How Do I Find A Good Lighting Designer?

I’ve been asked (quite a bit) how to find a good lighting designer. It’s a simple question with no easy answer – so here are some clarifying, specific related questions – which do have fairly straightforward answers.
What is a good designer?
This is completely and totally up to you. Do you like to work with someone who agrees with you or can challenge you? Does your designer have to be at every tech rehearsal and preview? Are you more comfortable working with experienced designers or newer designers? Do you like realistic, natural lighting or hyper-theatricalized lighting? Do you tend to work only with designers you’ve worked with before? Here’s the thing –  your definition of “good” is exactly that – YOURS, and a lot of factors play into that. Let’s look at a few of them.
What is a qualified designer?
That depends on what you’re looking for and what kind of qualifications you desire. Membership in the IALD, the ALD, or one of the unions is generally a good sign that someone is at least professional. Designers who have been honored for their work with “recognized” awards are generally assumed to be qualified. A college graduate with a degree (undergrad or grad) in their specialty can be assumed a qualified designer. A solid designer with a good (which doesn’t necessarily mean lengthy) resume who can provide good references can also be considered qualified.
Do designers have specialties?
Yes, they do. Some are known for being creative with small budgets, others are known for using architectural elements in their designs, while even others are known for their elegant simplicity. Some specialize in big-budget musicals, others excel using advanced lighting technology, while others still are known for their mastery of color. Some designers don’t draft their own plots, some designers program all of their shows, while other designers come in and hang their own plot with the rest of the crew. As you work with designers, you’ll discover the right balance of skill and personality that works with your theater company.
How do I find a designer?
There are many ways to find designers, with word of mouth being one of the best. Inquire of other producers, directors, designers, and technical directors. Many designers have their own websites so if you see so if you see a show you like, find their name in the program, then do an Internet search to find their site. Post a job listing on any (or all) of the theater job websites. If your theater is in a cooperative relationship with an arts education program, they may also have contacts whom they could share.
Interviewing a designer
Many theater professionals dread interviewing designers of all crafts because it’s not their area of specialty. Design has its own language and for those who don’t speak it, an interview can be intimidating. Piffle, I say.
Make your designer feel welcome wherever you’re doing the interview. Ask them about their recent projects. Ask if they’ve ever worked in a theater similar to yours before (i.e. black box, experimental, educational, etc). Ask what their favorite projects have been and why – then listen to those answers and consider if your theater can offer a similar experience. Ask why they want to work for your theater. Ask if they know any of the other designers who’ve worked at your theater recently. Ask if they’d like a tour of the building – interviews are more interesting if you’re walking and talking. Ask for their references. Ask if they have any questions for you.
Reviewing a Portfolio
Portfolio review can be very subjective. Many new designers expect the portfolio to speak for itself, but quite frankly, light plots and production photos tell very little of the story.
Ask a question of the designer like: What made you choose this color in this scene (while referring to a photo in the portfolio)? Their answer will give you some insight to their process.
If they say something like, “well, I used the McCandless theory and decided that the cool color at that angle would provide the right backlight”, then you are probably interviewing an analytical designer, someone who is going to consider the science of light heavily in their design.
If they say something along the lines of “in this scene, the girl has just woken up to discover that her parents are gone and I wanted to underscore that loneliness she’s feeling”, then you may be interviewing a less structured designer, someone who may lean more heavily on the art of lighting design.
If they don’t have much to say or can’t explain their designs or their process very well, I have to be honest and tell you I’d move on to another designer. People who are passionate about their work and their process will be willing to talk about it, to “pitch” it, so to speak. If they aren’t, or if they can’t, then it’s time to interview someone else.
An edited version of this post can be read at www.produceaplay.com.