Lighting Engineering for Live Performance

Lighting Course Leader Nick Moran explains the definition of Lighting Engineering for Live Performance: key responsibilities of Lighting Engineers and Electricians, types of technology used, skills needed and career opportunities.

Image of stage lighting and theatre production lighting design courses at The Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, London. Pictured: Light Rigging Workshop in The Embassy

By Nick Moran, Course Leader for Theatre Lighting Design and Production Lighting at Central

What is Lighting Engineering for Live Performance?

In performance lighting, the equipment is increasingly sophisticated. A lot of it has sensors and motors and LEDs inside it and is connected by digital networks. Getting all that stuff working, and keeping it working requires a kind of engineering approach.

Power distribution is also important. Electricity as we know can be very dangerous in the wrong hands, so you need practical skills in order to distribute electricity through the lighting rig, safely in a manageable way.

Another thing to say about this is that it’s quite hard for some people to grasp the fact that a big concert for instance, might move into a space like the O2 Centre at 6am on Monday morning, and move out again at 3am the following day, having done a show. So ensuring that that big lighting system can come off half a dozen trucks, roll into a space, go up, work, come down and go back into the trucks, safely and reliably, and produce a spectacular show in the middle of it - that all requires a significant engineering ability.

Production Lighting Engineer / electrician: key responsibilities

Responsibilities of these roles vary as there are different kinds. Larger shows demand a bit of specialisation. You might be a digital network specialist, which would mean that you would need to know how to set up and ensure the reliability of an Ethernet network, Wi-Fi, and various other things. You might be a mains specialist, a power specialist, a moving light technician responsible for preparing the moving lights, making sure they all do the thing they’re supposed to.

You might also be a lighting or video programmer. Programming is where you work for a lighting or video designer and you are putting data into a sophisticated computer to ensure that what the Lighting Designer or Video Designer wants to happen, happens reliably every night.

On smaller shows, you might need to be all of these things and more!

How do you get into being a lighting engineer?

You have to like hard work, and be thrilled by the fact you’re going to work hard to be part of making something spectacular, or beautiful, or moving… something that will move an audience.

Routes into work depend on what exactly you want to go into, but you need some management skills as well. You need to be able to motivate people and get them to do what you want to do. Perhaps they fully understand, they may be more experienced than you; but perhaps they don’t really understand what they’re trying to do or why they’re trying to do it, but you have to get them to follow your lead or do the things that you need to happen in order to get the lighting system to work.

How do you know if you want to be a lighting engineer?!

I think you just do it. About two thirds of the people I’ve interviewed for places on the course, they’ve just found themselves doing it and thought, "I actually really like this!".

It’s an odd sort of thing, like still wanting to play with an analogue pinball machine rather than a game on your phone or an Xbox. Why would you want to do that? Because there’s something about touching it and it being real, and moving it around – being able to bash it when you’re frustrated! – that is part of those skills.

The other way that people get into it is being really moved by something that happens on stage – it might be a play, a concert, an opera, a ballet – and looking up and thinking ‘ok, how did that lighting do that?!’ and maybe ‘I understand a bit about cables, physics, mechanics…I wonder if I could apply that to making lighting systems rather than anything else?’. And then, an opportunity opens up and people go for it.

It used to be that people who lived near the little lighting companies that were setting up in the 1970s would be more or less grabbed off the street to polish lanterns and coil cable, and then some of them would suddenly go, ‘I want to go out and do it now!’. It’s not like that anymore, because it’s not just power cables, and lanterns you have to polish. The industry expects, because of the sophistication of the equipment, that the people it employs have skills to be able to maintain those systems. And most of the industry is prepared to pay for those skills as well.

What are the career opportunities like for lighting engineers?

For every lighting system that is above, around, or behind a performance on stage, you can probably say that there are between 3 and 20 lighting engineers (in broad terms) responsible for that. Some of them may tour with the show if the show is moving from place to place; some of them may be based in the  venue where that show is sitting down. Some of them may just be involved in the initial preparation and making of that show ready for other people to tour it. There’s a huge amount of skill in making that package tour-able and programming it to be repeatable.

Some people may work for the hire companies – and hire companies these days are quite large companies – preparing the equipment, providing expert advice andmanaging the clients. The touring life is not for everybody and it’s not necessarily for the long game. There are opportunities for people to come off the road and work either in venues, hire companies, or installation companies, doing what they’ve done on the road, but sleeping in their own beds every night!

Find out more

If you like the sound of lighting engineering or programming, find out how we can help you train for a career on our Production Lighting, BA course.

Profile photo of Nick Moran, BSc, FHEA, MA, undergraduate Lighting course leader at Central

Nick Moran is Course Leader for Theatre Lighting Design and Production Lighting at Central.