The Worst Show of My Career
It was the fifth of November and I was about to begin the best and worst experience of my career, I never saw it coming. The (fairly condensed) events that follow led what should have been a relatively simple show and design, into what turned a forty-one hour mess.
I had seen an ad for a company seeking a lighting designer for a musical production taking place mid December, I sent out my resumé on the off chance that they had not found one yet. I got a call back the next day with a request to meet on the fifth. At the time I was happy to design another musical, particularly because it was being held in a larger space at a notable venue, I thought it would be a good next step.
The meeting was fairly normal, it was the same old question set: “What are your goals for this production?,” “We used to perform at
, how did you like working at during your last production?,” “This is an interesting color selection, can you tell me why you chose it?,” and so forth. We soon got into discussing the time frame and proposed calendar: weekly production meeting, coordinating with the venues TD, rehearsal times, and performance dates. Next came the load in.
What I found interesting about this production was that I had exactly six weeks until opening night, however I would only see the final staging and majority of the show once, the eleventh of December, which was less than a week before it was to open. This was new to me, I had always been able to see at least portions of a show and some staging around two weeks out. But I figured I could live with that, that’s not too difficult to deal with.
I was to meet with the house TD and tour the venue about two hours before the next production meeting. After seeing the venue I became a little more concerned with certain time aspects. The part that concerned me was the twenty foot Unistrut grid, no ladders would reach it and there was only one Genie lift available, this might be a problem. But, it was not an impossible problem, the house TD thought everything should go fairly smooth. This was my second mistake, I did not ask enough questions about the venue, I had noticed that the cyc strips were gelled red, blue, blue, but I had assumed this was for the current production and would be reset to the gel listed on the rep plot (red, green, blue). I also did not think to ask about how long it took to hang a plot with only a Genie, had I, I probably would have made drastically different choices. Lastly, I did not ask about the cyc, it was not hung when I was touring the venue, and I again had wrongly assumed that it would be reset as shown on the rep plot.
Over the next two production meetings we were merely discussing changes. I was given an update and final draft of the scenic design. We talked about the use of gobos. Then we looked at some of costumes, they looked surprisingly good, though they were not all there. But from what I saw I thought the gel I had chosen would blend well, and we were set.
Thanksgiving came and went, I began drafting. I was given a paper copy of the rep plot during my tour, but it was not overly helpful as it was not printed to scale. The venue’s info packet had most of the dimensions listed though, and because of the paper plot I knew rough sizes and placements. I took the measurements, opened Vectorworks, and drafted out a model of the venue as accurately as I could.
When we discussed the load in at the very first meeting, I was told that the load in would start at eight in the morning, and go until nine that night. As my crew was IATSE, there were strict deadlines based on a predetermined timeframe. At least one IATSE member was required to be in the space when we were, and they had to leave when the building’s steward left. We were talking about it and I did not see a problem with almost eleven hours to load in (two plus hours total break times). The show was to be open the next morning with a matinee performance.
Then the directors mentioned one little thing, there was a final dress/review performance the night of the load in at seven. Then they stated that everyone else they talked to declined the job because they thought it was impossible. They asked me what I thought, and if I still wanted the job. I said yes because I was cocky and that worked out to being about eight hours to load in and cue the show. I remember thinking that it seemed doable, I had dealt with similar timing before, why would this be any different. Here is where the problem comes in though, I had not yet seen the venue at this time. Even after I had seen it, I did not fully comprehend the difficulties of only having one Genie Lift in this space. This was my first mistake, not asking why other people had turned down the job. I had assumed that it was simply that they did not think it was a reasonable amount of time, which was partly true. However, what I later learned was that the people who declined it had all designed in that space before and knew exactly how long it took to mount a proper design.
This is where it became interesting
One week out I sent out a draft light plot to the house TD to both give him a heads up, make sure they had everything I needed, and to see if there was anything that he thought would give me trouble (his space, he knows best about the clearances). The gist of the answer was he did not think my plot was doable in eight hours. We consulted back and forth for a few days to come up with a mixture of the house plot and my plot that he felt would work best with the time frame allotted. Friday night we finally had a workable plot after a few days, minus a few last minute changes.
Now this is when all the fun began.
Saturday and Sunday I was out of town working on a different show.
Monday morning came and it was time to finish the plot. I had been pretty well decided on gel for a few weeks now, but as I now had a working plot it was time to put in the final gel selections and make sure it worked. Something I should mention is that I ordered ESP Vision after the second meeting. The intent being that I would pre-program the show as much as I could. Well that did not happen as well as I thought. After getting everything into Vectorworks, I had a presentable clean plot. This was great, now all I had to do was print the plot and get it into ESP Vision. I did not know at the time, but I was going to bed for the last time until the show opened.
Tuesday morning, I packed everything I would need tomorrow for the load in. I am almost paranoid about being ready to go in the morning, if I try and pack right before I leave I always forget something, so I try to avoid that. Not knowing exactly what I would want I packed my large tool kit, everything I would need for my laptop, prepped my plot tube, set aside food, and put out some clothes for tomorrow. Then I left for our last production meeting.
In the meeting I explained the final plot and looks, we talked about a few last minute changes, and I saw the final costumes. All seemed good, time to go back to work.
