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Getting Started in a Career in the Live Event Production Industry

Gaining Experience Through Internships & Hard Work

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by Richard Cadena

Finding Summer Jobs and Internships

Finding temporary work in the live event production industry is a great way to get through college. If you’re already in college and you’re looking for a summer job or an internship, then start by talking to as many production companies and manufacturers as humanly possible. Busy production companies can almost always use a hand in the shop and they often like to employ college students. Many manufacturing companies do the same. ETC in Madison, Wisconsin is one such manufacturer who is known for their internship program.

Some industry trade shows also hire college students to help staff their events. In the United States, Lighting Dimensions International (LDI) is one such trade show that hires college students for a couple of weeks each October or November, depending on which month the show falls. And there is no better place to prospect for internships and summer jobs than on the exhibition floor where virtually all of the production industry comes together. If you can’t make it to the show, you can still find a list of production companies and manufacturers by geographical location in the Event Production Directory. The annual publication can be found at your local library or it can be purchased at www.plsnbookshelf.com and it is a great place to start searching for internships.

The School of Hard Knocks

Maybe you don’t have the resources to go to college or technical school or perhaps you aren’t cut out for the college environment. That doesn’t preclude you from working in the industry. There are other avenues for pursuing the career you want, though it may be a longer, harder road.

One way to break into the industry is to start at the bottom, coiling cables in a production company, and work your way up. Every metropolitan area has at least one or two production companies and if you knock on the right doors and say the right words, you could go to work without the benefit of formal training. The right words are something like, “I’m willing to work for little pay for a year or two while I learn, I am eager to learn, and I am a quick learner.” And if you follow through, toil under the tutelage of a mentor or two, and work hard to prove yourself, you could parlay a job in the shop to one on the road where you will gain valuable experience and contacts.

In some ways, working your way up through the industry is harder than it used to be, and in others, it’s easier. It’s harder because the concert production industry is much more mature than it was when some of the icons of the industry, like U2’s lighting designer Willie Williams, started out. Williams began his career by “running away with a punk band” (in his own words) before hooking up with Bono and the boys for a long, prosperous ride on the tour bus.

On the flip side, it’s easier work your way up in the industry than it used to be because there are so many more resources available today to the self-motivated individual. Today there are books on lighting design, programming, rigging, stage management, lighting technology, audio engineering, and just about any subject in the industry that you can think of. Also, the Internet is a great resource for the aspiring designer or technician. Simply by reading user manuals, which are available online, you can get a feel for the gear. There are also computer programs that simulate lighting consoles, many of which are available as a free download. There are also other software packages that simulate lighting rigs and allow you to practice programming in the virtual world using the same syntax as on the actual console.

Open Door, Insert Foot

The key to moving up the career ladder without a formal education is to get your foot in the door, be likeable, work hard, soak up information like a sponge, and realize that everyone you meet on the road is a potential source of work. When the next tour is getting ready to go out, chances are that the production manager will call people with whom he or she has worked and whom they like.

Marc Janowitz, who is currently touring with My Morning Jacket as the lighting designer and director, is one of the warriors of the road who has worked his way up through the industry. Although he did graduate from college, his degree is not in theatre tech, but in philosophy. Like many touring LDs, he started his professional lighting career running lights in a nightclub, honing his programming chops and playback skills. That led to meeting touring bands and other LDs, and soon he was working for Jewel and Morning Jacket, among others, on the road. The concert touring industry is typically less concerned about your college degree and more concerned about whether or not you are reliable, responsible, and skillful.

Think Globally, Work Locally

Another option for breaking into the industry in the United States is to visit the local International Alliance of Theatrical and Stage Employees (IATSE) union and find out what it takes to become a member and get your “yellow card.” There are local branches in every metropolitan area, but some are easier to get into than others. If you happen to live in Chicago or New York City, it’s harder to join than if you live in Austin or Albany.

If you are lucky enough to get on the call list at the IATSE Local, you will more than likely start by loading or unloading trucks, pushing heavy road cases, running cables, and doing whatever needs to be done on a variety of shows. As you develop certain skills, such as programming a lighting console, rigging, or electrical skills, then you will not only get more calls for work but you will also be able to negotiate better pay. These skills come with experience, training, and mentoring.

Continued...

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