Live Design has been running a series of columns titled "What’s Trending," mostly focusing on hardware and software, from lighting consoles to cutting-edge content creation. We decided to shift the focus to another side of our universe: education. What is going on in the theatrical design programs these days, and what advice do the professors have to offer those about to step over the threshold into the vast unknown of “the industry?” There were no guidelines provided; we simply asked a few academics to muse on the question: What’s trending in education?
Our current pundit on this theme is Anne E. McMills, a lighting designer, author of two books—The Assistant Lighting Designer's Toolkit and 3D Printing Basics For Entertainment Design. She is also professor and Head of Lighting Design, San Diego State University, and co-moderator for LDI's annual portfolio review for lighting and projection students and young pros. Here she shares her thoughts on training the next generation of successful designers.
From Anne E. McMills:
Training lighting designers in today’s day and age is a tricky one. Balancing the needs of the students in a technology-driven field alongside the sluggish funding models of an educational system can be a challenge. Similarly, teaching tried-and-true “old-school” techniques parallel to directors raised in the moving light age may seem to have its pitfalls. I think the key is trying not to focus so much on the technology, but instead to instill in the students an understanding of becoming life-long learners. In a world with exponential technology growth, the students need to understand that a piece of equipment introduced to them within their first year of study may be on its way ‘out’ by their third.
In addition to creating life-learners, I think we, as educators, have a responsibility to introduce a broader world of entertainment to our students. Gone perhaps are the days that a designer can make a living working solely in the regional theatre circuit. We need to introduce lighting styles in various fields in order to broaden the students’ outlook and career possibilities. I’m by no way saying that one cannot make a living in theatre, but I think the ability to work in other areas of the industry allows the young designer to expand his/her reach into any market and further develop as a versatile designer.
However, I would venture to say that no curriculum has room to add a bunch of classes on individual topics, which is why I personally prefer what I call a “taste test” style class. This type of class allows me to present a little bit about several topics within one semester – just enough to provide a basic understanding of the field. For example, at San Diego State University, I teach a class called "Lighting Seminar: Related Fields in Lighting." The goal of the class is to introduce the students to four related fields in lighting outside of theatre – tv/film, industrials, architectural lighting, and themed entertainment. For each of these fields, we study the main lighting techniques often used in that industry, the intentions behind the typical design goals, and the field’s paperwork. We spend three to four weeks on each area, culminating in a paper project for each one. I also offer field trips and guest speakers for each. This coarse overview of each industry provides the students with enough understanding that they may choose to pursue it further if they so desire. And, if they ever find themselves offered a job in one of those fields out of the blue, the overarching goals of the industry and the look of the paperwork will not seem completely foreign.
Teaching lighting designers today is not the same as when we may have been in school. The world is much more immersive and multi-platform than it used to be. In order to create the successful designers of tomorrow, we need to prep them for that world today.