Real Work, Real Life

Theatrical Lighting Designer

October 25, 2023 Emily Sampson Episode 35
Real Work, Real Life
Theatrical Lighting Designer
Show Notes Transcript

On this week's episode of Real Work, Real Life, I’m talking with Ethan, a theatrical lighting designer, primarily for local theaters. This role is a really interesting combination of creative expression and technological skill. This could be a great job for someone that lives and breathes theater, but doesn’t necessarily want to be on the stage. It could also be a great path for someone that wants to live a bit of a nomadic lifestyle traveling as needed to support different productions. Ethan and I talk a bit about pay, but I did some research on my own, and the national average salary is about $40-$60K a year. Some people who work in this field are unionized, which can certainly have its challenges and limitations, but also provides workers support and protections, and can secure access to benefits, which you’re unlikely to find outside of a union. I probably shouldn’t have been surprised to learn this but I was: working on lights high off the ground is a prerequisite for the job, so if you’re truly afraid of heights, this one isn’t for you. 

You can find more about Ethan here:

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If you like the show, please rate and review on iTunes and Spotify  (linked below) and please share with a friend! You can also follow the podcast on Instagram, LinkedIn, Facebook, or Tiktok. And if you’d like to be interviewed here, or there is a particular job you’d like to learn about, please reach out at


Transcripts are now available here:

Ethan Lighting Designer Theater

[00:00:00] Welcome to real work, real life, where I talk to real people about what they do for work and what that means for their lives. Today. I'm talking with Ethan. A theatrical lighting designer, primarily for local theaters. This role is a really interesting combination of creative expression and technological skill. This could be a great job for someone that lives and breathes theater, but doesn't necessarily want to be on stage. It could also be a great path for someone that wants to live a bit of a nomadic lifestyle, traveling as needed to support different productions. Ethan. And I talk a bit about pay, but I did some research on my own. And the national average salary is between 40,000 and $60,000 a year. Some people who work in this field are unionized, which can certainly have its challenges and limitations, but also provides workers, support and protections and can secure access to benefits, which you're unlikely to find outside of a union. I probably shouldn't have been suppressed to learn this, but I was working on lights high off the ground is a prerequisite for this job. So if you're [00:01:00] truly afraid of Heights, this one isn't for you. So let's get into it.

Emily: Thank you so much for being here, Ethan.

Ethan: Thank you for having me.

Emily: So what do you do for work?

Ethan: I am a lighting designer for local theaters and different concerts. 

Emily: That's great. So can you share with me a little bit more about like, what does a lighting designer do 

Ethan: a lighting designer really what they do is they create the environment around the actor or the band. So really everything that is Light, and everything that you see basically is the job of the lighting designer. even fog is the job most of the time of the lighting designer.

Emily: Great. So what interested you about it initially? How did you get into this?

Ethan: I missed an addition for a musical in eighth grade. And the director who's directing it was like, Hey, would you be [00:02:00] interested in doing sound, which is not lighting. And I was like, Sure, I had no idea what I was doing.

Emily: Yeah.

Ethan: So I started doing it. And immediately I just fell in love with it. I fell in love with tech.

I started to do tech at the next year at the high school, and they started to give me opportunities to do lighting at other places, even though I wasn't a lighting designer, I was close enough to lighting that People could hire me for lighting. So I realized, Hey, I can make a lot of money doing this, but also I fell in love with the creativity of it and.

Playing with colors and making dramatic moments and making people feel things that they didn't know they could feel.

Emily: Absolutely. Yeah. I mean, I think anyone who's ever been to a show, you can tell how much the sound and the lighting really contributes to [00:03:00] the experience. So that's really interesting. So Is there any sort of education or certification required to do that work, or do a lot of people that you find working in the field sort of have a background like yours where you sort of fall into it?

Ethan: A lot of people fall into it. A lot of people, they fall into it because of their church, because of most people's church. Um, So. Yeah, it's really strange. Like most people. I am like one of the odd few out. Yeah,

Emily: That is surprising.

Ethan: Yeah. You go on to a lot of these lighting groups and there's 50 year old people that are still designing for their church since they've been like 12. And

Emily: Wow.

Ethan: then I meet people who are 15 and they're designing for mega churches and running for crazy events.

