Everything I ever needed to know about this business I learned in Kindergarten. That wondrous time in your childhood teaches you life’s most important lessons and offers you the mental flexibility to choose what wild things you want to do with your future. If you want to be an astronaut, then be an astronaut. Do you like that shiny red fire truck? Then you can be a firefighting hero driving the rear end of a giant hook and ladder. Caught playing doctor with the cute blonde during nap-time? Well maybe your parents get called in for that one, but the fact of the matter is that you won’t be denied your dream of being a world-class surgeon if that’s what you want to be that week.
Back then, life was wide open. It was nothing but career dreams and exotic macaroni paintings. Above all, a golden rule applied, and that rule stated that you have to play nicely in the sandbox. Your dreams of becoming an astronaut may not have worked out, but the sandbox rules still apply, especially if you are creating a touring production. So put down the Elmer’s and that box of macaroni because school’s back in session!
It’s funny how your life changes as time moves on. You start out with a career goal, and the next thing you know, you’re off on a completely different path. For most people, this is a normal progression of their work lives. For me, it seems to have become a quarterly cycle. I started out almost two decades ago with a single goal in mind. I wanted to design lighting for concert tours. Now, there are some moves you have to make to work toward a goal like that, but for the most part, someone who sets off in the lighting world usually stays in the lighting world. That wasn’t exactly the case with me. Once I reached a level of actually being a "bona fide lighting designer," I then started poking around projection design. After that, I found myself dabbling in scenic, and I quickly dove into mastering as much of that trade as I could. These days, I swing from discipline to discipline like a primate. This year alone started me off in lighting design, shifting to video content creation, swinging over to scenic needs, and ultimately leaping toward a producer role which has me calling on all of my various careers while adding that "taboo" world of audio to the mix in helping to create full musical tracks and dealing with artists’ musical arrangements.
Changing hats is a blessing and a curse at times, but for the most part, the departure from the norm breaks up the little monotony there is. Above all else, one thing is certain: Being forced to master multiple disciplines has given me a great understanding of the importance of all design departments and the need to play nicely with each other in order to achieve the best possible artistic and financial success.
Someone recently asked me what made my designs different from those of other designers. It was a very odd question to be asked so bluntly, but it was also a completely valid one. At first, I was a bit stumped, having been caught off guard, but I soon realized a fundamental difference, and interestingly enough, it had little to do with artistic creativity. What really makes my work different is that I do everything in my power to play nicely with others. You see, there are tons of creative people out in the world, and there are a lot of people who are more creative than I am. However, there aren’t many who are both creative and take into account all of the other departments on a touring production. It’s extremely important to remember the logistics of what you’re designing and how they will not only travel and be set-up each day on a tour, but also how they will affect the other departments of a very kinetic business machine that is always looking to stay profitable. Just because you can draw something on a napkin or in a fancy CAD program doesn’t mean that it’s what should be hanging over a stage. It may be wildly creative and never done before, but its construction could possibly cause every other department a delay each day on the road that could cause financial chaos.
Coincidentally, this rather odd question was posed to me on a project where I was wearing a producer hat, and it was brought up in regard to the lighting rig, which had caused significant delays to every other department. This particular lighting designer had seemingly not done the appropriate homework and had little concern for any other department. The simple mistake of miscalculating the size of the arena floor’s width caused multiple spans of lighting truss to break the seating lines of the arena’s lower bowl, translating to lighting trusses monopolizing the arena floor space during load-in for far longer than necessary, while tricky rigging and angry local labor hands had to deal with an awkward hang and an uncompromising designer. More importantly, this meant that video couldn’t use floor space to pre-build wall elements, carps couldn’t build the main stage early, backline couldn’t be loaded onto the stage, FOH risers couldn’t be built in final positions, and the list goes on.
It soon became a trickle-down effect of production disasters that the production manager would not tolerate for a tour’s full run once we had more than two consecutive nights with doors held while thousands of anxious fans waited outside the arena. In this case, even catering was affected, as crew members who would have normally been able to eat on the production’s proper schedule repeatedly missed meals due to the delays and forced the conscientious caterers to make special meals.
All of this was simply due to the inconsideration of the design’s impact on the overall production. What ultimately happens when doors are held too long is that the artist is then asked to shorten the performance, not something that anyone really wants to happen. If the artist goes longer, then a venue curfew might be broken, thus incurring a fine, local labor could go into unnecessary overtime charges, and/or the next day’s performance might be cancelled if the production wraps too late in the previous city to make it to the next one in a timely fashion. That forces either an unscheduled tour extension to make up the date or flat-out ticket refunds.
It is a tragic tale, especially since we were all taught the golden rule all the way back in kindergarten, and this entire mess could have been avoided. Instead, we had what we affectionately refer to as a "financial touring nightmare" because, at the end of the day, all of this trickles down to the tour accountants who often care little for the art of a production. They are primarily in charge of keeping a show profitable, and when your inability to play nicely with the other kids starts affecting the grown-ups’ bottom line, well, you may be forced to change the pasta on that macaroni painting pretty quickly.