A Year in the Life of a New York LD

I love lights. It was a long time ago but I can still remember walking out of a Pink Floyd concert no longer wanting to be behind the microphone but instead wishing I was behind the lighting console. I can still remember my first makeshift lighting system of colored floodlights and the board made out of light switches when I broke into the high school party circuit. I remember my years in the trenches as the LD of Philadelphia clubs like Ripley Music Hall, J.C. Dobbs, the Trocadero, and the Uptown NewTek, sometimes running three boards at once with both hands and my nose. I remember many sleepless nights coming up with effects for my first big band, Pretty Poison. Back then technology existed but if you weren't rich your cans were made out of steel and a color changer was that kid who helped you out at shows. Yet through it all what I remember most is that lighting was fun and I loved it. Even when I moved to New York to pursue a touring career and found out I didn't know as much as I thought I did, it was still fun.

Then came September 11 and on that day my whole life changed. I've already told you my story of what happened that day in the October 2001 issue of lightingdimensions.com. This is about what happened afterwards.

For weeks after the 11th the only work I had was sitting in the office receiving cancellations for shows we were supposed to do that were no longer happening because everyone was afraid. I was beginning to think I would never work again when the benefit shows for NYC started happening. I'm the manager of Prism Theatrical Lighting; I've also worked for See Factor and BML Stage Lighting. These three companies handle a large portion of NYC's lighting business. They are all great companies and I have friends that work at all of them. In talking to my friends I found out we were all in the same boat and it was sinking. At first there weren't enough shows to go around and I was worried that we were all going to under-bid each other out of business. I finally had to yell at my boss to start pushing quality instead of price. I had my crews double their work effort. Great shows cost money and we set out to prove we were worth it!

Well, OK, so much for the business side of the story. What I really wanted to talk to you about was the emotional side. On the 11th I was scared for my friends but not for myself; the only emotion I felt for at least a week was anger. Slowly, however, and much to my dismay, this was replaced with total fear.

I know right when it started. It was October 23--my first gig in six weeks. I should have been happy but something was different. It was United Nations Day and we had arrived at the UN early to allow time for the trucks to be searched. I have had Secret Service clearance for years--I've worked for presidents, vice presidents, royalty, and heads of state--so I'm used to being around lots of guys with guns and bomb-sniffing dogs, but this was the first time I ever really noticed them. That's how it started, that one little twang in the gut soon to be repeated over and over again.

I got a couple more twangs that very day. Mime may not be my favorite thing in the world but it wasn't Marcel Marceau that bothered me, it was the bands playing with him--one was from Pakistan, the other from India. For the past week I had been hearing on the news that these two countries were on the brink of nuclear war, so I couldn't help thinking about that. To make matters worse I heard that one of the UN buildings was being evacuated due to an anthrax scare. My stomach was starting to hurt.

I could spend a whole day telling you how to do a gig at the UN, but that's not what this story is about. We'll just say the gig went off without a hitch and everyone was happy; everyone but me, that is. I didn't know why I felt the way I did, all I knew was the feeling of fun was gone and all I felt was apprehension. I didn't know it at the time but this bad feeling was about to double on my very next gig because on that day yet another plane would come crashing down on New York.

November 12 brought me to Sothebys for The Creative Coalition's 2001 Spotlight Awards. The funny thing about New York is if you can fit a couple hundred people in a room someone is going to put on a show there. It doesn't matter if they should or not, they do it anyway. I spend a large portion of my time figuring out how to do the impossible and still make it look good.

Until the day they announced that the cleanup of the Towers was over, I had not been able to make myself go below Canal Street but at the time of this gig I had been in and out of the city many times, scaring myself a little more with each trip I took. It used to take 15 minutes to get through the Lincoln Tunnel but all of sudden it could take up to three hours. As you sit in your vehicle you can't help thinking about all the soldiers and their automatic weapons and that they are there because someone may try to blow up the tunnel you're about to go through. You wonder, what if the truck in front of me is full of bad guys and they get past the inspection? Or, what if they don't? Wouldn't they just blow themselves up right then and there? Because I get paid to figure out the impossible everyday, it's not hard for me to come up with several ways that the bad guys could get away it, so I can't even get through the tunnel without suffering some kind of panic attack. When Flight 587 went down that day I didn't know it was an accident, I only knew that more people had died and that I was terrified. From that day on I couldn't do a gig without wondering if the show I was doing or the date it was on was someone's idea of a target.