Emily: could you go to college for this or go to different, you know, certifications or training? 

Ethan: Yes, kind of. Most of the time at colleges. It's not [00:04:00] a degree. You get more of a technical theater degree with a focus in lighting.

but you go to a lot of these jobs. If you just have a four year degree and you did the show that your school versus someone who works at five different theaters and does a bunch of variety.

And you don't have a degree or an education, they're going to pick you because in this career, it is more valuable for you to have real hands on experience, since it's such a hands on job that. You just can't replicate the problems you're going to face. You can't replicate the people you're going to meet

the environment they're gonna be working in.

In these educational environments.

Now it is. Good for you to have, some college background, and at least graduate high school, even though that most of the lane designers that you see today are probably high school dropouts college dropouts. I've met quite a few that have [00:05:00] been to prison multiple times. 

Emily: Well, it's got to be pretty merit based, right? If you're good at it, you can see it in a show and people share that you're good at it and then that, opens you up for future opportunities. That's fascinating. So. Yeah. What kind of personality do you think does well in this job?

Ethan: think being passionate about it. I live, breathe lighting

and You have to be some type of crazy for it in order for you to do it because you're working for two weeks on a show, and you don't sleep. I mean, this is what you do. I've worked like over 70 hours on a show 

in what, and it was tough and to be honest, I did not get paid for it. You have to be passionate about it. You have to know that at the end of the day, you are going to be paid, maybe not money, but you're going to get paid and experience in the problems that you [00:06:00] face. And eventually someone's going to see your talent, and you're going to get, you're going to get your compensation.

Emily: Yeah. Oh, that's such a, good way of looking at it, although it's awful to work and not be compensated

for it, but 

Ethan: Took me a long time to figure that out.

Emily: yeah. So that's a good segue into, you know, what do you make? And I mean, are there benefits available in this kind of work? Like might you, at some point work for a large.

theater company where benefits would be provided? Or is this really more of a contract job and for your whole life you would be sort of a contractor?

Ethan: Honestly depends on who you work for. 

From what I've seen, a lot of lighting designers are independent contractors and they just. Of prices that are, you know, you make what you need to make to live. So, they are not really a lot of benefits besides seeing a free show every night.

Emily: It's a benefit.

Ethan: I mean, [00:07:00] if you work for a big professional company, then maybe they might provide you with dental. Vision is a big one for lighting designers.

Emily: ture. Right. Yeah, so would you say most lighting designers charge by the job or is it more of an hourly position?

Ethan: And some lighting designers charged by job depends on the scale of the job.

Some of them. Do by hour. I'm kind of both. Because I do some things that are just like traditional shows and then some things that are almost like exhibits.

, like I'm like right now I'm doing a Halloween light show,

Emily: Oh, cool.

Ethan: but it's in New Jersey, and I'm in Florida.

So sending my design to them. So it's just kind of like I kind of put out a flat price for it 

Emily: yeah. So to give people kind of a sense of what they might be able to expect, do you have any sort of hourly range of what you think people [00:08:00] might charge or what you charge or sort of a flat price of what someone might expect if they were, you know, working on this Mm hmm.

Ethan: yeah, so for me, I'm mostly working in small local theaters. 


my range is basically from 400 to. depending on how big the job is so sometimes if I'm only designing the show so like I just design, send it, and then that's it,

which I do do a lot. I'll charge for 500 for that, and then if I have to set up and stuff like that.

I go up to more 1200 to 1600, depending on the show a lot of theaters have their own set price. 



you just have to kind of look at like, Hey, is this a good opportunity, or am I going to lose money on this.

So it's a lot of like business managing and reading contracts.

Emily: [00:09:00] Do you have any sense of like what a Broadway show lighting designer, what they might make, or is it really just sort of super variable? Depending on the person and the situation.

Ethan: It depends on a lot of things, 

Obviously there's some Broadway shows that aren't as light heavy 

they might not need as. big of a budget for lighting. 

Now, in today's world, that's far and few between

because a lot of what we see is, you know, Moulin Rouge and Hamilton and all of these Very big theatrical things like Beetlejuice,

Emily: Mm 

Ethan: most of the time in their contract.

they have so many people behind them, and so many people below them that they get the design fee, and then they're there to make sure that they execute. So,

Emily: hmm.

