I AM VERY GRATEFUL THAT MY background in lighting is diverse — I started out as a theatrical designer, worked as an associate and assistant on Broadway, transitioned into corporate, have lit many bands, and have had the opportunity to do live television. No matter what discipline I was in, I remained convinced that my job was the most stressful of all lighting jobs. A legit designer waiting for the opening night performance to start, a corporate designer waiting for the CEO to change everything, or a TV LD waiting to hear the first screams of the engineer, most of us feel a level of superlative stress.
However, as I look back and try to quantify this anxiety, I realize that one discipline has it hands down over all others — there is no stress like party stress. Specifically, that deep, gut-wrenching pain one experiences a half hour before doors are set to open on a major special event. You are dodging eye contact with the client who has discovered you're “the lighting guy” in order to tell you that they've discovered that red, while previously their favorite color, is also the symbol of Satan, and that they would like all 96 uplights to change color. Right now, please. OK, forget the please. Right now.
What is it about events that both make them thrilling to design as well as terrifying to work? Let's look at this unique field to discover why dressing up to watch other people eat is both so stressful and rewarding.
On the logistics side, there is no question that parties are a tough nut to crack. For many special events, the information you receive would, in any other field, qualify as no information at all. When you are doing a truly organized gig, you may actually get a ground plan. If all the stars are in alignment, that ground plan may actually be in CAD. The worst drawing I ever got was a room layout, taken as a screen shot from party-planning software, inserted into a Microsoft Word document.
In the absence of a ground plan, often your only source of information is a party planner pointing ambiguously at the walls muttering, “There is going to be a photo montage there. It needs to be lit. As does the bar next to it.” From this person, you need to discern how many tables need pin spots.
There is often no published schedule, so you are forced to decide when to load in, when to schedule the load out truck, and tons of other logistical issues that would normally be handled by a producer or a TD. These people seemingly don't exist on parties. As a designer, we need to discern if there is going to be a client walk through at a certain time, or if the DJ is going to do a 250 decibel sound check at the same time you're going to focus.
One of the hardest things to adjust to is you have to check your ego at the door even more so than in other elements. Many LDs have gone through years of training and have tons of experience under their belts. We all have real skills that we've developed over the years, such as drafting, organizational skills, gear procurement, not to mention that we are lighting designers, which requires all sorts of creative abilities that mortals can only imagine.
However, at a party, you are the lowest of the low. You are a step below the florist, who is a step below the decorator, who is a step below the party planner, who is a step below the caterer, who is a step below the in-house staff. If there is an architectural column that needs to be uplit, and the waiter decides to put a folding stand over your PAR46, the waiter is going to win. After a while, you feel like the Falklands at war with the British; you can put up a nice fight for a while, but you're just going to lose, and the battle itself is just going to be an awkward moment in history.
The fact that everyone who works for the venue hates you will eventually get to you as well. As a lighting department, you've often displaced an existing in-house AV department or a preferred vendor. The maitre d, who smiles so nicely at the bride and groom, will instruct his staff to empty the ice containers on your feeder as quickly as you can say “somebody tip that guy.”
Further challenges abound. In legit or corporate, we often complain about the size of the FOH footprint we are allowed. If we can't fit our primary and backup consoles, as well as two laptops and a laser printer, all within easy ergonomic reach, we tend to complain to everyone who will listen. Needless to say, on a special event, you are lucky if you can get your console into a broom closet that isn't filled with, well, brooms.
So, with all this adversity, what good can come of the events? Over time, I have developed a strategy for dealing with these projects that makes them both successful and less stressful than they might be. By understanding your situation, having a plan beforehand, surrounding yourself with your best people, and picking the best possible clients, you have a chance of not only getting through a job, but having a good time and walking away with a project of which you can be proud.
Once you recognize what you are getting into, it is all a lot easier to handle. I have realized that the vast majority of parties are going to be eight hours of disorganization followed by 45 minutes of sheer panic. Knowing that the panic phase is coming allows you to pace yourself emotionally for what's to come.
Being prepared in the face of this disorganization has proved to be the most valuable lesson that I've learned. It's counter-intuitive: if everything is going to be a muddled disaster, what good does it do to spend hours drafting a light plot and checking focal lengths? Having a plan, even one that is going to change massively, is exponentially better than having no plan at all. It is easier to revise than it is to create. By having at least a theoretical lighting layout, you ensure that the event is at least a theoretical success.
Another valuable lesson is to surround yourself with the best people possible on your team. Often, on smaller special events, it's natural to not want to push the client with high day rates from the best electricians and labor contractors. Presumably, the thousands of florists aren't making the wheel barrows full of money that the average production electrician takes home. It is tempting to find someone cheaper to do the job to closer match what we perceive is the expected budget. However, with the crazy schedule and load in factors, this is a mistake: you need your regular team at your side and ready to go.
We all have a history with our crews, and hopefully it's not all bad. As a designer, I look to the same group of electricians again and again to staff my projects, both because I think they are the best at doing their jobs, but also because we've grown used to each other. In the thick of it, in that 30-minute panic before doors, you want to be able to scream “Help!!!!” and have the team come running. If the job is your electrician's first with you, he or she might think you are a total nut and decide that this is a good opportunity to put the crew on break. If it's one job in the history of a hundred, he'll come running.
It's a two-way street, of course. When you get people who are going to treat you well, you have to treat them well. For example, even though there is going to be mayhem in the venue from load in until load out, it is often going to fall on the designer to decide that it's time to take a break, or hop in the car and go get the crew some lunch. On a party, if you don't take care of yourself, no one is going to do it for you.
Finally, and most importantly, it is important to pick your clients well. I know this is an oxymoron; the clients pick us, not the other way around. However, we all know that no one is going to be on their death bed saying “Man, I wish I did one more show.” Indeed, deciding which shows you are going to do is the most difficult decision to make. All the best shows come from the best clients, and coveting those relationships is clearly the path to happiness. The best decorators have the best parties; they are organized and create an environment that is thrilling to light. I'm not suggesting people should turn down a lot of work, but often a lower profit job with a better client will lead to better projects in the future; we are all gamblers, to an extent, and coveting a good client is often a good place to take a chance.
There is, if you'll forgive me, a light at the end of the tunnel. By staying organized, brining your best people, and knowing what you're getting into, you make the project better for everyone. The second or third time a caterer sees a light plot, they may start to think that you're asking for a table layout a week before the gig was an email they should have answered. When the DJ starts to see the same four or five good electricians, he may turn to them and ask if they can help him tie-in, rather than trying it himself and shorting out the whole building. When the party planners realize that we have a method to our madness, they may start thinking about their changes 2 entire hours before the doors open.
Special events are a unique discipline: they are frenetic, disorganized, and stressful. However, they do allow us to express ourselves through lighting in a truly pure form of design — we are creating an environment in which people celebrate the milestones of their lives. To undertake these projects, and to pull them off, is truly rewarding. I hope that some of my advice can help with your next event. Party on.
Gregory Cohen is a founding partner of Unlimited Visibility Lighting Design.