If you want to see what’s happening on stage then the lighting technician is pretty important. They set up the lights and programme and operate light boards to control the overhead and stage lighting for concerts and theatre, as well as in film and TV productions.
But there’s more to it than that. Lighting is an essential part of the production, helping to set the atmosphere and evoke a response in the audience. Lighting techs have to interpret and bring to life the plans and blueprints of the lighting designer.
This can mean using a variety of visual effects such as video screens, background projections, LEDs, strobe or spot lighting, lasers and pyrotechnics.
The lighting crew also keeps the gear in order, making necessary repairs and ordering new equipment when needed.
The job requires a high level of technical and engineering expertise, as well as physical fitness. Lighting techs also need a good head for heights – some of those lights can be four storeys up, and it’s the techs who need to get to them.
Talking about how to become a lighting technician, Edward Armitage, head of lighting operations at the Royal Opera House (ROH), says: “There are several paths into becoming a lighting technician and many roles and specialisms within the lighting industry.
“One of the most common ways to begin to experience the industry is to volunteer on local amateur dramatic productions or work on school plays. The National Youth Theatre is another excellent way to gain experience from a young age.
“Many technicians begin their career by joining apprenticeship schemes at local or regional theatres, or by completing specialist degree or foundation courses in lighting design or technology. Studying useful GCSEs and A-levels such as physics, design, technology and drama, or theatre studies can also be hugely helpful, and a massive advantage when applying for technician roles.”
Specific tasks vary depending on where the job is based: in an opera house, with a touring company or on location at a festival. The work is incredibly varied, but a typical day might begin with laying cables, hanging and focusing lights, and doing any basic repairs and maintenance.
Armitage says: “At the ROH we work in rep (repertoire) and as such, every day is different. One day we could be rehearsing La bohème in the morning and then performing La traviata in the evening, followed the next day by a matinee and evening performance of Swan Lake.”
The lightboards and consoles need to be programmed. Lighting effects such as colour changes, patterns and images have to be installed. This could include cutting colour gels to size and fitting them to lights, as well as programming automated systems to ensure the changes happen as they’re supposed to according to the designer’s plan.
“At the Royal Opera House there are several subdivisions of lighting technician which perform specific tasks. In our largest team, production lighting, a technician’s typical day starts at 7.30am on an empty stage. The team performs a rig check of our permanent rig and rigs any additional lighting bars that a specific show requires,” Armitage continues.
“Once the set is in position, the team sets out the extra kit and begins colouring and focusing the generic (non-automated) lights ready for the rehearsal.”
During a show, the lighting technician will operate manual and computer-controlled lighting systems and consoles, taking direction from the stage manager. They will also troubleshoot any issues that arise.
Armitage again: “During rehearsals and performances, there may be cues we have to operate, including paging cables (ensuring the cables attached to set don’t get caught going on or coming offstage) operating smoke, dry ice effects and sometimes fire pyrotechnics.”
Martin Doone is head of lighting at English National Opera, a position he was promoted to in September 2021, having previously worked as lighting supervisor. He comments: “Is there such a thing as a typical day? When the opera season is in full swing we will come in at 9am to turn on the lighting rig, check everything is working and set up for a morning rehearsal.
“The rehearsal would finish at 1.30pm and we would then strike that show from the stage and build the set and refocus the lighting for a 7.30pm curtain up for the evening show, sometimes after the show we would then work overnight to reset the stage for another rehearsal the following morning.”
Armitage explains further: “Once rehearsals finish, usually around 2pm, the morning team strikes (clears) the set and extra kit, making sure that the stage is ready for the next team. Team members from the morning rehearsal may stay on to prepare for future productions, make changes or work on repairs. At around 11.30pm, the stage is empty once again, and ready for teams to begin the process all over again the following day.
“Other specialist teams – such as lighting control and visualisation – program the lighting cues on the lighting console during rehearsal, operate the console for the performances and manage our virtual lighting world. The follow-spot team looks after all lights ‘front of house’ and follow-spot performers during the rehearsals and performances.
“Finally, there is a team of lighting systems technicians who ensure the smooth running and maintenance of the lighting infrastructure and the testing and repairing of equipment. They also plan and install any electrical lighting effects into sets and props, for example wall lights, fake candles, exploding spoons and anything else the designers can imagine.”
Touring companies might have their own lighting gear or exclusively use house equipment, or a combination of the two. The lighting technician would have to familiarise themselves with the in-house kit, as well as help load and unload equipment, pack it away at the end of the production and transport it.
Reflecting on how he got into the profession, Doone says: “I became interested in lighting after my school bought some new lights. The drama teacher asked a few of us to help put the plugs on them and in return he taught us how stage lighting works. I guess I got hooked as I am here 36 years later!”
When asked about the best thing about the job, Armitage replies: “The best thing about being a lighting technician is being part of the creative process and helping designers and directors deliver their artistry by using our technical expertise to find solutions to challenging situations.
“We all love to problem solve and, with the high stakes time pressures we work under, this can be exhilarating at times. You also have the added benefit of working alongside and watching world class performers every day.”
Doone sums up his favourite part succinctly: “That has to be the variety – no two days are the same!”
This lowered lighting rig shows moving heads (bottom) connected to a plug-in box; the lighting technician can programme this to allow the lights to follow the action during a performance (Lumenbuddha, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons).