Professor Don Guy, Head of Technical Theatre Department
What do you do in the professional world?
In the professional world, I’m a lighting designer first and foremost, and I also will occasionally serve as a technical director. I also serve as a lighting director, but primarily lighting designer.
How did you get into this field?
I fell in love with lighting watching rock and roll concerts, being a part of theatre and whatnot. I started working with different rock and roll tours and doing summer festivals, and doing lots of community theatre, professional theatre, it just went from there.
What do you like best about what you do?
What I like most about the field I’m in currently, lighting, that’s what I’ve chosen as my life’s path, I enjoy the fact that I’m able to work on lots of shows, I’m able to work on multiple shows at once. Last year alone, I did over 52 projects outside of school. I always feel that it’s not so much the projects, it’s the people, so working on more projects gives me the opportunity to work with more people, to cast a larger net for networking and I just love working on shows, I love being in what we call technical rehearsals, which is where the metal meets the meat, it’s where you get to test your mettle, where you’re down to the clock putting a show on and I like that, I feel like a thrive under that sort of pressure situation, I always have, so the more shows the better. I get the adrenaline rush every time I do it.
Do you have something that you’d consider to be the biggest mistake you’ve made?
I don’t really feel like I’ve made too many mistakes. Looking back on it, there are things I could have tried to learn more about. Seeing where the lighting industry is going, I probably would have at an younger age started looking more into projections and medias servers and things of that nature. And I learn that as I go, but I see where lighting is really moving into the realm of video and if I knew then what I know now I would have pressed in that area a little more.
What is one of the most important things that you’ve learned?
The most important thing about this business, first and foremost, is meeting your deadlines and being honest, working hard everyday, never giving up. That tenacity is hard to teach, you’re born with it, and it’s something you have. My parents did a really good job of instilling that in me. May father is very much a driven man, my siblings are driven, we’re all driven people, we’re driven in whatever we decided to do in life, and no one else in my family’s a lighting designer for sure, but I’m very driven at what I do. I love it, I usually wake up and I’m thinking about it. If I’m reading anything, it’s typically about lighting, about the industry. I’m always trying to improve. I think that what I like about it so much is that technology changes so rapidly that you can never master it, so it’s one of those thing where you can be a lifelong student and I enjoy academia, that’s why I teach, I enjoy students, but I myself enjoy being a student. By the time you learn one new light and what it can do, the next light’s out and it’s a whole new set of opportunities for you to learn and that why I like lighting so much. It’s because it’s so driven by technology, and I never get enough of it. I love reading, I love studying, I love what goes into making it happen and how all of these different systems work and integrate together and I love being a part of that in the industry. I feel like I’m always on the cutting edge.
What would you suggest for someone interested in getting into your field?
If you’re serious about being in this field, you have to think about it as more than being just an artist, and I stress that a lot in my classes. You really should take classes in computer science. You should take as many computer and networking classes as you can. All the systems that we have speak together. You should also take engineering courses, if they’re available to you. Math is going to be something that you rely heavily on as well. So, when you talk about being a left-brain vs. right brain, I think being a lighting designer is being an artist that deals with technology. You’re able to use both sides of your brain as opposed to some art which may not use as much mathematical computation. This art requires a lot of it and a lot of computer skills. Everything’s going more and more to computers, and so the more you know, the more it empowers your art because if you don’t know what a piece of machinery can do, if you don’t know it’s full capabilities, then you’re only going to be able to utilize it to whatever you know. So if you know everything there is to know about that piece of equipment, that instrument we call it, then you can get the most out of it and I think that’s where a lot of lighting designers fall short because they don’t give themselves the opportunity to stay current, so they’re always a little bit behind the eight. Continuing education is a must. You’re only as good as your last show, you’re only as good as what you did a week ago, so you have to really stay current. You have to really want it, you have to love it because the information isn’t just going to present itself to you, and clouds aren’t going to part and it’s going to fall on the ground in front of you. You have to seek it, you have to seek knowledge all the time and it’s not easy, you have to find time in your schedule trying to make a living to get that training. It’s a never-ending battle, but it’s one that I love to face.
Where would you suggest students look for exposure and entrance into the design field?
