How tour and stage crews can learn to stop worrying and love the show

The challenges faced by a touring production are as unique as the production itself. But one thing we all share in common is the ability to show up at a venue, meet a new production staff, and lead them through a complex setup. Some days that's a simple exercise in courtesy and professionalism. But others it's more like a crisis situation.

As technical director of the Peking Acrobats, the challenge can be substantial. With 25 Chinese kids dropping the fire curtain, or cooking in the dressing rooms, my show doesn't always bring out the best in folks. But like everyone else, I have good days and I have bad ones. At first I just took it as random chance. Some good crews and some bad. (God knows it's always their fault, right?) But over time, we consistently saw fewer and fewer bad days. I developed procedures that don't provoke people, and techniques to defuse those rogue TDs who try to pick a fight.

As I researched this topic, I talked to TDs from dozens of houses, and they would love to tell us folks on the road what we're doing wrong. But we're not going there. And I could write volumes on how local crews could make life easier for us. But the fact is we can't control how the men and women at tomorrow's venue are going to react to the specific brand of chaos that arrives with each production. All we can do is offer leadership and inspire confidence for a positive beginning.

Before You Land

Being in touch with the theatre before you arrive has got to be the very first and most important thing you can do to prepare for a good day. You have to make sure that each TD can reach you on the road. And when they call, you have talk to them. We all know you're busy. So are they. He/she's not calling to chat; they've got questions, and you have to put your current load-in on hold and answer them. If they leave you a message, call them back — now! This guy may have an entire crew standing by waiting to find the answer to a single question. If you blow him off for three hours the day before the show, you're much more likely to find one of those random hard-to-get-along-with crews.

A for Attitude

I know you're an artist. So am I. We've been entrusted with the integrity of the show. Our production is a product, and it's up to us to maintain quality control. But in most cases, the venue has purchased that product. That makes people like you and me the Maytag repairman. We're there to service the client. That nice elderly lady who heads the committee that writes the check? That's your number one concern. Running around like a tyrant is not going to give her confidence in you or your production. This year is already in the books. The show will go on. The check will be written. The question is, do you want to come back next year? Of course, the quality of the production will play a role in that decision, but don't underestimate the importance of the overall experience management has with you and your crew. That's what separates a good TD from a great one.

First Impressions Count

There is no question that each theatre has its own personality, so when you walk in the door, try and figure out how things work in that house before you make a simple mistake and ruin the day for everyone.

Your first impression in a union-run theatre is very important, and the fact is, it's a little tricky. Each local has its own rules, and some locals are vastly more strict than others. There are even differences within the same local. One of the friendliest union venues I ever worked was the Local One on Broadway. Their reputation was brutal. I was lucky enough to find a very professional but somewhat laid-back steward.

When I first walk onto a new stage, I only talk to the person in charge. It shows respect, and will save your ass if you're in a submarine house. (I call it a submarine house when anything you need, you have to ask the supervisor and he will repeat it out to the subordinates, like on a submarine.) Should you go to a stagehand directly and ask for lineset three, not only will you not get it, but also you will have challenged the union authority, and in general pissed everybody off. Usually, after just a few minutes, I see that this house is a little more relaxed, and it's safe to talk directly to the crew. These first few minutes of only talking to the supervisor is also a great time to observe whom the supervisor likes and trusts. Most of the time you will be able to count on those people the rest of the day as well.

The tougher the house, the more important it is to show fair respect to the person in charge. Every once in a while, you'll have a steward (union or non-union) come at you like a bulldog. This is the real world. It's not professional, and it's not fair, but there he is, right in your face, it's six hours to curtain, and you have a show to put on. You need this guy in your corner. I have no magic words that will defuse this goon. But I can tell you that this is a simple man with a simple goal — to look strong in front of his men. If you can stand tall and still find a way to give him that, he may just give you anything you want.

But union houses aren't the only places where you may need to take a few minutes to look around before you get started. Steve Howe, stage supervisor of the Tony Award-winning McCarter Theatre in Princeton, NJ, says, “Just because you're in a college theatre, don't assume you are surrounded by no-talents. Give the place a few minutes to sink in. You'll know soon enough by the way people act and talk if they are competent or not.” This is something Mr. Howe knows a lot about. Working in a professional theatre located in a college, road shows assume these will be student stagehands when, in fact, Howe runs one of the finest crews in the business.

General Courtesy

Sometimes it all comes down to good people skills. Regardless of how great you are with lighting or how organized you are, you will get more done when people want to work for you. Learn people's names. You'll get a lot more from a guy by calling him Bill than “hey, audio guy.” Every time you meet a new person, introduce yourself properly, and get that person's name. Then walk away from that conversation saying to yourself, “Bill is the audio guy. Bill is the audio guy.” Honey, sweetheart, and darlin' are not how you refer to female stagehands. Enough said.

Make eye contact. When you walk in the door I know you want to look right up at the grid and see what you're up against today. But take two minutes for a proper introduction to the crew. Then you can look up together as they fill you in on specific challenges today might bring.

