Is an MFA required to become a Lighting Designer?

Andy Haefner

Active Member
Joined
Feb 23, 2018
Location
Buffalo, NY
Hello Everybody,

I'm sure many of you have seen my previous post in this forum, Am I Making The Right College Decision? (it even got pinned to the College Education FAQ!) well now i'm back to pick your brain about careers in Theatre.

As a bit of an update to my last post, I am in my second year as an Electrical Engineering student, I find i'm well suited for it, and I love applying what i'm learning in the real world too. Ive continued my work with my local IATSE union, and am seemingly on a never-ending quest for knowledge (both pertaining to this industry and EE).

Now in Jan. of 2020, I took a gig designing the lighting for a local School's Annual musical, at the time I didnt think much of it, and I had no idea what I was doing. I read up on a few books and gave it my best shot, In the end It turned out OK, However, coming back this year with so much new experience and knoweledge, Ive realized how rewarding and fulfilling designing is, Seeing a beautiful creation aid in telling a story, Ive caught myself realizing "when did I learn how to do this". It simply ignites a passion for me I never realized I had, being creative and practical at the same time.

Anyways, to get to my main question here, (Sorry for the long-winded Intro) Ive seen both in the College Education FAQ and various other posts how if you want to become a broadway designer, you better have an MFA. Understandably this makes sense, However I was wondering, can teaching yourself and getting as much real-world experience as possible replace this as a qualification? I realize networking is a big part of it too, and theoretically,

[real world experience >> networking+Portfolio >>Job].

Now im not entirely opposed to getting an MFA in the future, but i'm going to be completing my EE degree in 2023, particularly with a Elective concentration in Optics and Photonics. I gotta have that backup plan or alternative career path if needed/wanted for future me. But Going to college for a total of 7 years doesnt sound all that appealling to me, when I could be building a portfolio and gaining more and more experience in the next 5 years instead. Granted I know a MFA program would also give me some real world experience, but I might have to do another BFA just to get into an MFA program.

On the other hand, if I solely went with real world experience, there is a handful of community theatres around me, as well as multiple school districts I could look into submitting resumes/portfolios to in the future, again, thats not to say I cant do both, but I dont want to be wasting time and money on school, which was never needed in the first place.

Id love to hear your thoughts on this, better yet, if anyone on here is a broadway designer and would like to speak up, Id love to hear from you.
 

microstar

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Joined
Jan 19, 2014
Location
Lawton, OK
I think you may be overlooking several things that happen in good MFA programs:
1. establishing contacts with faculty and fellow students that will help you in the future.
2. conforming to established deadlines and working as a part of a production staff while getting your academic work done. Also learning to supervise undergraduate students.
3. getting critiqued on your designs and ability to work as part of a team.
4. getting assigned to do productions you may not have a personal interest in and/or working with people you would rather not!
 

Andy Haefner

Active Member
Joined
Feb 23, 2018
Location
Buffalo, NY
I think you may be overlooking several things that happen in good MFA programs:
1. establishing contacts with faculty and fellow students that will help you in the future.
2. conforming to established deadlines and working as a part of a production staff while getting your academic work done. Also learning to supervise undergraduate students.
3. getting critiqued on your designs and ability to work as part of a team.
4. getting assigned to do productions you may not have a personal interest in and/or working with people you would rather not!
I've thought about all these, and I'm sort of weighing the benefits, undoubtedly a good MFA program would be beneficial in so so many ways. But is it worth the financial cost and another possibly 3 years of school? I'm not too sure, I suppose I'm looking for advice/testament to whether or not it's a must have in the industry or not. Certainly I think those 3 years would be a lot easier to me than my current engineering degree is. But would those three years be better spent elsewhere?
 

jtweigandt

Well-Known Member
Joined
Aug 2, 2013
Location
Moline Il
Well I've spent 20 years in all aspects of community theater and schools, on and off stage, designed sets, special effects, electrical gadgets, lights, props, and even a couple costumes. Hell I even performed with the local pro ballet. Been on stage I don't know how many times, probably have more intuition into how all the pieces fit together than a lot of recent masters graduates.. but were I to show up on a professional company's doorstep, I still have the feeling the reception might be.. "and who in the hell are you?" Required probably not.. but you might spend the same amount of time semi pro, low level pro clawing your way up. And the market is likely to be quite depressed for a few years yet, so entering realjobsville in some other EE capacity and scratching the itch with community work may not be such a bad idea.. if you like eating, and sleeping indoors.
 

RonHebbard

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Premium Member
Joined
Jun 12, 2004
Location
Waterdown, ON, CA
Well I've spent 20 years in all aspects of community theater and schools, on and off stage, designed sets, special effects, electrical gadgets, lights, props, and even a couple costumes. Hell I even performed with the local pro ballet. Been on stage I don't know how many times, probably have more intuition into how all the pieces fit together than a lot of recent masters graduates.. but were I to show up on a professional company's doorstep, I still have the feeling the reception might be.. "and who in the hell are you?" Required probably not.. but you might spend the same amount of time semi pro, low level pro clawing your way up. And the market is likely to be quite depressed for a few years yet, so entering realjobsville in some other EE capacity and scratching the itch with community work may not be such a bad idea.. if you like eating, and sleeping indoors.
"Required probably not.. but you might spend the same amount of time semi pro, low level pro clawing your way up. And the market is likely to be quite depressed for a few years yet, so entering realjobsville in some other EE capacity and scratching the itch with community work may not be such a bad idea.. if you like eating, and sleeping indoors."

