Like many jobs in the entertainment industry, theatrical lighting designers contend with inconsistent income. Typically, designers work freelance, constantly seeking the next gig and earning income on a per-show basis. As such, no such thing as “average” exists in this creative profession; lighting designers can earn a wide range of salaries, depending on experience, employer and the number of paid productions completed per year.
Because theatrical lighting designers typically earn per-production pay, the annual salary of a designer depends on the number of productions worked on each year. As an example, online jobs database Simply Hired reported the average salary of a theatrical lighting designer at $19,000 per year in 2011. However, similar online database Indeed reported earnings of as high as $40,000 that same year.
The 2009 Alberta Wage and Salary Survey, conducted by the government of Alberta, illustrated a vast range of hourly earnings for theatrical lighting designers. Adjusted for 2011 inflation and exchange rates, theatrical lighting designers in America can expect to earn anywhere between $9.26 and $35.88 per hour. Professional lighting designer and professor Peter Maradudin created a breakdown on the designer's responsibilities throughout the course of a production; after putting in about 180 hours per show, he found that designers make about $15.86 per hour, adjusted for 2011 inflation rates.
In 2003, Maradudin estimated an average per-gig wage of about $4,600 for theatrical lighting designers, based on pay requirements defined by the League of Resident Theatres (LORT). Adjusted for 2011 inflation rates, this comes to about $5,660 per show. At a steady rate of six shows per year, a theatrical lighting designer would earn an annual salary of roughly $40,000. Based on average New York and Los Angeles rates for unionized lighting crew, State University estimates daily earnings for lighting technicians at $200, as of 2011.
Designers that have studios must pay for rent, utilities and Internet service. These professionals need a drafting table, a library of plays and design books, a computer and the latest drafting software. Union designers pay dues to associations such as LORT. Though designers may be able to negotiate long-distance travel compensation and a per diem from their employers, most day-to-day travel to and from their residences to sets is not compensated.