Don't touch anything. Some people will have a heart attack when they learn this, but in many houses it's quite normal for anyone to walk over to the rail and bring in an electric. Since road crews typically grow from small, more relaxed venues into bigger ones, they assume it's OK to touch anything. Of course, as they get into more professional settings, they walk over to the rail and fly themselves into a very bad day. One should always assume everything is completely off-limits until they have spent some time on the stage and observed what normal protocol is.

Stay away from theatre slang. It sounds cool but it'll get you in trouble. Stage weights come in all shapes and sizes. Asking for two pigs on lineset seven is not only unprofessional, but will translate into different weights at different venues. For that matter, not knowing if a theatre has a double purchase or not, you should never tell the rail how much weight to put on. Give estimated weights of your drops, sets, etc., but do not translate that into how much counterweight should be added.

Make a decision. Be quick and decisive even if you're not sure. Do you want the trees standing in the wings or offstage? Just pick one. If it's wrong, you'll know better next time. The more you sound like you know what you want, the more confidence you will inspire in those around you. That confidence will be worth its weight in gold when things get dicey and you need people to follow your direction without question.

These and other people skills will go a long way toward establishing leadership, avoiding conflict, and defusing bad situations. But best of all, consider buying a simple book, and learn about dealing with people.

Pick Your Battles

This is not to say that you can get through an entire tour or even an entire load-in without tensions or disagreements. The trick is to be flexible where you can; this will translate into credit when you need it. “Well, Rusty, lineset 12 has a drop on it, and we were really hoping to leave it there. How about putting the scrim on lineset 11?” The fact is that having the scrim 10" downstage really won't hurt anything so, what the heck? Now, when I need a little something extra, I'm in a good position to ask for it.

Next he comes up and says they just broke a pulley on lineset two, and the whole first electric is going to have to come upstage to lineset three. Ouch! That really hurts. But the fact is, nothing I say or do is going to fix that lineset by showtime, so why go to war over it?

Finally, they say they forgot to order the dry ice, and the nearest place to get it is 50 miles away. That may be my battle. I tell them the dry ice scene is really important, and that we are currently OK on time, so I'm cool with losing someone for a couple of hours while they go and get it. Sometimes the mistakes can be somewhat catastrophic. Like the gel wasn't ordered, and your only choice is what they have in stock. If you can't fix it by showtime, don't fly off the handle. There is a time to lose your temper, and that time is when you are forced to demand something within the power of the venue to supply. But if you've been yelling all day about the focus not being exactly the way you want it, you will lose your effectiveness when it really counts.

When You Know More Than They Do

So far I've been concentrating on big professional houses. But it's just as often that you arrive at the venue to find a group of employees run by a 22-year-old kid. He knows the place inside and out, but he's never seen another theatre. It's always somebody's first day, and the equipment is substandard. Now you take on the role of leader. Here the lady who writes the check is also the lady setting up the catering. She actually cares about her people. She doesn't know they're incompetent, and she doesn't want you abusing them.

Do you go and sit in the bus, and say, “We'll get started as soon you get the washes hung and focused as per the rider”? No, of course not. You are going to jump right in and start slamming this thing together. In your haste you will probably hurt the feelings of many a college kid. Once, after getting the show up and running under what seemed like impossible circumstances, they called my producer and said I was harsh. This is a difficult scenario, but one a lot of us have faced many times. The first step is to accept the reality that tonight will not be one of your better shows. You need to break out the ax and start chopping away at the nonessentials so the show will seem to run clean to those who have never seen it. When faced with this today, I leave the moving lights in the truck, then forget about separating the washes by electric, and try to get a few scenes that will basically not look terrible. Even though I can't stand to see the same lighting used for the whole show, the folks coming to this venue may be accustomed to it. I try and chastise the college kids as little as possible, but if one really gets in my way, I still have him for lunch. I tell the nice lady that everything is great, and this will be a wonderful production.

The simple truth is that this is live theatre on the road. No show is perfect. Sometimes it's your fault, sometimes it's the actor's, and sometimes the magic just doesn't gel right. So, when the electrics aren't perfect, or they forgot to order the dry ice, the show will go on, and people will still applaud at the good scenes. When you load out that night, tomorrow is on your mind, and this show is already forgotten.

I know what it's like to lose sleep, live on fast food, and not see my family for months at a time. Often just being sociable is the challenge of the day. If your main priority is to get the show up and running as clean as possible, then you must gel the local crew with yours, and then lead them both into a positive frame of mind. Make that your only priority when you walk in the door.

I assure you all, I have committed every offense on these pages. Last year, after 36 hours on duty, I refused to begin unloading the truck until coffee and bagels arrived on deck. (I hope the folks in Madison will accept my apologies.) I will in fact commit many of them again on our next tour — hopefully not all on the same day. But by being aware of our priorities and just being respectful to those we work with, our time on the road can go much smoother and faster.

Rusty Strauss is the technical director for the Peking Acrobats. He can be reached at Cirqmaster@aol.com.