, 2010

Most theatre/drama departments are going to have a single lighting design professor and the program is only as good as that person. You need to know who that person is: professional credentials, skill as a teacher, etc. You should also look at how many actual design slots are given to undergraduates. If there are six productions and the professor and grad students design five, that's not going to give you much practical experience. A school without a graduate program will offer more design opportunities to undergraduates, but might not have the prestige of one that does.
posted by bgrebs at 11:06 AM on June 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

Well, I am old for what I am about to say, but 20 years ago UCSD had a fabulous theater program. I actually took some amazing theater lighting classes there. link
posted by Vaike at 11:17 AM on June 2, 2010

Julie Mack heads up the lighting dept at Illinois State University, and she is a great designer and instructor. ISU has a great all around theater program. I can't go into a theater in Chicago without running into a fellow ISU alum. It's worth checking out, let me know if you would like me to help you get in touch with someone there.
posted by MrBobaFett at 11:34 AM on June 2, 2010

I don't have a specific school suggestion (lots of schools offer theatre degrees - and you can certainly concentrate on the technical end) - but I recommend going somewhere where you can actually work and be a major part of productions, have creative say, really be involved. I would favor the potential for practical experience over prestige, in this case.
posted by Lutoslawski at 11:35 AM on June 2, 2010

FWIW, my friend went to Northwestern in the 90s and currently runs a successful one-man lighting company. He did the lights for Alicia Keys and the touring Star Wars symphonic show, among other things.
posted by Clambone at 11:36 AM on June 2, 2010

What bgrebs said.

Ms. Ricketts keeps up with this sort of thing. She said most undergrad doesn't have that kind of focus in any design area, so you do hope to find a program with a professor who is good. Other than that she suggested:

University of Iowa, New York University, North Carolina School of the Arts, and CalArts. University of Las Vegas has a notable program for Big Show lighting concerts, opera, and Vegasy-type shows.
posted by Wink Ricketts at 12:27 PM on June 2, 2010

The guy who taught me lighting got his MFA from the University of Arizona, but, yeah, what bgrebs said.

Also, most universities have a concert hall or other venue for touring shows to come in, apart from the theatre department's theater -- wherever you go, try and get in with that crew, too; if you can work on lighting for touring shows, you'll really round out your skills, maybe doing a different show every weekend as opposed to one-show-every-four-months in the 'learning theatre'. So, when you tour a campus, make sure there's plenty of places to work on your skills -- if they've just got a black box and a mainstage, you might not have as many opportunities as a larger place might offer.
posted by AzraelBrown at 12:37 PM on June 2, 2010

Something to consider:
I don't know what your theatrical lighting ambitions are, but please consider secondary education. Mr. jane is a speech arts dept. chair at a suburban Chicago High School and has been looking for a tech director who can teach tech theatre and speech for the past 5 years, since his tech director retired, with terrible luck. He would recommend Illinois State University, as did MrBobaFett - both for theatre education and for their tech program, but for some reason, they are discouraging tech people to consider education as a career.
posted by sarajane at 12:43 PM on June 2, 2010

I came back to say that I am also an Illinois State theatre alum (from the Bill Ruyle era). Glad to see we're well-represented here!
posted by bgrebs at 2:25 PM on June 2, 2010

Secondary Education is a good focus also. I considered it, I come from a family with a lot of teachers. Also right after college I applied at several high schools for a TD position.
So again tho I would recommend Illinois State as it was originally a normal (read, taught teachers) university. It still has a strong pedagogy programs. The legendary Sandy Zielinski is still there teaching Theater Ed.

bgrebs, I heard many a story about Bill Ruyle. I did meet him one time I recall. I think he was at a light hang. They still have a top notch faculty. Tho sadly last year Denny Mays finally retired. I'm still not sure how you replace him.
posted by MrBobaFett at 4:00 PM on June 2, 2010

There are so many programs out there for "lighting design." One of the major bummers of that fact is that many of the places offer a degree in a program that they either A) don't focus on at all, or B) try to teach a career in which they have no expertise. Sometimes both of these things happen.

I don't want any of that for you! I want you to get a fantastical lighting design experience with a degree that equals the experiences. That being said, I think there are a few things you should look for in a lighting design program. As long as you look aggressively, I think you'll find a program that will get you industry-relevant education.

The schools that offer a "professional training experience" need to have the following to really be relevant in today's industry, in which I thrive as a designer, and have for some time, fortunately:

A lighting design program needs to teach you how to be a lighting designer, not just how to read plays and make a light plot that you can hang. Lighting design is a very rewarding and potentially lucrative career for the right person, and there is lots of work across the various lighting industries - so make sure that you're learning about being an LD for more than just "plays."

Genres of lighting that you'll want a program to touch on if not develop fully:

  • lighting architecture, both outside and inside
  • lighting for corporate theatre
  • lighting for dance
  • lighting for opera
  • lighting for musical theatre, and how to cue to music

    ...this is definitely NOT a conclusive list, but you get the idea. Lighting design is a rich subject, and it spreads far.

    Other things to consider:

  • Make sure that your program is teaching you how to use a few different types of CAD and lighting design programs. WYSIWYG and Vectorworks are fine examples, but you shouldn't forget about programs like Dialux and Relux, AGI32, and yes, AutoCAD itself is actually still pretty amazing. Technology is king in this environment, and the student who graduates knowing a few of these is the one whose resume hits the "keep" pile.

  • Make sure that your program lets you work lighting gigs. Learning on the job is essential in the lighting industries, and there is no substitute for it. I take students on gigs when I have the opportunities because it is excellent experience. Make sure this is the case in the program you choose.

  • Check a University's accreditation credentials. NAST (National Accreditation for Schools of Theatre) is a fine accreditation, but what it means more is that the school has gone through the process of checking themselves of the BS that comes along with the process of application into those accreditation programs. They're a pretty major pain in the rear, but thorough.

  • Make sure you're learning about current lighting console programming. I cannot stress this enough - if you wanna work when you get out of school, know how to drive a large-format console like a Hog III, grandMA, ChamSys desk, or something specific like Vari*Lite's Virtuoso and PRG's V-676. This makes you marketable. It also means your lighting professor is paying attention to the industry. Also, find some moving light experiences in the programs - moving lights are cool as all get-out, but they are tools before they are toys. The educational experiences with moving lights helps you get over the WOW factor so you can think of them as things to get work done.

  • Make sure that you're gonna learn how to interact and design with video in today's industry. Learning a media server, programming video and moving video heads are all excellent skills to have as a well-rounded lighting designer.

    No matter what school you go to, you have to put as much of yourself into your school as you want to get out. What I mean is that if you invest all of yourself into school, you'll get a whole new life of information as the reward. If you loaf it like so many of today's students seem to do with a big ol' attitude full of entitlement, you're getting zilch out of your program. That's just a general comment though. Keep it in mind during the busy periods.

    If there's anything I can do to help, don't even hesitate to ask.

  • posted by Jim On Light at 4:08 PM on June 2, 2010 [3 favorites]

    I went to school at the University of Idaho. I designed about 20 shows in my 6 years of undergrad. Dean
    Pantaja is the lighting professor and chair of the department and one of the best teachers I've ever met. It's on the cheaper end of the spectrum which is nice. There was no real focus on arcitecture or concerts which kinda sucks. While I was there designers and actors went to Washigton DC for ACTF every year and one full production in 2006. Moscow is a small town but it's one of my favorite places. MeMail me if you have any questions.
    posted by Uncle at 7:40 PM on June 2, 2010

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