I came to lighting design late in my career and purely out of necessity. About nine years ago, I took the helm at Good Luck Macbeth and I didn’t know any lighting designers. I learned how to do it. We had eight Source 4 Pars and a 16 channel light board. It rarely gets easier than that. It also rarely gets harder. I soon outgrew the capabilities of our lighting rig and knew not only would we have to get more lights, we’d have to get more advanced as well.
Most of us know many of the myriad benefits of LED lighting products. Onstage they give us light with less heat (actors like that), less power-draw for spaces not set up for heavy electrical, more colors in less instruments meaning less time gelling and hanging lights, and easier and crazier effects.
There are also a few drawbacks. They reproduce color differently than conventional instruments which can play havoc on skin tones, costumes, and different paints. They malfunction in 10 more and different ways than their simple, conventional counterparts. Dimming curves can be awful. (What’s a dimming curve? I thought you’d never ask… if the way a light goes from full intensity to zero intensity were represented on a chart it would be a curve or a straight line or something in between. LEDs can get really funny near zero for a number of reasons and can stick out like a sore thumb in theatrical lighting when that happens.) Also, they cost a lot of dollars. Usually.
I was lucky at GLM and also RLT when we received support for LED replacements of some of our conventional lighting through NVEnergy. Realistically, neither organization at the time could afford to spend that sort of money on new tech so it was a great jump start. And as that grant program faded away, or at least became less effective for theatrical organizations, we had to look at new ways of funding our increasing LED habit.
As with many products there is an ecosystem for stage lighting. A new, top-o’-the-line moving LED light with all the bells and whistles can cost close to $20,000. For reference, that’s almost my entire technical budget at RLT – sound, costumes, lighting, sets, props, overhire, etc. For one light. On the other end, you can find LED RGB (Red, Green, Blue) stage pars for less than $20.
When I spend the bucks, though, it’s often on lights that are a few years old and used. Getting lighting technology from three or four years ago is still a huge addition to our system. LED nodes are generally rated for between 30,000 and 50,000 hours. That’s a lot in theatre. So buying used from a reputable manufacturer doesn’t often present much of a risk. I have some instruments that were used before me, are now five years older with me, and still perform as well as the day I got them.
Occasionally, I’ll spring for well-respected brands new. It needs to be a really compelling reason, though. Like when our new seating system put people closer to our first two lighting pipes and running High-Intensity Discharge lamps in moving heads with six fans trying to cool the internal components made it sound as though Jane Austen wanted Sense and Sensibility to be performed in a tornado. We purchased three onbrand moving instruments for about $9,000 all together. They should last until I die.
Sometimes, when we have a want, not a need, I’ll purchase the cheapest things I can find. And lots of them. Because they will fail. For many reasons and at the worst of times, they will fail. And until you can fix them (if you’ve learned to diagnose and fix LED instruments), you just plop in one of your “extras” and get on with the show.
In every situation I ask “Is it worth it?” And I ask that many, many times throughout the day as I see deals on hordes of little LEDs that would be so fun, or a used instrument that I’ve been longing for, or a new instrument that promises silent operation at the cost of my salary. Most of the time I decline. But sometimes, just sometimes, I’ll find the right thing at the right price for the right situation. And the theatre gods smile.
About the author:
Chad Sweet worked professionally as an actor, director, and designer in theaters across the country and in Mexico for a decade before moving to Reno in 2004. After taking a hiatus to start a business and paint full time, he returned to theater in 2010 first acting then making the leap to Producing Artistic Director of Good Luck Macbeth for three years until landing at RLT. Some highlights of his career include FOLLIES at Paper Mill Playhouse (1998) working with Stephen Sondheim, Ann Miller, Jerry Mitchell, Donna McKechnie, and Tony Roberts among others; touring the U.S. with educational theater shows for over two years; and spending many beautiful summers at Cortland Repertory Theatre, The New London Barn Playhouse, and The New Harmony Playhouse. He currently serves on the Marketing Committee for the Reno Arts and Culture Commission.