Challenging the Challenges Facing C21st Theatre Training: Lighting, training and collaboration

The following post is part of a series of responses that are framed by Jonathan Pitches here.

Previous posts can be found here.

In their article “Toward Revising Undergraduate Theatre Education”, Peter Zazzali and Jeanne Klein (2015) maintain that theatre pedagogy and curricula have remained largely unchanged for over forty years. They write, “[T]heatre professors seem to merely recycle what they were taught, albeit with new infusions of technology” (p.261). It is worth noting, first of all, that Zazzali and Klein are both based in the United States, and therefore presumably this is a criticism of the prevailing American pedagogy. Indeed, this is an observation that seems to be echoed by others in the US, particularly those working in the teaching of theatre design. Raynette Halverson Smith notes that “the scenic design process has become frozen, steeped in tradition […] at its core it has remained unchanged since the practices outlined early in the [twentieth] century by Craig, Appia, and Robert Edmond Jones” (quoted in Isackes, 2008, p.41). In the same article, Richard M. Isackes confesses that his teaching of theatre design “was largely based on an unquestioned replication of the training I had received as a student [and] there was a major disconnect between my practice as a designer and the theoretical methodology I was advancing in the classroom” (p.41), a realisation that led him to examine his own pedagogical practices.

Much of contemporary lighting design training can trace its roots to the techniques of Stanley McCandless, whose A Method for Lighting the Stage (1932) was the first formalised method for lighting a production. While knowledge of McCandless’ method can be useful for lighting design students, it is limiting in both scope and potential for creativity; it belongs, as Linda Essig (2007) maintains, in “the lighting history curriculum” (p.66, emphasis in original). Paradoxically, however, McCandless’ techniques form the basis of contemporary pedagogy. In the UK, Richard Pilbrow’s (1997/2000) Stage Lighting Design is often the “go-to” handbook for novice, amateur or student lighting designers. Pilbrow’s method draws heavily on McCandless; while acknowledging that McCandless’ “formula should be loosely and freely interpreted” (p.13), he also states that lighting designers “would be foolish to forget the basic precepts of the [McCandless] Method” (ibid.). In the US, the McCandless method has given rise to another in recent years, the so-called “jewel” method of lighting, which builds on McCandless’ but takes into account not only the availability of new technology but also the expectations to use it.

As Zazzali and Klein argue, “We are selling our students short if we strictly focus on their job placement and prospective careers in the conventional sectors of the entertainment industry” (p.262). They note that employment statistics and the ability of an undergraduate programme to prepare students for a “conventional” and “stable” job in the arts upon graduation are often the measure of “success”, presumably as these are easily quantifiable measures. In the United States, “approximately 900 undergraduate programs mimic an estimated 1,773 regional theatres for which they are presumably training students for employment” (p.262). However, according to German director and theatre educator Heiner Goebbels (2013), many fail to recognise that theatre education is “the end of a very long chain” that is “not conceived to renew or revise the aesthetic, much less consider questioning the structures and institutions, for which they are educating young aspirants” (p.43). Goebbels maintains that educators should be facilitators whose aim is to encourage students to develop their own aesthetic. They should further be encouraged to challenge the existing structures and hierarchies that exist within established institutions, and he cites in particular the case of teaching theatre design. There is therefore a tension in education between the need to prepare students for employment and the need for students to explore and develop their own aesthetic. In the UK, there is a further tension between those courses that provide very specialised training (for example, in lighting design or lighting programming, usually at drama schools rather than universities) and the types of companies in which recent graduates will most likely find themselves working. A recent review of the UK’s offstage workforce noted this discrepancy in training versus the reality of employment. One focus group participant stated: “As a generalisation, there’s an awful lot of students that I’ve spoken to recently that are really focused on lighting design. And I think ‘good luck with that one’, because there are thousands of lighting designers out there. It might be great to do that, but you need to get the basics, because on your first day in the theatre you’re not going to be doing the lighting design. Not enough are getting the basics” (Nordicity, 2017). More and more work is happening outside theatre buildings, in environments with flatter hierarchies (or even heterarchies), including tandem directing teams and collectives who devise productions together (as demonstrated by the case studies in Mermikides and Smart (2010)). Duška Radosavljević (2013) refers to “deprofessionalisation” – an unwillingness of company members to adhere to “traditional” roles, instead taking an interdisciplinary approach to collaboration in which they might fulfil multiple roles, at least initially, though specialisms may start to emerge at later stages in the process (see Mermikides’ chapter on Shunt in Mermikides and Smart (2010), for example).

Therefore, it seems that the aim of theatre education should be to prepare students to be excellent collaborators and to allow them the time and space to, as Goebbels (2013) advocates, “renew or revise [their] aesthetic” (p.43). More attention could be paid to these areas, particularly by UK drama schools, which are producing graduates with very specialised skills, rather than an overall knowledge of contemporary theatre-making practices; with this comes empathy for their fellow collaborators and an understanding of the process as a whole – all of which make for more competent collaborators.

Kelli Zezulka, Postgraduate researcher, School of Performance and Cultural Industries, University of Leeds

Essig, Linda. 2007. “Stanley McCandless, lighting history, and me”. Theatre Topics, 17(1), pp.61–67.

Goebbels, Heiner. 2013. “Research or craft?: Nine theses on educating future performing artists”. PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art, 35(1), pp.43–48.

Isackes, Richard M. 2008. “On the pedagogy of theatre stage design: A critique of practice”, Theatre Topics, 18(1), pp. 41–53.

Mermikides, Alex and Jackie Smart. 2010. Devising in Process. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Nordicity. 2017. Workforce Review of the UK Offstage Theatre and Performing Arts Sector. Available at [accessed 30 December 2017].

Pilbrow, Richard. 1997/2000. Stage Lighting Design: The Art, the Craft, the Life. London: Nick Hern Books.

Radosavljević, Duška. 2013. Theatre-Making: Interplay Between Text and Performance in the 21st Century. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Zazzali, Peter and Jeanne Klein. 2015. “Toward revising undergraduate theatre education”. Theatre Topics, 25(3), pp. 261–276.

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