As part of my In Turn blog, I interview industry professionals from different areas in the arts. This time, I was fortunate enough to speak to David Howe, a freelance Lighting Designer, with a CV that ranges across the West End to Broadway, including an assortment of theatre, musicals, ballets and operas. Howe describes the main thrust of his job as “working as part of a creative team led by the director and in consultation with set, costume and sound designers, planning how our departments’ work will enhance the mood and create atmosphere for whatever the production is.” In such a creative technical pursuit, I was interested in what his day-to-day job entailed. He assured me that “there is no average day”, he could be “sitting at the drawing board, in a dark theatre working with technicians, in creative meetings with members of the team, looking at new lighting products or travelling”.
I met Howe at NSDF this year, where he ran workshops on lighting design and gave the visiting students advice on the shows that they’d put together. I was intrigued as to what advice he’d give to a budding designer – whether there was a specific route to follow or not: “The fantastic thing is, there is no firm and fixed career path. College education helps in terms of learning the basic skills but the best form of training is on-the job – the social interaction with people, staff and other creatives is so important and can’t be learnt in the classroom… Lighting techniques can be learnt but the creativity of putting it all together is something that generally comes with experience. Almost a catch-22 scenario.’
With such a varied CV, I was interested in whether he had a favourite medium to work in, or whether he had a specific highlight to date: “I enjoy whatever is next… I’m lucky I get asked to do a wide range of work and therefore the highlights can be varied: working with someone new, working in different and exciting venues or countries, working with good colleagues…”
It sounds as though Howe’s freelance lifestyle allows a degree of flexibility and variation that must be exciting but also erratic. I asked if there was an alternative: “There aren’t very many full-time employed Lighting Designer positions anymore. There was a time when the chief electrician in a theatre used to be the employed LD, but those days have gone. Most producing houses and commercial producers will approach an entirely freelance team, giving them the flexibility to have who they want on each new production.”
Howe is quick to warn that it’s a tough profession – it seems that with flexibility comes unpredictability. I finally ask what his advice would be for anyone hoping to pursue a similar career: “Really, really want to do it… Be passionate about lighting – go to the theatre and see other people’s work. Be inspired, be creative, join the Association of Lighting Designers and meet all the people you can in the industry… It’s a very small world. Contacts are essential.”