2003-2023: You Can't Afford To Be A Lighting Designer

UPDATE: In 2003, lighting designer Peter Maradudin wrote an analysis of pay in the industry for Live Design. Recently, Herrick Goldman reposted the story on Facebook and, according to the comments, not much has changed for the better. The consensus seems to be that TV and concerts pay better than theatre, unless you are one of the 15 to 20 designers who are consistently hired on Broadway. Some comments recommended that anyone studying theatre arts should minor in business as a back up, and Bob Bonniol  along with several other designers, suggested that while the main focus of production education is theatre, it is only a tiny part of the overall industry and there is a better living to be made in worlds of brand activation, broadcast, concert, and architecture. Certainly there are more jobs on corporates than on Broadway.  Designer and educator Robert Thorpe replied that he had redesigned a course for his students to include a wider breadth of opportunities, including cruise lines, theme parks, and Las Vegas shows. 

It seems that while opportunities have expanded, the industry is training the next generation for jobs in theatre, where payscales have remained stagnant and jobs are limited. 

Let us know your thoughts at [email protected].

October 1, 2003

I've been bitching about it for years. People in theatre know this to be true: we're all terribly underpaid for what we do. But I'm not entirely sure that anyone has really sat down and worked through the terrible math.

I finally did.

When I was at Yale, we never talked about money. It was simply not discussed — the subject is beneath an artist, I suspect. I, however, feel that I am doing my students a fundamental disservice if I don't brace them for the real world. So I ask this question of my students, in probably the single most important class discussion I hold each year:

“What do you consider a decent living?”

The answers range, so I toss this out as a benchmark: The average annual salary of a bus driver in San Francisco is $41,641.60. It shouldn't be hard, if one is working steadily in regional theatre, to make at least as much as a bus driver in San Francisco, shouldn't it? Shouldn't it?

I just received from the United Scenic Artists Local 829 a breakdown of the average fees paid by LORT for designing the lighting for the different LORT stage categories. (It should be noted that many lighting designers work a range of venues and art forms, including commercial, opera, dance, underground - I have chosen LORT as a median. For every opera a designer might do that pays much better than a LORT project, chances are they will also do a smaller, off-off Broadway type of project as well.) A LORT B theatre, which represents most of the work out there, will pay on average $4,150.00. This plus a range of expense reimbursements of between $100.00 and $750.00 means that for the average show, a lighting designer can expect to be compensated around $4,600.00. The simple math would show that to make at least as much as that bus driver a designer would have to design nine productions a year. But the math is far from simple. We need to look at two things. First, how much money is the designer actually seeing from that total compensation figure, and second, how many hours is he or she actually going to spend to earn that compensation?

First the deductions from the fee and expenses:


Let's assume that you try not to work out of your bedroom, and maintain a share of some studio space. If you're like me, the minimum space necessary for a drafting table, a desk, and enough room to turn around in is 100 square feet. Add room for a small library of plays and lighting equipment and for the supporting office equipment and supplies, and you've got another 100 square feet, for a total of 200 for a small office. If you're paying less than $1.00 per square foot, then you're living outside of a major metropolitan area. Let's add two phone lines (including fax) and DSL for downloading and emailing the expected CAD drawings. Let's also add utilities, software and hardware upgrades that you need (assuming that you're not pirating) and the cost of the cell phone that you KNOW you need to manage your business while on the road. Let's also toss in a certain amount for office supplies (paper — yes, you still use paper — folders, ink cartridges, etc.), some for a little tiny bit of marketing (portfolio, a website, perhaps?) and postage. It adds up.


I think most of us do without agents. I had one, but it just didn't pay for itself. But if you do have an agent, subtract 10% from the above fee.


If you're working LORT theatres, then you pretty much have to be a member of USA Local 829. Take another 2% from the fee, plus quarterly assessments, plus, if you have no other health plan, another $1,120 per year in supplementing the Union's plan.


Most regional theatres do not pay per diem. Which blows my mind when the schedules that they ask lighting designers to maintain are 15+ hour days on site with one hour breaks, in the very heart of an urban environment with a residency just long enough to be terribly expensive, but not so long that one can set up a decent pantry at each stop. I have calculated the difference between living at home and living on the road (or even at home in San Francisco at the American Conservatory Theater, where it is still impractical to brown bag all of one's meals) at a conservative $25.00 per day. Most residencies at 12 days per show.

