Article by Michael Murnane
Just as there are many theatre and dance lighting designers, there are many corporate and industrial lighting designers. But in the Twin Cities, few are as legendary in the theatre/dance community as Michael Murnane, owner of Footcandles LLC. A designer of tremendous versatility, he’s been an inspiration for many of my generation, and very few of us have not worked for Michael at some point. -Wu Chen
Rumination on the experience of being a lighting designer/ director (aka solving problems with light) for corporate events and how that differs from the role of lighting designer in the theatrical environment.
My first corporate gig was a fashion show for a local department store. It was a large theatrical event that hired a dance company that I was working with to entertain and model. I was nervous and inexperienced, but I was surrounded by other theater artists so I felt comfortable enough to go for it. Since then I’ve managed a small business that has provided solutions for a wide variety of lighting and technical challenges to a diverse clientele while at the same time, maintaining my love for lighting the stage.
I’ll define a corporate event as any event that is not specifically serving art as product. In other words, any event with an agenda to educate or to sell something. The audience is often required to be at a sales meeting or a product launch, rather than there by choice at a theatrical event. Another example of a corporate event is an event that draws the audience in with the purpose of selling something. It sounds cynical, but a holiday walk through show is a corporate event - a strategic marketing choice to bring bodies to a location where things are being sold.
On a daily basis, here are some of the key differences I’ve found between corporate and theatrical lighting design.
Time is Money
The most obvious difference is more money, but that doesn’t mean I get unlimited money. Perhaps my favorite aspect of having bigger budgets is that it often allows (and forces!) me to be an early adopter of the latest technology in entertainment lighting.. I am regularly challenged with recreating what a producer or a corporate executive saw in a show or concert somewhere else. Probably my least favorite job is explaining and proving to a client that their artistic vision is grander than their budget. I know that we all face that challenge but it’s a bit trickier when the executives are not used to hearing no from anyone.
It is surprisingly difficult to make the case for time onsite. To be fair, event producers often have their hands tied by the clients’ need to compress the schedule. Regardless, it takes time to put on a show and if you don’t have time, you place more stress on the labor budget. I spend a good deal of my time on scheduling, negotiating budgets, and planning labor.
Business is Business
A theatrical design contract is fairly straight forward with generally only a few negotiable points – fee, rehearsal dates and materials budget. The wide variety of corporate events means that each new client has its own billing requirements, insurance coverage needs and procedures to bid, do the work, get paid, purchase equipment or reimburse expenses. For example, I carry three different types of liability insurance (including one that protects my business from a client that sues me for screwing up their show. Yeah that’s a thing, and one of which I had never even heard of before, Inland Marine?) I have an accountant and a tax lawyer (really great to have when an accounting mishap lands you a three year audit.) and until recently I had a payroll service. I honestly don’t know if I would need all those services if I were lighting plays.
The creative and logistics processes are different for every client. There is no uniform process for designing a corporate event, but here are two different ways a sales meeting can happen.
Client A is very well planned and organized. Upfront they supply me with a budget, a schedule, contacts, preferred vendors, site survey information and photos, travel plans and drawings ready for me to layer on a light plot. Often there are set renderings with lighting suggestions and they are interested in my input.
Client B, not so organized. They want me to supply the drawings because, you know, you’re the lighting designer. Oh, and by the way could you just throw a few decks down on the plot and masking and chairs and … No venue information, the budget is kind of nebulous, the schedule is “the show’s on Tuesday” and “can you book your own travel.” Inevitably after doing the drawings the client wants to turn the whole room ninety degrees, just because they can. These sound like extremes but I have clients like these and everything in between every year.
Communicating with Corporate People
In a theatrical production meeting we take for granted communicating in a kind of a shorthand – we all speak a common language. But in a corporate client meeting, I have to remind myself that they may not understand the sentence: “We will use swivel cheeseburgers connected from the upstage side of the downstage truss to the downstage side of the upstage truss to hang the masking.” Or “we’ll try some 201 to cool that off a bit for video.” It’s my job to translate.
Event lighting design is a service industry, rather than a collaborative art form. I find satisfaction in cultivating relationships with customers. I’ve found that clients want to feel like everything is handled. I learned that by listening carefully to the corporate event planners, participating in the overall design process and taking on problem solving responsibilities (not necessarily just lighting) the relationship shifts to more of a partnership - much closer to the feeling of the theatrical design team model. Long after I had learned this I attended a marketing seminar that a friend hosted, which gave me a clearer understanding of what I had been doing right in terms of longevity with my clients.
The Theatrical Pyramid Verses the Corporate Event Pyramid
This is my favorite in terms of personal growth.
In the world of corporate events, the lighting designer and the entire production crew, are, in corporate speak, on the bottom of the pyramid. Everyone working on the project (except maybe the caterer) is your boss, they all have opinions, and they are not necessarily interested in working in a mutually collaborative way. Imagine spending eight hours of valuable programming time managing two programmers, 200 moving lights, media servers and atmospherics only to have an executive see the opportunity to impress their boss by telling you that what you are doing is not “properly honoring the brand, do it this way.” How you respond in that situation can have a lasting effect on your career. It takes a lot of self-control in that moment not to blurt out “but I’m doing what we talked about in that meeting!” See Communicating with Corporate People above. It’s in that moment when you remember that you are in a service industry and to respond by saying “How can we make this work for you?” Or, you blow up and lose a client.
Over the years of corporate lighting my designer’s ego has taken some significant beatings. Sadly, I have blurted on a few occasions but I think that learning humility, good listening skills and flexibility has been good for me and my business. I like to think that I bring that to my theatrical work as well.