To be a designer, you really need to go to a graduate school, first and foremost. As a designer, most designers have some sort of graduate training — they have their master’s degree. With that, you’re very strategic in the school you choose to go to because the school you choose will technically be your network. It’s the group of people you will be associated with possibly your entire career. So choosing a graduate school that has a lot of their alumni working in the field, the professors are working in the field, it’s very, very important, because it’s an industry where it’s very important who you know, I’m not going to lie to you. Then you go to the school and then you do well while you’re there. You work hard. Then what you’ve done is you’ve developed yourself a network and those are the directors that are going to be calling you to design for them, those are other designers that you are going to be assisting possible or working with, and that’s really the key. Now depending on what field you want to be in, your road to becoming a professional may be a little different, but you have to look at being an assistant first. You start as an assistant or someone who’s working with a designer and you sort of serve as an apprentice if you will, and you work your way up. That’s how you do it. I assisted many, many, many designers, and then one thing leads to another and you start getting your own designs and then you find your way. But you have to break into the business and typically it’s done by assisting designers and then you work your way up until you get the chops and you join the union or whatever it is you might do, but it’s difficult. It’s going to take someone who’s willing to put in the time, to be quite honest with you, but if your heart is in it and it’s what you want to do, then you’re going to pay your dues. We all have to pay dues, that’s the thing behind it. Knowing that, make sure you get the right education, make sure you meet the right people, and then make sure you’re willing to put in the time that it takes to crest that hill so you can become a designer yourself. It’s not easy, but once you do get to the point where you can sustain yourself, it’s quite rewarding.
Are there any other important things that a student should know?
The entertainment business is a very collaborative art form. One thing that’s not easily taught in a classroom is interpersonal skills, how to work with others, how to collaborate, things like that. There’s certain things you can set up as a sort of laboratory component to a classroom, but at the end of the day, that “real world experience” is something that needs to be experienced, it’s something that really can’t be taught in a textbook. You try to get that experience because that is going to be the key. Most people want to work with people that meet deadlines and that are good people and they’ll take that over talent any day, especially someone who’s talented and lazy or a loafer or they don’t get along with people, things of that nature because when you’re working in a collaborative setting, synergy is everything. It’s how you work and how you relate to others. It’s very hard sometimes for people to realize that their idea may not be the best one, that what you want to have happen is not happening today. It’s learning to have that give and take, because some days you get your way all day long and there are some days where it is just not happening. It’s that give and take, that collaboration. It’s giving as much as you’re taking and not being gluttonous about it. It’s a fine line, and it’s very hard to learn in a classroom setting. That’s one thing that I really think students should try to master quickly, working well with others and just being a good person. You mean what you say, you say what you mean, and if you say you’re going to do something by a certain time, you’re early. You get it done early, and I can’t stress that enough because that still means a lot in the business world, for sure, and there are no excuses. You don’t make excuses for anything because time is money and there aren’t any excuses for that. You have to get the job done.
Do you have any closing thoughts or comments you’d like to share?
Let’s see, it’s a big open field, what I do. I encourage students who are interested in it to think about the possibilities that are out there. It’s a vast industry, not just the lighting design for theatre, but you have architecture, themed entertainment, casinos, there’s so many areas where you see light on a regular basis. Many of my friends that were designers, are still designers, become manufacturing representatives and they’ll sell lighting equipment and they work in factories and the R and D equipment and they’re always putting lights out there in the hands of consumers. It’s a very vast field. A lot of times at the university level, we don’t have the time to get into that, they kind of think ‘Oh, we’re going to put on a play.’ But there’s so much more to light than just theatre. I that’s what I encourage my students to, whether you’re lighting the Empire State building, or you’re lighting a play, or you’re shining one spot light on a singer in a jazz club, there’s so many possibilities and if you sort of broaden your breadth of work and you start looking at what’s available to light, I think the industry as far as being a lighting designer, it’s a very deep, deep pool, a very deep field for you to get into because it never stops. One of my teachers was the most prolific designer of theme parks in the world and I always thought that was a very exciting thing. So I’ve worked in the theme park world, I’ve worked in concerts, I’ve done theatre, opera, dance, architecture, restaurants, high end retail, it just goes on and on and on, anywhere I can plug a light in and point it at something, I think I’ve done in my life. I owe it all to my education, number one, and I owe it all to me being very inquisitive and wanting to obtain as much knowledge as I can obtain, and not being afraid to step outside my comfort zone, to be trained in a theatrical or a concert world and to think that I can go and light a high end retail. It’s no different, it’s still putting on a show, it’s still putting light where you need to put it, and it’s still making things look good. So if you’re not afraid to step outside your comfort zone, the possibilities for employment are endless in this field for sure. It’s very rewarding.