Early Days

by Michael S. Eddy
Advice for the young professional in the field of lighting
Advice for the young professional in the field of lighting

A look at being an emerging professional

Entering any job market can be a formidable task, certainly in the entertainment industry it can be daunting. Every year new classes graduate and new colleagues search out opportunities in the industry’s diverse landscape of roles. At Stage Directions we thought it would be informative to speak with some young professionals who are early in their career paths about the transition from school to job and any words of advice they have for those who follow. We also spoke to some teachers and employers about a few things they think emerging professionals should consider. Ultimately, we hope to turn this into an an on-going conversation. If you are an emerging professional or mentor who would like to participate, please feel free to e-mail the author at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

New Roles

“A degree in theatre sets you up for life a lot better in many ways than most degrees do,” believes Steven Rosen, president and creative director at Available Light. “You really do learn a lot about life and working with people. For many graduates the end of your college days are filled with thoughts of the wider opportunities beyond the campus. It’s important to be aware that the opportunities in our industry are just that wide and varied.”

Lighting designer Anne Militello, head of the lighting design program at CalArts, agrees the landscape of career options is larger than many students realize. “I try to show my students that people can be in the industry in a number of different ways, certainly that’s true with the lighting profession. Although CalArts is an institute where artists come to master their creative skills, I also let my students know they don’t have to be a designer to be creative in the industry. There are all kinds of related fields that are great and that offer people sometimes a much better living, better security, and less tension while still being creative. It could be as assistants, as programmers or lighting directors, project managers, field coordinators, lighting rendering artists, system integrators, fixture designers or manufacturers reps. There’s all kinds of options.” 

John Delfino
John Delfino

It was Militello that recommended to Rosen one of her students, John Delfino, when he graduated. Delfino now works as a lighting designer with Available Light focusing on museum and architectural lighting based their New York City office. “If you do the math you know that not everyone is going to design on Broadway, so I wanted to have some wider options. My mentor at Boston College, Dr. Scott T. Cumming, knew that Anne taught more things than theatre design at CalArts.”

Delfino knows that attending CalArts prepared him, as he had hoped, for more than theatrical design work. “I took several different courses in ‘Themed Entertainment’ at CalArts that were broad looks at the creative development process in the Themed Entertainment industry—theme parks, live experiences, immersive experiences, etc. Things like how to sell a client on creative design ideas, scheduling out projects, managing time, and understanding phases of work from an architectural perspective. I feel that was exactly why I went to CalArts.”

It’s that sense of what skills you want to learn from your education and understanding how you can then broaden your job search that can give young professionals an early edge notes Delfino. “Have a really, really good understanding of your own skill set so that you can sell yourself to potential employers, whether that’s a permanent position or an individual show. People respond really well I found to a good amount of self-awareness. Admitting your own shortcomings, but also not being afraid to speak to the areas that you do excel in.” 

Rosen agrees, “I think more than anything what we’re looking for is someone who has a great sense of self and a great attitude. I mention attitude because probably the biggest thing they need to be prepared for is not being the top dog. You know, they graduate and they’re excited, they’re motivated, they’re ready to take on the world and win their first Tony award and that’s a great attitude to have but it’s a big shock also to realize that likely is not the path things will take. The smart ones all of a sudden look in the mirror and realize how much they really don’t yet know. Speaking as someone who hires young people, the biggest test they have at the beginning of their career is how they handle that. How they manage their expectations from being the leader to being at the entry level.”

Danielle Goeders
Danielle Goeders

New Ideas

University of California San Diego graduate Danielle Goeders is now a technical designer at PRG Scenic Technology and knows well that continuing to learn and being open to possibilities can led to a career path you weren’t expecting. “I went to school for structural engineering and I didn’t really have any background in theatre. I’ve always loved musicals, but I’m more analytical, a more deal-with-numbers type of person. During my fourth year of school I realized that I could use what I knew for the theatre. I was looking for some experience when I got out and found an internship at PRG that turned into a full-time job. I think when I started, I didn’t really know what to expect. I was just kind of open for anything.”