After November 12, job offers started to flow into the office again; however, most were for some kind of benefit which didn't help me or my overactive imagination. The hardest day for me to get through was December 7, Pearl Harbor day. A good day for some terrorist to make a point, I thought, and the gig I was doing--a concert against land mines at the Beacon Theater--seemed like a target to me. The Beacon has dinner break from 5pm to 7pm. I work there a lot so I bring a DVD to watch; like an idiot, I brought Pearl Harbor which didn't help at all. I found myself holding my breath a couple times that day.

Not every gig scared me. There was one job in December that was fun. It was a private party in the Whale Room at the American Museum of Natural History. Chaka Khan was the act and I had run lights for her many times in the past. It's always nice to work for someone who already knows and respects your work; it makes the day go easier. What made me laugh, though, was that I had a number of Martin MAC 600s around the room so I was able to change the whale any color I wanted, and I did. You could even say that I had "a whale of a time" that night.

Most of the time, however, I was nervous. I think it came from watching the news too much, something I no longer do. In fact, when it came time to do Smash Mouth at Planet Hollywood in Times Square for New Year's Eve, the news had me scared to death. For a week beforehand I had been hearing that the terrorists were now able to make a small nuclear device, and, in my mind, Times Square on New Year's was the perfect target. To make matters worse we had been attacking them for quite some time and there had been no real retaliation yet and this would be the last chance for them to hurt us bad again in the same year. I was sure that this was the show where all hell would break loose. Smash Mouth had their own LD so once I was up and running there wasn't anything to do but sit there and worry. I worried all day right up until midnight. I don't even think I breathed during the last five minutes. When everyone else was screaming "Happy New Year!" and getting kisses, I was waiting for the boom. When the boom didn't come, I felt more foolish than relieved and decided right then and there it was time to take my life back.

The rest of the year seemed to go by at double speed, and, except for Fleet Week, an event that my friend Brett Loughery and I light every year on the USS Intrepid, without much thought of what the terrorists were up to. We were busy again. I designed the Maquina Musical touring Latin music festival for the Miller Brewing Company, CFA, and Abe V. Systems. It's one of the largest festivals of its kind to tour the US and will continue for the next three years. It's a fly tour and I'm proud to say I summoned up the courage to make over 60 flights across the country this year.


La Maquina Musical

Which brings us back to September. It's the 12th and I'm sitting in the control booth at Battery Park, waiting for tonight's performance of Evening Stars, the same shows I had been working last year when tragedy struck. The stage and the lighting rig are a little smaller than last year but still quite impressive. We only brought four MAC 600s this year to punch up the front wash but with less movers to deal with the theatre LDs have been more inclined to use them and all the shows wound up looking great.


Mark Van Tassel at the Evening Stars Music & Dance Festival.

As I type these last few words I find myself thinking of my friends, like Brett, who couldn't make it back this year, and of those who could, like Matt from RSA, who is standing next to me running a final sound check. I can see Mike Lamb up on the stage making sure it's safe for the performers. Off to the left behind the stage I can see Tony, Dick, Arron, Criss, Nadia, and Jay having a production meeting. We also have some new faces on the crew, like Iggy and Jane, this year's board operators. Everyone with their own sad story from that fateful day that changed so many lives. So I find it somehow fitting that the end of this story also brings closure to a year in all our lives that we will never forget. A year that tore out our hearts and yet rebuilt our souls, for never in my life have I seen so many people care.


Rennie Harris Puremovement at the Evening Stars Music & Dance Festival. Photo © Robin Holland

I just wanted to let our old clients (and any potential new clients) know that Prism Theatrical and myself are back with a vengeance. So if you have a job you would like us to do, just give us a call. I'd love to do a show for you. Who knows? Maybe it will even be fun.

Mark Van Tassel can be contacted by e-mail at tmonkey@optonline.net or by phone at Prism Lighting at 908-245-4300.