Ethan: a lot of times you can get paid, [00:10:00] maybe 1200 to 2000 a week.

Emily: Okay.

Ethan: And that might be for two weeks,

that might be for four weeks. So what I see a lot of, especially Broadway designers do if you ever watch like the Tonys, you see their name multiple times 


they're designing for one show and while that show, while they're finishing that show, they might be doing it, there might be already on another show 

just because.

You need to make money. And... It's for two to three weeks that you're working on one show and then you just move over. Especially on Broadway, it's different in regional or local theaters because there's a little bit more, they expect a little bit more out of you.

Emily: Yeah.

Ethan: They expect you to be there a lot more, help out a lot more.

You don't have a team anymore, 


you really have to be involved. These Broadway designers. They don't even touch the lighting [00:11:00] board anymore. They have a person that programs it usually it's someone like me, who's way younger, and their fingers can go fast.

Emily: They just set the 

Ethan: So 

Emily: Someone else does

Ethan: they just live the vibe. Yeah, yeah. So they, what's really interesting about it is They, and I do this too, they know where every single light is, what number it is, what exactly that they want of how to make that the vision,

how to make it come to life, basically.

So, that's the goal. But ironically, Broadway is not necessarily my goal

because, Once you get into Broadway, it's kind of hard to get out of it. You don't see a lot of designers getting out of Broadway. Just because they become union. And then if you do a non union. Show you're out of the club.

Emily: Right.

Ethan: So that's kind of a hard thing. Because, for example, during COVID [00:12:00] these lighting designers had nowhere to run nowhere to hide


kind of 

Stranded. I saw a lot of, Lighting designers just run to YouTube. 

Emily: So if not, you know, Broadway was just kind of what my imagination of, future goal might be, do you have sort of a, like, this is where I would like to spend the majority of my career, or this is kind of a, what I hope to be doing more of in the future.

Ethan: I have fallen in love with just small intimate theater,

in weird places. Um,

Emily: Hmm. So will would you travel with shows? Would you need to go to those small make that happen? Sort of be a little bit of a nomad?

Ethan: yeah. I feel like if you don't live a nomadic lifestyle as a lighting designer,

Emily: It's going to be tough. It's going

Ethan: it's going to be really tough. But right now I live in a great city in Florida, and it's so rich in arts, and it's so rich in, theaters, [00:13:00] there's so many theaters that are just small, and just what I like to do. So a lot of them now know me and I'm working for a lot of them.

Now, when I first started, no one knew my name, and then I won an award, 

Emily: Great.

Ethan: people started to like, hey, he kind of good. 

Emily: That's wonderful. So when you're working, I mean, you said the hours are pretty long, but when you're working, what are sort of the hours like and what is the schedule like? And do you have much flexibility in that time? Or is it really like, These are the two weeks in which we're working. You are here working all of that time until it's over.

Ethan: A lot of times it's long hours. Okay.

A lot of times, it's not only you, it is 50, 100, 150 people

that are 8 weeks into this,

Emily: Right.

Ethan: are 12 weeks a year into this.

So for, a lighting [00:14:00] designer to say, Oh, I can't do it that day. Is kind of like,

Emily: You can't do it. Not really.

Ethan: no, 

but you know, it's not just like, Hey, can you do this tomorrow? 

I get booked four months in advance.

Emily: Okay. Yeah. So you can plan.

Ethan: So I plan, I can meticulously plan and really coordinate my schedule in order for me to do these jobs. I have two shows that are in the same weekend. So they're like overlapping you have to make sure that the schedules don't collide and make sure that directors and people know, communication is a big thing in this industry.

And. A lot of times I struggle with that a lot of time, and it's something that like, if you don't communicate, you're going to be left behind because this show is going on in two weeks, and [00:15:00] we can't communicate. Thank you. do this up without you,

but if you're not communicating to us, then we're, we're going to be struggling. One of the big things that I talk about to other people is the only thing as a lighting designer that you have is reputation.

the only thing that you can cling on to.

It is your name next to lighting designer.

The only time that someone says anything about lighting is when it's bad.

Emily: Mm hmm. Oh no!