Tuesday afternoon I double checked everything I had packed that morning, then I rebuilt the plot with the ESP symbols, and I started cueing. I knew that the venue used an ETC Insight 2x, so if I was going to pre-program I was going to need to get creative. Having plenty of computers clogging up my desks, I loaded one with the Expression offline editor and set it to the Insight 2x. I then opened ESP Vision on one desktop, and the Hog 3 PC software on another computer (for those who do not know, ESP Vision cannot interface with the Expression OLE, but Hog 3 PC can). From left to right it was Expression OLE, Hog 3 PC, and ESP Vision. It was confusing to say the least. After a writing a few cues on the Hog and replicating on the Expression OLE, I realized that this would take longer than me programming it all the next day. I eliminated the Expression OLE and created looks in ESP Vision for each cue with the hope that I would be able to replicate them quickly. By the time I was done, it was about 3 in the morning, I had no idea it was that late. I then realized that I had not printed off the plot like I had planned to. I looked up the closest twenty-four hour Kinkos and was off. An hour and a half later, I had two perfectly printed plots and all my looks set, and I only had to wait about 3 hours until the load in started. I knew I wouldn’t sleep so I went home, grabbed a shower, packed the car, and had breakfast (which at this point was actually a very late dinner). Thinking that not much else could go wrong, I headed off to the venue, arrived thirty minutes early to meet with the house TD to go over the final plot and make sure everything I needed was still available. This was my third mistake, I should have attempted to finish cueing the show in the Expression OLE, with the total amount of time I had that morning I probably could have knocked out at least a quarter or the cues.
My fourth mistake was not being completely prepared, as I said I had packed everything and set aside food for me to take. Except, I forgot to grab the food I set aside when I left in the morning. This was a crucial mistake, there were parts of the day I was feeling sick due to the combination of not sleeping and not eating enough. That food I had set aside would have left me in a much better standing later in the day.
We ran into our first major problem almost immediately, the cyc needed to be hung. It was estimated to take about forty-five minutes to hang. My carpenter took care of that well my electrician carted up all the instruments. During this time I began to frame the cuts of gel. Our next problem came up when the directors arrived with the set and decided that some of the legs needed to be adjusted, this took another hour. While this was happening the electrician set up the booms and I was still framing gel and gobos. Two hours in and we have barely begun, it was going to be a long day.
I did not really understand how long it would take to hang and focus the instruments with only a Genie lift until now. The venue was set up in a way that the only open dimmers were on the complete other end of the room. This meant that to run the cable for one instrument would take about half an hour of wrangling the cord before it reached the instrument. So we decided that the quickest course of action would be to get everything hung and to worry about circuiting later when we focused what was on that side of the room. Around noon we stopped for our first break. I was beginning to feel it so I went out to one of the unoccupied lobbies and just laid down on a conveniently placed couch, during this time.
Taking a break during a long job is wonderful and it can set you up to keep going, but I had not had anything to eat since breakfast, and I was not going to have a chance to eat again until the dinner break. Instead of lying down, what I should have done is gone out to have a proper meal with everyone else, and I knew this. The best thing for me to do would have been to at least ask someone to bring me back something since I was so set on resting. With happened later, my skipped meal turned from passable mistake into a horrid oversight, because I had expected on taking a dinner break.
When we resumed around one in the afternoon it was crunch time, we had five hours until the final dress/review performance was supposed to start. Almost everything was hung, focused and gelled. Then something none of us had accounted for or realized, the cyc electric’s strips were, rather unusually, gelled to be red, blue, blue. We had a problem, and there was nothing we could do. At this point we had about an hour until call (which was at six). I absolutely needed to start cueing, my carpenter was off the clock already, my electrician needed to take a dinner break at six to be ready for the run at seven. We could not deal with the cyc now, so we cleared everything to the hall, moved the board to the booth. My electrician had to go on break, and I began figuring out the final patch and assigning groups. I whipped out quick looks, I did not have time to cue the whole show now, I would need to take care of that later. I had been planning on eating dinner, but I now needed to work and quickly began regretting that I had not eaten lunch.
Everyone was ready after we delayed until seven-thirty. We went and I did it live while adding and deleting cues on paper, thinking I would fix that later. This also turned out to be a photo call, which I was not made aware of until the next day, when I saw some of the photos in the lobby, which surprisingly looked pretty good for what was effectively a rough draft.
The show finished an hour and a half later and we rushed back to work. At this point we brought back everything needed to finish changing the cyc strips. I tightened up my original looks and then I started cueing. When the cyc strips were done we had to finish one more thing, that we did not have time for before, a blizzard effect. We set out the pans in the correct position and then I went back to cueing, while my electrician focused the lights that would shine on the pans.
The venue normally closed around ten at night when there was not a production running, and my electrician was only supposed to be on the clock until nine. However, because there was a run of a rather prominent musical in another space in the venue, the house staff expected to be there until around midnight. Due to this the house TD and the electrician I had who were incredibly understanding because they had been in this position before with this company, went off the clock for me and the company. I was incredibly thankful for this, and I finished cueing about an hour after they had expected to close (one o’clock Thursday morning). Thus ended my forty-one hour day.
I did not see the matinee performance, but when I saw the electrician (who was running the board) the next day before that evenings performance I was told that the design worked well and that everyone seemed happy. My electrician also told me that they talked to the directors that morning about how the timing of the load in went, and all were under the impression, along with the house TD, that no time was wasted. It was simply that there was not enough time to work in, which convinced the directors to rent the space for a two day load in for their next production.
Now, I routinely pull long days (about once a month), so I have become used to it, but this was the first time I was not fully prepared for it. Coming off it I learned a few things that I had not known before, but most importantly I should have been more prepared and asked more questions. Had I asked more questions, I would have been better prepared for what was coming, and I probably would have been better avoid some of the problems I ran into. I learned to ask more questions in the future, questions I would not have thought of with out having had this experience, so in ways I am grateful for it. I hope that you can take something from my mistakes and prevent yourself from making similar ones.