@Andy Haefner
And / or: Taking a wife &/or raising a family.
Toodleoo!
Ron Hebbard
 

JChenault

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Joined
Jan 5, 2009
Location
seattle, wa USA
I am not a broadway designer - but I know several.

I would opine there are three things you need to make it as a commercial lighting designer ( IE earning enough as a designer to live on) in regional and/or broadway theatre, opera, TV etc.

First you need to learn the craft of design. This includes not only where lights go , how to cue, etc - but also how do all of the detailed paperwork that a professional requires. This includes knowing the drafting tools, how to troubleshoot the computer console when if fails, How to write cues quickly, work with unions, etc. If you are going into architecture or theatre there are additional things to learn.

Secondly you need to be an person who enjoys meeting people, and be able to network. Reaching out to directors and producers and getting them to know and like you. Remembering the name of everyone you have ever met and making them think they are important, etc.

Third you have to have a whole lot of luck and persistence. There are not that many slots out there for folks who want to design for a living. There are actually a lot more slots for design assistants and moving light programmers. The pay is pretty lousy ( I know a lady who does beautiful designs. Was a tony award nominee. Does lots of regional theatre. She makes about $25,000 a year)

Going to a top notch school is a great way to learn the craft, and ( if it is a school trying to turn out lighting designers and not teachers) they will teach you how to do the paperwork needed to do a show at the professional level in the US. If they have faculty that does a lot of work at a high level ( New York or equivalent) AND the faculty takes students with them when they do show it becomes a great way to network.

What are the top schools for those wanting to be professional lighting designers. Probably Yale, NC School of the arts, Boston University, SUNY. ( These are just the ones I frequently see at the Hemsley portfolio review)


Speaking to the luck and persistence. At the end of the portfolio review a couple of years ago Bob Barnhart was one of the presenters / reviewrs. As he was about to leave a student started talking to him about how to get into the TV end of live production. Long storey short, the student did a mentorship with Bob and ( last I heard) was working for his production company and doing quite well.

Now if what you want to do is design lights as a serious avocation, or a serious hobby ( IE in non professional or semi-professional companies ) that is something you can usually get into just by being persistent. Extensive graduate school , etc is probably not a requirement. When you are working with really big rigs, union crews, etc - you need a lot more training.

Good luck with whatever you decide to do.
 

ScottT

Lighting Programmer
Joined
Jul 30, 2008
Location
New York City
Ive seen both in the College Education FAQ and various other posts how if you want to become a Broadway designer, you better have an MFA
You don't. Anyone who tells you that you need an MFA is lying. You do however need to be a combination of skilled and lucky (though not necessarily in that order).

Getting an MFA does not guarantee anything. Does it open doors? Totally. Are those doors worth the debt? That's a personal choice.

As a side note, pre-COVID, the teams I worked with would allow students of all ages to join us in the theatre. Are you going to get a job out of that? No. Is it a good thing to do? Yep.
 

MRW Lights

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Joined
Jan 4, 2017
Location
NYC
Here's what changed for me...

I got an MFA right after school becuase if I didn't I wouldn't...

I thought an MFA would make me a better designer... it didn't.

My MFA helped me study the rules and how to break them by giving me a safe environment to challenge myself, my peers and the rules.

Here's what they don't tell you about a GOOD MFA program....
1. Sleep is a luxury
2. You don't get good, you get bettter.
3. Grad School is a selfish endeavour in the best way. It's not the bonus years of college. It's a job. If you waste it, you don't get it back.
4. If it's not hard you're not learning.
5. MFA is the military of Performing Arts. It will make you ready to work, or ready to quit.

Most of all it's fun. Some of my absolute best friends come from Grad School. We were in it. They were there at 2 am with me trying to do this show better, bigger, smarter. We ate bad food, drank too much and had anxiety sprinkled with stress for breakfast lunch and dinner. You can never learn experience, but you can always experience learning.
 

MNicolai

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Sarasota, FL
how if you want to become a broadway designer, you better have an MFA.
Broadway represents 0.00001% of entertainment lighting design. Both in terms of the small portion of the market Broadway represents and in terms of their tendency to have the same show run for several years at a time. I would not go into the industry with the expectation you will end up on Broadway. That requires a lot of connections, an excellent portfolio, and quite frankly a lot of dumb luck. It's basically like doing a lot of research to find out where the best place to get hit by lightning is, standing there for a few years, and having your legs surgically extended to make you a better target for a lightning strike, and hoping there aren't any trees, skyscrapers, or cell towers around more likely to get hit than you are.

Most of the opportunities for design exist at regional theaters, festivals, corporate events, and roadhouse theaters. Do some of those have an MFA requirement as a barrier to entry? Yes, our industry likes to do that -- but generally speaking most non-teaching opportunities are open to anyone with good enough connections and a portfolio.

Lot of other people here can speak to a career in design better than I can, but I would start by widening your lens on where opportunities are in the industry that may be exciting to you. If you've got an EE background, working for a manufacturer or a scenery automation shop or getting into moving light repairs can all be good ways to scratch both the technical itches you have and the artistic ones. I would strongly caution you against feeling that you need to go out and get an MFA and take on a bunch of debt to find those opportunities in the first place though.
 

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