Ethan: So, so I kind of like pride myself into. Making sure that my reputation is good, making sure that whoever I work with, I am on good terms. I am doing a little bit more than what I'm paid to do, just because that's one. That's who I am. And two, I think lightning designers. Sound engineers, people in tech get a [00:16:00] pretty bad rap,

but it's, due to both ends.

But tech 

Emily: hmm. 

Ethan: don't want to be talking. I'm not like that, obviously. So like, I'm like, come talk to me, just like, say hi I sometimes feel like I'm like a celebrity when I walk in, you know, people are like, that's the latest thing, that's the latest thing, that's the latest thing,



um, so yeah, It's long, it's tedious, it's, but when you see that show come together, and you get that one, that one light, and it's just, and that actor belts their heart out that night, and everything comes together perfectly, that's price of admission right there.

Emily: of 

Ethan: You it's really something like you can't explain.

Emily: [00:17:00] wow, that sounds really great. So I know it doesn't sound like you would have much of an average day when you're working, but can you describe what one day might be like 

Ethan: yeah.

Well, it depends on where you are in the show. If you are at the beginning of the show, like I am in a lot of the shows I'm designing right now, I have a very cool visualization program that I can actually program an entire show at home.

It's called Capture Visualizations. It's a Swedish program. it's been around quite a while. I believe they started in 2010. And it has evolved into the standard in the lighting world. And so I use another Program to hook up to that program and I can see everything and it's quite amazing, to be honest.

Emily: That's cool.

Ethan: So it saves me a lot of time in the theater.

It's like playing a video game.

Emily: Cool.

Ethan: [00:18:00] but you're making the video game. so I might work on that for five, six, seven hours,

even if it's, I I did one show that just the first act, which is an hour and a half. It took me six hours to finish.

Emily: Wow.

Ethan: And then I had to do the second half, the second half, but shorter, but it's work, 

you put in the time. If I'm in middle rehearsals, depends on how nice the, the director is. I've done nine to nine, ten to they're called ten twelves in the business because doing ten hours of work, two hours for lunch or two hours for lunch and dinner, Most of the time, I don't eat on those days, which is really not healthy, 


Emily: love, if you're someone who really loves to throw yourself into your work and your passions, I mean, I could see how this would be 

Ethan: Yeah. 

Emily: field for that.

Ethan: Yeah. And it's [00:19:00] just, it's great. I've seen some great theater, and can go on and on about my favorite moments and 

 so. most of the time I'm working three, four hours a night. It's a lot of night work. Weekends, weekend work. So, we say in the theater, you don't have a life. Theater is your life.

Emily: my gosh.

Ethan: Any social, Anything like that. Forget about it. This is, is your family now, which sounds terrible.

Emily: Well, I mean, I'm sure it said with a little bit of tongue in cheek and also, I mean, if you love it, you love it.

Ethan: yeah, and they become your best friends, 

and they become your, your family. I mean you see that more than your own family so 

Emily: Well, this might be a good segue to my next question, which is, you've said a lot of things that you love about your job, but you know, do you have anything to add, things that you love about this work, [00:20:00] especially if it's something that you think people might not expect?

Ethan: I really like being high in the air. A lot of times, a lot of times I'm working 30 to 60 feet in the air.

Emily: That is something I would not have expected. 

That's really interesting. With the harness on, somewhere in

OSHA, employees like weeping slowly. 

Ethan: In a world of OSHA 

violations. when I was in high school, so over the entrances of the theater, there was these, they're called Juliet Towers after Romeo and Juliet. Something that Shakespeare did was he invented. Stages for his actors.

So when you see these big round columns on the side of the stage, you're called Juliet towers. A lot of times they're used for lighting. They're not used actors anymore.

Emily: Mm 

Ethan: So one of the shows that I was doing at the time called for more side lighting. And so I got up. [00:21:00] On the other side of this tower, which was 30 feet in the air about 2530 feet in the air on the other side.

So like, I jump off and I'm going right to the floor with a 25 pound light, which is about 600 bucks. And

I have to put it on clamp it

and then turn my body around and like position it

all with. One hand.

Emily: hmm. So it's like this combination of job and then very physical.

Ethan: Very physical. 

And it honestly also depends on what kind of show you're doing. There's one thing that I haven't touched the lights in a year.

Just because it's LEDs and moving lights and you don't really have to touch those.

