How To Become A Theatrical Lighting Designer In LA

Lighting designer Elizabeth Harper at work. (Courtesy Elizabeth Harper)

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Elizabeth Harper designs the lighting for stage shows — she's created the looks for plays at the Geffen Playhouse, the Mark Taper Forum, South Coast Rep, and theaters across the country.

Theatrical lighting design isn't just hanging some lights or turning them on and off. Harper comes up with a system to light the play, deciding where the lights go, what color they are, and how they're controlled.

"Then [I] sit down with a programmer and come up with basically a simple computer program that runs the lighting on a simple button press," Harper said.

She told us how she got where she is today.

STEP 1: DO HIGH SCHOOL STAGE CREW

Harper grew up in St. Louis. She figured out she wanted to be a lighting designer young — she said it was weird how young she was when she set her mind to do this very specific career. She thinks it was when she was still in high school.

"I was already working for my school theater, because I was just such a dork, I was just there so much," Harper said.

She was enough of a presence that, when the school was renting out the auditorium on the weekends, they asked her if she'd come in and set up equipment.

"I was making 12 dollars an hour, and I just was like, that's like f—- you money to me," Harper said.

She realized what she was doing was a job, and it seemed better than anything she saw at the job fair. So she stuck with it — with some detours along the way.

STEP 2: WORK AT A THEME PARK

Harper worked in lighting at a Six Flags in St. Louis, serving as a stage manager over a summer. It gave her a chance to build her experience coming up in the stage world, along with serving in some... unusual roles.

"There was one day I had to be Daffy Duck," Harper said.

The "real" Daffy had been in a small car accident — and Harper was the right height.

"I didn't really know all the dances, but they were just like, 'Get her in the Daffy costume,'" she said.

Just after moving to L.A., she had another theme park experience where she was the one fighting outside circumstances. She was called in as a replacement on a major corporate gig at Universal Studios, with guests including the cast of It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Seth MacFarlane, and a number of high-level stand-up comedians.

They had one day to light the event — and on that day, she got hit with E. coli. She threw up all day, Harper said, but they got it done and the event raised a ton of money.

STEP 3: FIGURE OUT YOUR TARGET

From King Charles III at the Pasadena Playhouse. (Courtesy Elizabeth Harper)

Early on, she worked at a local repertory theater in her hometown of St. Louis. She still remembers what it was like having a New York lighting designer come in to work on the show.

"I just thought that was so glamorous," Harper said. "I was like, 'Wow, she lives in New York and they fly all over the place, for free — you get a free trip to St. Louis, and Cincinnatti, and Milwaukee, and all these places with resident theater companies."

She saw the glamor in flying to midsize cities to help put on a play — and now she gets to do it, currently working on a show in Denver.

STEP 4: DON'T WAIT FOR A BIG BREAK

Lighting designer Elizabeth Harper. (Courtesy Elizabeth Harper)

Harper said that, for her, there was no "big break." Instead, it was a series of small steps forward until eventually she could look back and see how far she'd gotten.

There was a lot of trial and error on her journey — she started to doubt that being a professional lighting designer was an attainable goal. Harper said she tried finding a way out of that career path — she thought, maybe I could be an electrician? Detours included a stint as an Aerosmith roadie.

But lighting design called her back.

STEP 5: GO TO GRAD SCHOOL, AND DON'T LET PEOPLE TELL YOU L.A. THEATER ISN'T GREAT

After trying other approaches, she conceded that yes, she'd have to go to grad school to become a designer. She'd resisted, but started to imagine what it would be like if she actually went — and realized that being a lighting designer was a career path that was actually available to her.

She went to school at NYU, but moved to L.A. right after she graduated. She said that she loves being a lighting designer here.

"Even with people from L.A., people still ask me, 'Oh, there's theater in L.A.?' And there's amazing theater in L.A.," Harper said.

Being in L.A. has also helped her to move between different parts of the industry easier than she could somewhere else, according to Harper. She does lighting design for shows, teaches at USC, and also does corporate events. For those based in other cities, the work tends to be more industry-specific, she said, locking you into one type of work.

STEP 6: LEARN TO LEARN

While she teaches the details of what you need to know in her USC classes, technology changes incredibly fast in the lighting design world, according to Harper.

"From the time I was in undergrad, almost all of the hard skills that I learned ... are totally different," Harper said. "It's important to learn those skills ..., but it should be a class about, how do you learn to program? How do you learn to use new technology?"