All of these expenses are expected by the theatres to be assumed by the designer. A bus driver doesn't have any of these.

Here's the breakdown (I have tried to break these costs down to a “per show” basis, assuming a ten show year):

Studio Rent: $240.00
Phone Lines: 45.00
Phone Charges: 10.00
DSL: 60.00
Cell Phone: 90.00
Utilities: 40.00
Hardware Upgrades: 200.00*
Software Upgrades: 100.00**
Office Supplies: 50.00
Marketing: 75.00***
Postage (Including FedEx) 30.00
Agent's Fee 415.00
USA Dues (Including Quarterly) 130.00
Health Insurance Supplement 112.00
Absence of Per Diem 300.00
Total of Expenses Per Show $1,897.00
*I've based my estimate on the purchase of a new computer, printer and cell phone every three years. Even if you hold out longer than that, you will still have toner cartridges, new technologies (like digital cameras, etc.) and peripherals to add periodically.
**In my studio we spend at least $1,000 on software a year: AutoCAD, Vectorworks, Light-wright, etc.
***This is an estimate based on taking photos of your shows, scanning them, maintaining a rudimentary website, and/or placing images into a portfolio case.

So suddenly the $4,600.00 total compensation package per show isn't looking so good. With the deduction of $1,861.00, that comes down to $2,703.00. And this isn't even figuring on other expenses that the average young professional designer carries, like student loans, initial start-up costs (filing cabinets, drafting table, laptop, etc.), subscriptions to trade journals and building a research library. Now, to catch that bus driver you have to design at least 15 shows a year. This is getting harder to pull off, even if you can actually market yourself well enough to be in demand for 15 shows a year. How hard? Let's look at how many hours you spend actually working on a show. I have kept track of my hours on several occasions and this is how it breaks down (and people tell me that I'm fast):

Reading the play (twice - once for sense, once for notes) 5 hours
Research (I don't usually do much) 2 hours
First Design Meeting (Not factoring in travel) 5 hours
Second Design Meeting (Not factoring in travel) 5 hours
Hustling to get Drawings from either the Set Designer or TD 1 hour
Preparing Preliminary Requirements List 2 hours
Breaking Down the Plot 8 hours
Generating Rough Hook Up 2 hours
Drafting the Plot (We now use CAD, but the time is about the same) 10 hours
Picking Color 1 hour
Inputting the Hook Up into Lightwright 3 hours
Plotting and Printing 1 hour
Answering Questions for the ME and Making Adjustments 2 hours
Watching Rehearsal and Talking with Director After 5 hours
Preparing Cue Paperwork 2 hours
Preparing Magic Sheet 2 hours
Focus 8 hours
Tech (Two days, including note sessions) 28 hours*
Dress Rehearsals (Two days, including note sessions) 28 hours*
Previews (Five days, including note sessions) 60 hours*
Preparing Invoice for Expenses 1 hour
Total Hours per Show 180 hours
*During techs and dresses, the calls usually start at 8AM. During previews, I find that I come in later in the morning, usually after “coffee.” Techs, dresses and previews, along with notes sessions, go at least as late as Midnight. I have figured in two one-hour breaks per day.

So for each show, if it were broken down into “40 hour weeks”, a lighting designer is spending a minimum of 4 1/2 weeks. This does not include the two to four days' worth of travel time if the show is out of town, and is based on two relatively quick meetings, and really being efficient in the studio. The shocking hourly rate works out to $15.02. This for someone with a terminal degree in their field, and the skills to be so in demand that they are actually working non-stop for months at a time.

So all of a sudden, to match the income of the San Francisco bus driver, a lighting designer has to work the equivalent of 69 weeks a year, without any holidays, while SF Bus Drivers get 21 days paid vacation plus 13 days paid sick leave, or almost five paid weeks off. So the discrepancy is even greater: 22 weeks difference. Try packing that into a single year without testing the patience of the most supportive family, partner and friends.

My students are now considering bus driving as a career.

As I prepare my own application for MUNI bus driving school, I reflect on all of those directors who asked me to treat their show as if it were the only one I was working on — to give 110% — and were shocked that I was lighting 17 shows a year, constantly juggling four or five projects at a time. But as I drive that bus, I shall certainly miss the artistic satisfaction I received from each and every one of those shows.