But out of theaters, you. are touching lights up until the last second until show opens. That's just how it is. I always tell people who want to be a lighting designer, if you're afraid of heights, don't do this job.

Emily: That is a great, [00:22:00] great tip because lots of people are and you might not necessarily expect that getting into the field.

Ethan: I have tried to train a lot of people and there's a lot of people who don't know that they're afraid of heights 

Until their feet are hanging off a catwalk and messing with the expensive piece of equipment, and then they're like, I'm definitely afraid right now. I'm like, Okay, 

Emily: afraid of heights. It's a reasonable thing to be afraid of.

Ethan: yes, it is. I just got used to it.

Emily: So not to get, you know, too negative, but is there anything that is really tough about it that either you didn't expect or you didn't anticipate how challenging it would be about this field of work?

Ethan: well there's really two things. Tediousness,

Especially With any show. It is just, as much as it is fun, it is tedious. I'm a very impatient person. I try to design as fast as humanly possible. 

So, that's just something and The second thing is, is [00:23:00] people. As much as I'm a people lover, I will talk to anyone. I have been screwed, scammed, whatever, out of my money.

Because one, of the line of work I'm in. Because they can't find someone else, but they don't want to pay me that. And, it's really hard and it's like really difficult to move on from that.

And, you know, you try to figure out ways to, be clear about how much you're getting paid and contracts and, all of that kind of stuff. And yet you still have that risk.

And I have. learned all about

sadly, and it's not something that they tell you. 

It's not something that they tell you in a lot of, mean, look at how many musicians there are who are now splitting from their manager and having a tough time with that.

Emily: I think that's a challenge in like the broader entertainment industry in almost every [00:24:00] aspect that. That's just a risk and I think it would be really, it's worth kind of looking within yourself and thinking about exactly how well you'll be able to manage when that happens. And if it will tear you apart, then it might not be the field for you, you know?

Ethan: I know that it, it tore me apart, because I knew that. The first time wasn't going to be the last,

the last time wasn't going to be the last,

Emily: All right.

Ethan: but you love it.

I call it my little diction because I can talk about it all day long and still have stuff to say.

Emily: I love it. 

Ethan: the shirt that I'm wearing right now is a lighting designer shirt.

Emily: So this is the last question I have for you and then I want to leave time at the end for you to share how people can find out more about your work. What is one piece of advice generally about work that you would give a younger person thinking about getting into this field? Besides don't be afraid of 

Ethan: Um, 

Emily: which is an exceptional piece of advice.

Ethan: yeah. And I wish I can take this piece of advice, [00:25:00] but be confident in what you're doing.

Because I have had so many people, even within friend groups. Within my family, within, the people who I work with that have said, you can't do that.

And most of the time, I mean, they mean it in the most loving sense.

And then I win an award for it.

And I'm like,

 And I, still have to learn how to be confident

and the only way that you're going to make a living out of this is through your confidence. And I wish I could exude in confidence I'd be making a lot more money right now. But

Emily: easier said than done, that's for

Ethan: it's easier. Yes. I have so much love for this craft, but in order for you to do this and in order for me to do this. you can't be afraid to put yourself out there, you can't be afraid to sell yourself, you can't be afraid to, fail, make a mistake, learn the hard way. [00:26:00] I had to learn the hard way, I learned by myself, there is no one to teach me how to do this stuff, and I just kept on working. pull your head down and work.

Emily: That is great advice. So how can people find out more about the work that you do? 

Ethan: So, the best place is either through my Instagram, which is Ethan Enter Media, through my website www. ethanentermedia. com You can find even the visualizations that I've done to popular songs. and just dreamed up circumstances. I have a weird line of merch that no one buys. So it was kind of something fun that I did one day. I have a shirt that says he is good at lighting. It's, it's a conversation starter. So if you need one of those, I got you. 

Emily: I love it.

Well, I'll link all of that in the show notes so that people can find it easily. And thank you so much for being here, Ethan. I really appreciate


Ethan: you for having me.

 [00:27:00] Thanks for joining me. If you liked the show, please rate and review on iTunes and Spotify. And please share with a friend. You can also follow the podcast on Instagram, LinkedIn, Facebook, or ticktock. And if you'd like to be interviewed here or there's a particular job you'd like to learn about, please reach