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Eight Ways to Become Nick Whitehouse

Chris Lose • LD at LargeMarch 2020 • March 7, 2020

Illustration by Andy Au

On the road, I get asked two questions all the time: “What do you do all day?” And, “How can I get to do what you do?” The answer to the first question is easy. I play on my phone, check in and out of hotels and light rock stars. The second question is so much harder. Usually, I don’t respond adequately. I just give the inquisitive person my business card and ask them to email me later. If they email me, I take the time to help in any way that I can. If they don’t email me, then I have saved myself the 30 minutes required to answer their question. The question is hard to answer because there are too many options. If I asked eight people how they got into lighting, I would get ten different answers. From now on, I hope this article will be your first response when you find yourself in this same predicament. My good friend Nick Whitehouse, CEO, lighting designer and creative producer for Fireplay, helped me put together a list of eight possible paths to lighting dominance. Let’s begin.

‡‡         The Eight Paths

You just asked a professional touring LD how to get into the industry. You’re inquisitive and motivated. That’s a great start. They sent you to this page to help answer your question. I’m sure that you are excited to learn everything there is to know about the uber-glamorous world of rock ‘n’ roll lighting design, direction and creation. Most importantly, you want to know how to get your size tens into the front door of the lighting industry. Here are eight ways that you can become Nick Whitehouse.

Go to school and get an education. This path takes the longest. You will learn the basics first. “Don’t front light with green,” “Don’t plug 110V into 220V sockets,” and the like. This path may seem boring and tedious at times, but a degree will help you out when you least expect it. Whitehouse would like to warn you, “Just be wary of getting out of school and expecting to walk into being a big-time LD just because you have that degree.” Being the know-it-all on the tour and telling a veteran crew chief how to hang light better won’t work out well for you. Whitehouse says, “Education is a fantastic leg up, but some of the things that make great designers only come with experience. Knowing what to do when things go wrong is just as important as a cool design and the latest programming.” Never stop learning.

Join your community theater. You can volunteer at your local theater and learn from the elders of the community. This path allows you the freedom to choose your field before you make a commitment. You can try sound, lighting and wardrobe without fully committing to any specific field. Whitehouse reminds us that “you’ll also find out if you have the bug. Many of us started in a theatrical background learning how to make an amazing show on a shoestring budget.” Stagecraft is something you master at this level. If you can make an amazing show out of nothing, imagine what you can do with a bit of budget and some cool lights.

Become a local stagehand [non-union]. This path takes the least time. You can just jump right in, learn while you make money and claw your way up. You can prove your work ethic to local theaters, technicians and ask for additional assistance. Whitehouse says, “I’ve met some amazing people who went this path. Some started as a stagehand and were so good that they were hired right onto a small tour. A few of my best friends started this way and now they hold senior positions on the largest tours in the world.”

Become a local stagehand [union]. This path requires a little bit of luck and a lot of motivation. Local unions won’t accept just anyone. Generally, you need to have a relationship with the union before you can waltz right into a top spot. “If you go this route and get into a good union you might not want to tour at first. If you’re good at your job, a career in the union is very rewarding and lucrative,” Whitehouse says.

Join your church production team. You can learn how to use and maintain the gear on someone else’s dime. Depending on the size of your parish, churches generally have lower stress levels than a more professional setting. Brian Vaughan, lighting director for Justin Timberlake, took this path. Whitehouse also uses numerous people from the church production world. He says, “it’s a great place to learn and test your skills.”

Apply to work in the shop at a local rental company. Getting hired in the shop isn’t a sure shot, but it will get your hands on the most current gear. Working in the shop will teach you how to repair the gear, what the gear is called and how the gear networks together. This path requires a commitment of a few years in a gray cement warehouse. The shop hours will seem long at first, but as you gain knowledge, you will slowly be set free into the field. Like a rehabilitated cougar being released into the wild, you will be watched and monitored as you grow into your full potential on the show floor, or even on the road. Whitehouse firmly believes that understanding how a fixture works allows you to fully use them most effectively. Because Whitehouse has fixed lights, he would not ask his crew to do anything he would not have done himself. This is a slow-but-steady way to the top of the heap.

There is always nepotism. Take the most direct path. By all means, use your leg up. If you are lucky enough to have an uncle in the industry, don’t let me or any haters stop you from taking full advantage of every benefit. If you were dealt a winning hand in the birth lottery that we call life, then you should ride the gravy train all the way to mashed potato town. Nepotism may guarantee you a shot, but it does not guarantee you a spot. Daddy Warbucks may be able to get you a bunk on the bus, but it’s up to you to prove that you deserve that bunk. Whitehouse reminded me that “You’re only as good as your last gig. Make sure you treat all opportunities with everything you have, and people will take notice.”

Work for a bar band that makes it big. This is a unicorn situation where a bar band makes it big and they bring their lighting guy with them. I know fewer than five people that have been lucky enough to experience this. The chances are so unlikely that this will happen that I hate to mention it. However, our industry is known for making dreams come true, and I would hate to smash your dreams. If you think this is your path, then you should take it.

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