Lighting Design and Arts Entrepreneurship

I taught lighting design for a long time before transitioning into arts entrepreneurship and policy, with a stint in academic administration along the way. I’ve been thinking about this period a lot lately, in part because of the imminent release of the third edition of Lighting and the Design Idea, and more recently because of a fabulous open letter to young theatre artists from Bay area lighting designer @batfishLD. What IS the connection between lighting design and arts entrepreneurship? For anyone who has done the former, the relationship is obvious. My focus here, though, is on the connection between teaching lighting design and teaching arts entrepreneurship.

This post germinated on the plane back from the ISSOTL (International Society for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning) conference in Milwaukee where I presented on “Teaching the Artist of the Future: Habits of Mind for Arts Entrepreneurship.” The presentation focused on three pedagogies for arts entrepreneurship: 1) Mentorship, 2) Collaborative Projects and 3) Experiential Learning. Eureka! These are the self same pedagogies employed in teaching lighting design.

Mentorship in an experiential context can be likened to teaching/learning to fish: the mentor shows the student how to cast their line and then offers feedback on the student’s strategy, technique, and results. Thus, the student fisher eats not just for one night, but has food for a lifetime (see an earlier post on this theme). The mentor models techniques for self-reflection as well, so that the student can evaluate his or her own results when they work independently upon program completion. Coaching the student lighting designer in the studio and supporting their work at the tech table is similar. Theatre is inherently collaborative – by collaborating students develop what Howard Gardner calls “The Respectful Mind.” Finally, there is no substitute for experience in teaching the emergent designer. The very first academic panel I was ever on had a title like “Alternatives to the Lighting Lab for Design Training.” My argument was there IS no alternative. Light needs to be experienced – it needs to be felt.

Some of my recent work revolves around the concept of failure – creating learning environments where students can fail in order to learn resilience and persistence. Too often, theatre programs don’t provide that opportunity to fail. The “the show must go on” mentality prevalent even in academia may not create the most effective learning environment. When I was teaching lighting, I tried to build plenty of extra time into the focus, cue setting and even tech process (much to the chagrin of some of my colleagues, but they got over it) so that there was time for the lighting designer to try things out and fail with them – and then LEARN and fix them. Developmental time IS learning time in an academic theatre environment; it’s not wasted time. And my advice to young lighting designers is “don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.”

About lindaessig

Linda Essig is Dean of the College of Arts & Letters at Cal State LA and principal/owner of Creative Infrastructure LLC. The opinions expressed on creativeinfrastructure are her own and not those of Cal State LA. You can follow her on twitter @LindaInPhoenix.
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3 Responses to Lighting Design and Arts Entrepreneurship

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