Harper said that every other year or so, there are a couple big new ideas in the lighting industry that you have to adapt to. That idea right now: integration with video, as the lines between what's lighting design and what's video design continue to blur.

"Because isn't it all just light, and color, and pixels?" Harper said.

STEP 7: KEEP BEING YOURSELF

Sarah Jones in Sell/Buy/Date at the Geffen Playhouse. (Courtesy Elizabeth Harper)

Only a fifth of lighting design jobs go to women — that meant that Harper received a lot of gender-based feedback on her way up in the industry. She said it was coming from a good place, trying to help her advance in her career, but it was also limiting.

"It was things like, you need to tone down your gender, you need to not talk this way, you need to sound this way, you need to not say these words, you need to behave just like this so that you're acceptable to this profession," Harper said. "And so, I've been thinking more about how, instead of trying to mold people into this narrow idea of who a lighting designer is, how can we open up the idea of what a lighting designer sounds like, talks like, looks like?"

There is helpful, non-gendered advice out there too, though. Harper suggested reaching out to people, especially given the niche nature of the field.

Most people are Google-able, and you can also reach out to them on Twitter, she said.

"Almost any nerd like myself, I think, is willing to have people come to tech rehearsals, get coffee with someone — so definitely reach out," Harper said.

If people don't respond right away, she said, be persistent, because people on the technical side are really excited for people to ask them about what they do.

STEP 8: ASSIST OTHER DESIGNERS, EVEN OUTSIDE YOUR CHOSEN INDUSTRY

One of the steps that Harper said was most critical for her getting where she is today was assisting other designers and seeing how they worked.

She suggests that people starting out take a variety of jobs in the lighting and theater worlds as they try to find their own path. Even while it wasn't directly part of what she wanted to do, she spent some time working in architecture as an assistant lighting designer. She also worked on other types of live events.

"All of those sort of places fairly early in my career, seeing how they work, it all feeds in," Harper said. "Sometimes when I'm working on a show, the traditional theater way of working doesn't quite fit, so having experience with the same stuff in other industries can be really helpful."

STEP 9: GET USED TO THE DARK

Mysterious Circumstances at the Geffen Playhouse. (Courtesy Elizabeth Harper)

Lighting design ironically means there being a lot less light in your own life, according to Harper. You end up working long hours — often 16-hour days, maybe six days in a row — in dark rooms, often missing out on the outside daylight.

"I miss seeing the sun, because I'm basically in windowless rooms all day making artificial lighting in dark rooms," Harper said.

STEP 10: MAKE CONNECTIONS

One of the biggest moments in Harper's career came about thanks to continuing to make connections. Remember that event she did while suffering from E. coli poisoning?

She worked on that with a guy named Matt Shakman. He started to direct more theater around L.A., and is now the artistic director of the Geffen — and Harper now does lighting design for a couple shows a year there.

While it was a turning point, she didn't know it at the time. But that means that you need to do good work and make connections even when the payoff isn't immediately obvious.

STEP 11: MAKE SHOWS, BUT BE READY TO ADJUST

Elizabeth's dog, ready to help out as she's hard at work. (Courtesy Elizabeth Harper)

A live event is like a wedding, Harper said.

"It winds up becoming more about the actual gathering and the coming-togetherness of it, rather than the special-dayness of it," she said.

Harper said that one of her favorite parts about lighting design is the ephemeral nature of it, only really coming to life in a specific set of circumstances.

"Lighting design only really exists not only when I'm in the room, but when everybody's in the room," Harper said. "There's nothing to look at if there's no set or actors, or people to do the programming."

It's also something that can be adjusted along the way, Harper said — building something physical means you hit a point of no return. That doesn't happen in the same way when it comes to lighting. She described it as being sort of magic in that way.

And sometimes you try really hard, but things aren't working out.

"There have been shows where we made a plan, we went to execute it, it didn't work — and then we're able to pivot," Harper said.

That's thanks to how malleable lighting can be, Harper said.

"You can make those last-minute changes and say, 'OK, well if that didn't work, what is the show now?' And I honestly think there are a couple of shows I've done where you would never know that we had some catastrophic failure, but then decided to take that moment and go in a different direction — sometimes to great success," Harper said.

Next up, Harper's back at the Geffen in the spring. She'll be doing a show that she was OK saying the name of because she wasn't in the theater at the time — Shakespeare's Macbeth. She promises a show that's stunning and different, but couldn't say anything else at this time. She's also doing Arcadia by playwright Tom Stoppard at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa, which opens in May.

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