Her strong sense of wanting to learn is evident in her advice to people soon graduating, “Be teachable. You learn a lot in school, but don’t think you go out there knowing everything. There’s still more to learn. With each project, there’s something new and you want to be able to adapt, to learn how other people do things so you can work well together. You don’t want to show up and act like you know everything. Be confident in what you do know, but be teachable at the same time. Everyone knows that you’re new, so making mistakes and learning on the job is all part of starting out.”

Being open to new ideas is essential to the problem solving skill needed whether you’re in your early career or beyond, Goeders has found. “There is usually a moving-forward attitude in this line of work. Many unexpected surprises pop up on the job, but it’s the problem-solving that brings shows, products, and people together.” That is a skill Rosen values when hiring, noting, “Critical thinking is certainly important in what we’re looking for. Do these emerging professionals have a sense of how to solve a problem? And do they have a sense of how to work within a team?”

John Van Arsdale
John Van Arsdale

Problem solving was an emphasis for John Van Arsdale while studying at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. “Frequently what we’re handed is something that no one has seen done before,” recalls Van Arsdale. “I think that was a big thing I took away with me from graduate school. My advisors really tried to press, ‘How are you problem solving? What’s that process?’” 

Van Arsdale, a technical designer, works with Goeders at Scenic Technology and credits networking for his current job as well as being open to a different career role. Van Arsdale’s mentor at UW, Dan Lisowski, assistant professor of theatre technology, suggests his students explore more roads as career paths. “He really encouraged us to pursue the alternatives that existed beyond a typical technical director position.”

New People

Production and lighting designer Seth Jackson teaches concert design at Webster University and strongly believes it’s never too soon to start networking. “I think it actually starts before graduation,” he states. “By the time you start your senior year, if not earlier, you need to be thinking as a professional and as a part of the industry. You need to read the magazines, learn the vendors, learn the lead designers, and learn the key players. Then start reaching out to these people. There are still letters I sent as a student floating around out there. I wrote to Marc Brickman, who often threatens to publish it, Jeff Ravitz and Steve Cohen. Today I am friends with all of them and we have collaborated on projects. This kind of industry contact is essential. Go to LDI. Work the floor. Go to the sessions. This is a business of relationships, and the sooner you start, the better off you’ll be.” 

Jonathan Schneider
Jonathan Schneider

Lessons taken to heart by one of Jackson’s Webster graduates, Jonathan Schneider, now a lighting technician with Upstaging. In high school Schneider thought he was going to be an aerospace engineer, but it was a conversation at a conference that sent him into concert touring. “I have always been very technically minded and I enjoy the raw technology, the more bold stuff that you see in a lot of concerts. I was at the Texas Thespian Festival my senior year when I met John Wylie, head of production programs from Webster, and he told me they were starting a concert design program which he thought would be the perfect fit for me. During my junior year I did an internship with Upstaging. When I graduated I looked around, but in the end felt Upstaging was the best option to get everything I was looking for in starting my career.”

Starting in the shop, moving onto small corporate shows, he quickly started moving up to larger and larger tours. “Now I’m at the point that I’m just one of the guys on tour with the Rolling Stones; on Paul McCartney. Eventually I’d like to end up more in a programming or the lighting director role. Starting out though you need to know you start at the bottom and will need to work your way up. Though I do suggest, knowing how to fix lights makes you extremely valuable person. Also, never turn down an opportunity to go have a beer with somebody new. You never know where it will lead. Talk to everyone, every chance you get.”

And to all the aspiring Broadway professionals, Delfino—now a New York resident—has a final piece of advice. “Maybe consider cities other than New York, because it’s absurdly, brutally, disgustingly expensive. Unless you’re willing to live with six other people in a very, very small apartment.”