Article and Graphic by Natalia Janusz
As each of us navigates our careers, we tend to pick up wisdom from older people who have been in the business for decades. Different lighting designers, technicians, programmers, and crew chiefs have been the older voice in my life as I work my way through the lighting industry.
We find personal mentors, and we’re lifted by other people in the industry by chance and by being in the right place at the right time. These temporary teachers have a lot to say. It’s good practice to lend an ear and hear them out. The advice I have picked up through different professionals is a constant presence in the back of my mind as I strive in my career.
The truth is people like to talk about their experiences. Work with anyone and they are bound to tell you what they learned or offer advice—whether you asked for it or not. There is the classic old stagehand telling you what you should do with your life and what you should base your decisions on, and then there are the couple younger professionals who will describe their success stories. I find that advice from older people is more of a big-picture type deal, while people closer in our age range can offer more specific pointers.
Like these people, I want to talk about my experience—of picking out the bits of golden tips I’ve come across from these pros. Specifically this past year I have met some gritty technicians in the lighting industry who have told me a few things I still think about today. I have worked amongst festivals, such as Electric Forest Music Festival, where a lot of technicians come together from near and far. In addition to that, I’m currently working at my internship in Las Vegas where a lot of long-term industry dwellers go to retire for a routine and stable job.
Every day I mull over choices I have made in my career, and I notice I tend to pull back on what all the technicians and designers have given me regarding advice. I always ask my friends in the lighting industry how they are handling themselves and what they wish they had and hadn’t done. I eat up people’s stories about their own careers. Their advice. Their tips. Their hopes.
Find out what you want to do.
Something that we’ve all struggled with, and something I’ve been told on the daily. But this guy put a different spin on it for me. I brushed past this guy–let’s name him Alex–as I was meeting up with another tech-friend at Electric Forest Music Festival, where I manage an art installation with two others. The next morning at staff-catering he recognized me and sat down next to my team and immediately struck up a conversation. We ended up spending the rest of the morning together at our campsites, where he noticed my two friends and I were novices in the lighting industry. Alex had a lot of ties with the people we knew–because our industry is an incredibly small world!–and dove into stories about each of their career paths. Passion bled into his voice as he spoke of finding your niche in the industry, hammering a concept that not many other people discuss within the market.
We go through our education, or work, or hobbies with a mentality of there being a guided path.
You want to be a lighting designer? Well, you must have a good basis as a technician, then you need to know how to program, and you’ll probably want to go on tour at some point. You’ll want to strive to design in the biggest venues with the biggest show names. You’ll want to reach these certain milestones that most of the famous designers seem to tick off just so you can be satisfied with your own path.
There is no guided path. There is no same route to take as a designer—or as a technician, or scenic designer, carpenter, audio engineer, etc. Just because the big and reputable names are doing certain things does not mean you should.
There are so many facets to the careers we want to partake in that we do not know about. You can light art museum exhibits, rock climbing competitions, architecture, and landscapes! You can set up lighting rigs for all these different nooks of entertainment, program the looks, create the designs!
There is the concept of trying out a little bit of everything to see where your interests lie, but once you find out where you are most comfortable in your career it is perfectly okay to stay within that realm. Love being a spotlight operator? Great. Enjoy being a crew-chief on tour rather than the guy pressing buttons at FOH? Amazing. Just want to draft for designers or help shuffle paperwork for them? No shame in that. You’ll be much happier than stressing yourself out on a gig where you took a job that looks extrinsically “advancing” yet intrinsically damaging. Don’t go on a world tour if traveling gives you immense anxiety. Don’t be a master electrician or crew-chief if you hate managing people and building up a team. Find your strengths and desires, and find work that supports those aims.
People hire people who they want to work with.
You have all these achievements and trainings on your resume, great. But how is your attitude? What’s it like working with you on the job? A career in the design/tech field is also a huge game in how socially likable you are. No one will want to work with a snooty guy who thinks he knows better than everyone around him just because he worked a certain show. Anyone can be trained to do your job. Everyone can learn a skill. It may take longer for some than others but anyone can do the job if needed. If one person in the world can accomplish a task then anyone else can too, we’re all human in the end. The wonderful world of learning applies to everyone; therefore, your attitude is what makes you stick out.
People who conduct interviews are looking for people they want to hang out with on the job or people who would be fun for the entire team. Experience is not ignored, of course, but if you are up against someone with the same amount of it, it will come down to personality.
Be fun to work with, roll with the punches and learn how to vibe with any kind of person. Be empathic with everyone and that will ensure a good relationship with everyone. Don’t walk into a venue acting as though you own the place or think you are above anyone. Don’t have a piss-poor attitude in a group setting because no one will want to be around you. If you are in a new area of work, hang low and test what kind of crowd you are working amongst. At my internship, it took me a week to warm up to the crew and then two weeks total to adopt their habitual ways as a family. These ways included going to our workshop to watch movies during dinner, to have input on the headset chatter during shows, and to rush the between-show lamp check so we can all get to our coffee break quicker. It is these little cultural things that are important to pick up and play along with.
There is so much to the world of work we all want to take part in. It’s important to listen to the people who have been in the business for a long time—there is a reason they are where they are. Don’t eat up their advice entirely—some people give bitter tips or advice that doesn’t fit amongst our generation’s career strivings—and always consider what they share. Every new venue, crew, or team member I tend to learn a new bit of information or pick up a good habit. Gather all the experience and stories these people have to say because soon enough we’ll all be years into our careers with a plethora of our own to tell the younger generation. And I bet we’ll be sharing some of the same tips and tricks our older mentors have told us.