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Stage Lighting Essentials from On Stage Lighting's Rob Sayer

Teacher and resource founder shares tips, tricks and advice on lighting

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Stage Lighting Essentials from On Stage Lighting's Rob Sayer

Lighting designer and On Stage Lighting founder, Rob Sayer.

Image courtesy of Rob Sayer.

For aspiring lighting designers, students, or professionals seeking the latest news, tips and technology, Rob Sayer’s On Stage Lighting website is a must.

Founded almost four and a half years ago, On Stage Lighting offers everything from how-to articles and guides, to samples and definitions, job listings, and even streamlined access to price comparisons on equipment and gear. The site's articles are funny, blunt, and frankly written (and aren't for those squeamish about the occasional mild curse word), while also being smart, encouraging and incredibly comprehensive. The sheer amount of available information can be pretty staggering to jump into, at first, but it's worth the leap, as with a single click, users are given an instant immersion into stage lighting, and a sea of lighting terms, approaches, questions and answers, equipment choices, and more.

With On Stage Lighting, Sayer has created a vast informational hub that's not just dedicated to the “technology, practices and education" of stage lighting in almost every imaginable form, but which also embraces lighting design as a state of mind, and its practitioners as members of a community all their own. No question goes unanswered, no term undefined.

Even if I'm not working on some lighting-related article or conundrum, I find myself clicking over to the site on a constant basis, because there's always more to learn. For those just checking it out for the first time, it will quickly become an invaluable resource for any lighting enthusiasts out there, from amateurs to professionals and everyone in between, as it offers key information on lighting design, technology, and approaches for everything from the theatre and concert world, to corporate event lighting.

In addition to founding On Stage Lighting, Sayer himself is a working lighting designer for two decades now, as well as teaching the process at Bath Spa University in the United Kingdom. I spoke with Rob recently about the principles of lighting design, his work as a designer, as well as on his goals and accomplishments in founding On Stage Lighting.

Angela Mitchell: What's the most misunderstood aspect of being a lighting designer, for you?

Rob Sayer: I think that the role of lighting designer as a key part of a show's creative team is much better understood these days. Where our powers can be misjudged is in the ability to make bad sets or costumes look miraculously better, or that they can improve the performances of those onstage. You'd be surprised at the things I've been asked to "sort out" using the lighting.

Angela Mitchell: Yeah, I'm sure many other lighting designers would definitely nod in sympathy on that one! However, in spite of that, what's your favorite aspect of working in lighting design?

Rob Sayer: I love the mix of visual artistry and engineering. Some days, I enjoy the artistic side, other days, I'm quite happy up and down ladders, pulling ropes and enjoying the physical work. I also find plenty of people in the business that I can enjoy working with – a shared sense of humor, and an overall good-natured professionalism that makes creating shows a good place to work.

Angela Mitchell: Let's talk about the essentials. If you could tell students to master three important aspects of the job to become a stellar lighting designer, what skills or tasks would you personally tell them to master?

Rob Sayer: One skill a lighting designer must develop is that of being able to see and evaluate the light in front of them. In order to recreate lighting onstage, we first need to understand how light behaves in our world and how we experience it. To create a naturalistic lighting effect, the lighting designer has to have observed and noted the real-life version. When we create a stage picture with light, truly seeing and evaluating before making wise changes is what the lighting designer's job is all about.

On a more commercial point, meanwhile, to be successful as a professional lighting designer, you also need sound business and people skills. You could be the greatest light artist on the planet, but if you can't develop networks and manage your own budget -- not just lighting budgets, but your own finances -- you won't last long.

Angela Mitchell: Among the shows you've designed, which was your favorite and why?

Rob Sayer: I have spent a lot of my career lighting one-off shows, often with little preproduction time or prior knowledge of the performance. My favorite shows have always been those "on-the-fly" shows that have worked out particularly well. I have found great satisfaction in lighting such shows, especially with small equipment inventories or challenging venues and time scales.

Angela Mitchell: What are the most common mistakes you see lighting designers making today?

Rob Sayer: The most common mistake I see in aspiring lighting designers is the notion that technology and/or equipment is the answer to any lighting design problem. Along with that often goes specifying lighting equipment that they don't have a clear purpose for, or an unrealistic view of how something will work onstage.

Angela Mitchell: As far as the lighting design process -- do you draft by hand, or on the computer when designing? What tools or software do you prefer?

Rob Sayer: I've CAD-drawn full, large-scale lighting rigs, with 3D visualization, right down to scribbling with a Biro on the back of a tour schedule. I've lit plenty of shows with pretty much no paperwork or had a whole file of hook-ups, lantern inventories and gel cuts. Whatever is appropriate and works for the show. I find Cast Lighting's WYSIWYG software particularly easy to get on with but, to be honest, I have never got my kicks crafting a thing of CAD beauty. But I enjoy lighting shows, and paperwork is often part of the process we use to get to that point.

Angela Mitchell: What's your personal favorite light, gel, and piece of equipment?

Rob Sayer: Fade up the Lee 181 Congo Blue, and everyone'll say "Hey, that lighting looks fantastic, take your fee right now!"

As for equipment, I don't think I really have any favorites. Technology comes and goes, but light is light -- it's brilliant.

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